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Film Review: Dallas Cowboys in the trenches (defense)

Yesterday, I took a look at the Dallas Cowboys offensive line and blocking schemes against the Seattle Seahawks to see how they're performing. Now, it's time to look at the defense, specifically the front seven to see how they controlled the line of scrimmage and how they were able to attack the QB. We won't take much notice of the secondary or coverages in this Film Review, it's all about the war in the trenches.

As posted on the offensive Film Review, everything comes with the caveat that while Seattle has some talent, as a team they are playing very poorly. They also had some youth in the interior line that skewed the perspective. But you play who they schedule, and so it was.

Make the jump below for the rest.


The Cowboys defense has started to make an impact in a positive way. Over the last batch of games (minus the Giants), the defense is controlling the running game, getting more pressure on the QB and creating turnovers. Is it a coincidence all this started when Wade Phillips became more involved? Is it the competition we've played recently? Or is it players returning from injury on both sides of the ball? All good questions, but for this article, we'll see what they did on Thanksgiving Day.

Dallas controlled the run by playing smart, disciplined defense. They appear to have rectified that bugaboo from earlier in the season - poor gap control. The Cowboys defensive front five (DL + Ware and Ellis/Spencer) were extremely mindful of the gaps and didn't over-pursue leaving huge cutback lanes, they didn't shoot upfield only to have the play go right under them; they played assignment football. Watching the front five on one particular play, a stretch run, was a thing of beauty. Think of the Denver Broncos zone-blocking scheme where all the linemen move in unison one way, keeping perfect spacing in between them. The Cowboys did that from the defensive side of the ball, everybody perfectly choreographed as they pursued down to the sideline, where DeMarcus Ware eventually knocked the runner out of bounds for a small loss. That's emblematic of what I saw from the Cowboys run defense in this game.

To do this effectively, the guys taking on the blocks must at least hold their position along the line. If one guy is pushed back, the gap is opened. The Cowboys took on the blocks extremely well in the game. They also were able to maintain the double-teams, not allowing one of the blockers to disengage and get to the second-level. If they can do that, Bradie James and Zach Thomas are free to pursue the ball carrier and shoot into any hole available.

If the run was between the tackles, the front three pinched down to clog the lanes and the outside contain didn't over-pursue, but pushed down the line while keeping their option to snuff out any cutback runs.

Dallas was able to hold the line, maintain gap control and occupy double-teams. They also tackled better because they were in the right position to make the play, instead of diving or arm-tackling because they got beat on their assignment. That's good run defense.

The Cowboys are also showing a little more creativity and desire when getting after the QB. One thing that stood out in the game was the amount of times we blitzed the inside linebackers. Bradie James and occasionally Kevin Burnett were used on a variety of blitzes from different angles. The Cowboys were probably mindful that the Seahawks were playing a brand-new center so using the inside backers made sense. But they didn't bring them just up the middle.

The Cowboys ran a blitz where the ILB's would rush and either DeMarcus Ware or Greg Ellis would drop back into zone coverage as the middle linebacker. Bradie James got a sack out of this formation, but he wasn't lined up in the middle. He lined up as the OLB and beat the TE's block. They ran this type of blitz while changing the ILB's angle of attack 4-5 times in the game.

The blitzes also had the effect of giving some favorable matchups in one-on-one situations. Tank Johnson got a sack when the center had to block him and was leaning one way trying to anticipate; Tank blew right by him the other way. Or they created impossible matchups, like when Ken Hamlin blitzed on DeMarcus Ware's side forcing the right tackle to choose one of them to block. He started with Ware, slid outside to Hamlin and Ware went straight to the QB for a sack. On the same play Bradie James was coming on a delayed blitz and was about to get his own taste of the QB. He also got his own sack when he came in un-touched on a delayed blitz.

The downside of blitzing the middle linebackers was that John Carlson, the TE, was able to pull off some of their biggest plays. We left the middle wide-open on one blitz, then we couldn't cover him in a zone with one inside linebacker blitzing. Matt Hasselback was able to get a couple of hot-reads and quick passes to work over the middle, but the Cowboys were willing to live with that.

Most of the line chipped in on the pass rush. DeMarcus Ware had two sacks where he just destroyed Walter Jones with his speed and agility, plus the one mentioned above. Greg Ellis had a few plays were he got pressure and he picked up a garbage-time sack. Bradie James got two sacks from the linebacker spot. And then there's Jay Ratliff, who was causing havoc in the middle although it didn't really appear in the stats sheet or on my first watch of the game. He blew up runs, he got pressure on the QB, he stood up double-teams; in short he's still the Rat.

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