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'Stop the run' on bad information

I saw the Tim Cowlishaw article yesterday concerning Wade Phillips’ coaching methods on Sunday. Cowlishaw was stunned and appalled that Wade Phillips was stopping the run first against the Patriots, and forcing them to pass. On the surface, this might sound reasonable enough. After what the Patriots did to our secondary, it certainly has the appeal of a legitimate criticism. I waited to comment because I wanted to watch the game again for the film review before I tackled the subject. Now that I have, this sounds to me like much ado about nothing, or an effort by Cowlishaw to create some kind of buzz article, a real gotcha’ on Phillips.

All right, let’s set the stage. I guess the whole thing came about because Wade said you have to stop the run first, which he always says, and then Cowlishaw asked after the game if that was the wrong philosophy and Wade said no, he’s not doubting their approach to the game. Here’s what Cowlishaw says Wade said.

Phillips acknowledged at his Monday news conference that the Cowboys' approach was to stop Sammy Morris and make Tom Brady beat them.

Let me repeat that.

The Cowboys' approach was to stop Sammy Morris and make Tom Brady beat them.

But here’s what Wade actually said.

"You've got to stop the run," Phillips said. "You want to make them pass it, and then you've got to get turnovers and get pressure."

Now, they sure sound similar I know, but it’s really all about emphasis. In Cowlishaw’s version, he makes Phillips sound like some country rube who doesn’t know that Tom Brady is a better player than Sammy Morris. As if given a choice of who to beat you, he’d pick Tom Brady. Cowlishaw is desperately trying to make a quote fit the article.

I think anybody with some football I.Q. would recognize that Wade was simply encapsulating his football philosophy; it’s how he plays defense. Stop the run, force a team to be one-dimensional and then get after the QB and force him to make bad decisions, take sacks and force turnovers. He’s told us that over and over, and if you watch his teams that’s pretty much his formula.

So the argument then would go, why didn’t he change it for this game? Make an effort to stop Brady and forget about the run. Cowlishaw makes this point.

Stopping the run first isn't the answer.

The Phillips' 3-4 can provide some of the answers that will bring about the change Cowboys fans are so anxiously waiting for.

But it's missing one of the biggest and that's a philosophy flaw born out of a previous era that Phillips needs to reconsider.

OK, let’s even give that to Cowlishaw. Let’s suppose that Wade could have forgotten about the run and tried to stop Brady from torching the secondary. How would you get it done? In true gotcha’ style, "Perry Mason" Cowlishaw dropped his bombshell evidence on the jury by hearkening back to the New York Giants Super Bowl victory over the Buffalo Bills. The Bills were a potent offense that ran a passing attack and used the no-huddle, sort of like the Patriots. Belichick said they were going to let them run so Jim Kelly wouldn’t beat them with the pass.

Belichick changed the defense by putting linebacker Lawrence Taylor on the line, putting safeties at linebacker – basically adding speed all over the field which made them better against the pass and more vulnerable against the run.

Thomas ran for 135 yards.

The Giants won the game.

So now Cowlishaw is saying Phillips should base his defense on one game played over 15 years ago because the Bills of then sort of resemble the Patriots of today. Even though everything else is different including the players, the coaching staffs, the context of the game, and oh yeah, the Giants only won that game because the Bills kicker missed a last second FG. Say that kick goes through and the Giants lost, should we still use the mythical, silver-bullet theory of beating a "spread" offense that didn’t win the Super Bowl. In fact, if that kick goes through then we never hear the story of the great defense that beat the Bills K-gun, we hear the story of how the Giants let the Bills run all over them and win a Super Bowl. Ah, genius and bone-head are separated by one fickle kick off the foot of Scott Norwood.

But that’s all theory and conjecture and saying what if and all that mumbo-jumbo. Let’s look at what the Cowboys did on the field Sunday. When you think of someone saying stopping the run, what comes to mind? Stacking the box with 8 or 9 guys, maybe walking both safeties up to the line or keeping your base defense on the field all the time. That’s generally what I think about when someone specifically mentions stopping the run. Guess what? The Cowboys didn’t do any of that. They stopped the run by playing a base defense while playing their linebackers and safeties back. They only brought Roy Williams or the inside linebackers up to blitz and get pressure. And when the Patriots went to passing formation or obvious passing downs, Dallas changed their personnel out regularly, putting Roy Williams and Kevin Burnett in as the inside linebackers. By the way, Burnett, a linebacker, was the one guy who wasn’t getting beat regularly in pass coverage.

Beyond that, who are these mystery defenders who can play the coverage schemes so well that we should have gone to them in this game. Let’s see, we played Terence Newman, Jacques Reeves, Nate Jones, Ken Hamlin, Roy Williams and Pat Watkins regularly. I guess we could have brought in Keith Davis, he of the bum shoulder and a guy who we wanted run out of town for his coverage skills. Or maybe Evan Oglesby, who is so good that he was cut by a team and has yet to reach the field for any meaningful action for the Cowboys. Are you seriously telling me that putting those guys in would have made a difference against the Patriots receivers? Please.

That leads to another point. Even if you played all these safeties and corners and totally forgot about the run, do you think you’ll beat Tom Brady. I saw Cleveland sit back last week and try to play a shell-type defense, rushed only four and Brady didn’t have any real problems. I would contend that there is no way you can play some kind of shell coverage and expect Brady not to dissect it, especially with the talent he has at receiver this year and how much time his offensive line gives him, especially against a four-man rush.

This brings me all the way round to the beginning. Wade’s philosophy on defense. Stop the run first. If a team can run on you, everything else they do becomes so much easier. How much better would Brady’s play-action passes been if they had a running game? Would Dallas still be able to pursue Brady with reckless abandon in the pocket if they could have run the ball? So the Cowboys stopped the run, but not by doing anything special. They were just able to do it with the regular line. They don’t play a 2-gap, read and react 3-4 scheme that would slow down your line if you’re playing the run. It’s the same in Phillips’ scheme, get up field, run or pass. And as for the linebackers, I would guess that we played more nickel/dime formations in this game more than any other we’ve played this year. So the defense was more geared to stopping the pass because they could do that and still stop the run. By using Wade’s philosophy, the got the run stopped and they were able to do the second part of his plan – get after the QB – with some success in the game. By getting after Brady they were able to get a score on defense, get some sacks and were able to stay in the game for most of three quarters. New England’s talent and the fact that the Cowboys defense was gassed at the end eventually won them the day. But it wasn’t because Wade didn’t have his best cover guys in the game, they just couldn’t execute, and it was the skill guys on defense, the best corners and safeties we had. Are you telling me throwing Keith Davis or Evan Oglesby out there too was going to change that? Highly doubtful.

Now, I will concede one point that might be connected to this "stop the run first" conspiracy. Ken Hamlin, and occasionally some other guys, bit on play-action passes. Perhaps Wade could have instituted a rule that everybody except the front line should disregard all play-action. Never go forward until the ball is actually handed off or something like that. But it’s hard to stop instinct that is built into linebackers and safeties, and really, that’s the player’s mistakes, not the schemes. They need to be professional enough to recognize runs vs. play-action passes. But if you want to hang it on that thin thread, then go ahead.

It’s easy to say that the Cowboys should have done more to stop the Patriots passing game and that they blew it by concentrating on the run. It’s harder to watch the game and see if that is actually what happened. It’s dang near impossible to tell me how we could have done anything more to stop their passing game short of kidnapping Moss, Stallworth and Welker before the game. I mean, did any of you walk away thinking if we just would have played Keith Davis and Evan Oglesby more?

That’s how I see it, anyway.

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