Adam Jones' return gives the Cowboys cornerback corps its deepest, healthiest hand since week three, when Jones, Anthony Henry, Terence Newman, Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins played against Green Bay.
Jenkins is out with a hamstring injury but the other four will be available. What's more, Newman should be much healthier than he was earlier in the year, when he was trying to grit his teeth and play with a hernia.
That Packers game was the defense's best, before Newman broke down the following week against Washington and the defensive line followed suit. The Steelers offensive philosophy resembles Green Bay's quite a bit, so it won't be a coincidence if we see Wade Phillips use several features from that game.
The Steelers have a reputation for being a ground-based, grind it out team. Against New England last week, Pittsburgh ran variations of a three WR, one TE, one RB set about 90% of the time. The Steelers swapped a WR for a second TE when they were in short yardage situations, but in almost all other situations the personnel package was:
- QB -- Ben Roethlisberger;
- RB -- Mewelde Moore or Willie Parker;
- TE -- Heath Miller;
- WR -- Santonio Holmes;
- WR -- Hines Ward;
- WR -- Nate Washington
Pittsburgh used this personnel group in two basic formations. One is a spread set, with Holmes alone on one side and Ward slotted inside Washington on the other. Miller lines up next to one of the OTs and the running back is set in the shotgun to one side of Roethlisberger.
The other is a bunch set, run from the shotgun or with Roethlisberger under center. In this set Holmes, their deep threat, is again split alone, with Miller, Ward and Washington in a trident just wide of the OT opposite side.
Ward usually plays on the point of the bunch, with Miller flanking him inside and Washington flanking him wide. Miller's inside set lets him help the OT when the Steelers max protect or to motion into the backfield as a FB on running plays. Ward works much of the time in the middle of the field against linebackers, safeties and third CBs and does a lot of damage here. Washington, like Holmes, is more of a deep threat and has the team's best YPR average.
The three wide set suggests the Cowboys should deploy in a nickel, but doing that would leave only six men in the box, and the Steelers are not a pass-happy team. Their run-to-pass ratio is 49:51. They will pound the ball inside as much as the opposition will let them.
For this reason, I don't think we'll see Dallas deploy in it's 4-2-5 nickel, with Anthony Henry joining Kevin Burnett as linebackers -- at least not on first and second downs. Henry is 207 lbs. and Burnett is the runt of the linebacking corps at 237 lbs. They don't have the muscle to take on guards one-on-one. Dallas twice made the mistake of using this set against the Packers on first down. The Packers ran at it for ten yards each time. Dallas will use this set and has matchups that work in it, but we'll only see the "Henry nickel" on 3rd and longs. More on this later.
The Steelers, in terms of personnel, resemble Green Bay and Washington, in that they like to spread you out to run. What's more, the Steelers two biggest receiving threats, Ward and Miller, work the center of the field. Dallas needs to find a package that keeps linebackers on the field, to defense the run, and yet offer the best matchups against Ward.
I think Wade Phillips will take a page from his Packers game plan and go with a tweaked 3-4-4 set. In that game, Phillips made Ken Hamlin the lone safety and matched Henry, Newman and Jones up with the three Packers' wideouts. I would not be at all surprised if the Cowboys did the same thing Sunday, with Jones and Henry manning the corners and Newman shadowing Ward in the slots.
Dallas would then keep seven men on the line. This would not only help them slow the run, but would give them the maximum flexibility with blitz packages. They could rush the the base set, run inside twists with Bradie James, a tactic that has worked very well against the Steelers interior line, or to walk James next to one of the OLBs and play the "Bum," Dallas' version of the old Bears 46 defense.
The one vulnerability in this scheme will be Miller against the Cowboys' linebackers. Miller is the best overall TE in the AFC, and the Steelers use him the same way Dallas uses Jason Witten, flexing him into the backfield, setting him up in the traditional TE position and splitting him out wide on sure passing downs. They don't throw to him as often as Dallas does to Witten, but Miller's YPC is similar -- 11.9 to Witten's 12.2.
The Cowboys may be willing to surrender throws to Miller in order to corral the running game and Ward. The Seahawks' John Carlson had a huge game last week, but the rest of his team didn't do much. The coaches may also feel that the linebackers are no worse in coverage than Keith Davis and that their rushing skills and size make them better bets against runs.
If the Cowboys can get Pittsburgh into 3rd-and-long on a consistent basis, the Henry Nickel offers the ideal personnel to stop the Steelers. I'll repeat, the Steelers don't change their personnel when they have long distances to cover. They simply flex Miller out in space, to give a four WR look, with Miller as the second slot receiver. They'll occasionally motion the RB out wide to give an empty look.
In these situations the Henry package looks strong: Jones will remain on the left corner. Newman will move to RCB and Orlando Scandrick will play in the slot. They will each take a Steelers' WR man-to-man, with two safeties behind them. Henry will match up with Miller and Burnett will have coverage responsibilty for the RB.
If Dallas does use this package, look for Henry or Scandrick to blitz from the slot. Henry turned the Packers game with two sacks coming from the edge. I expect Dallas to use every varation of blitz they can muster. Steelers' QBs have been sacked 36 times this year, a nice, round 3.0 a game.
Adam Jones' return and Terence Newman's return to better health mean the Cowboys can press in the secondary and pressure up front. They way the Cowboys have been rushing lately, Pac's return could well bring the Packers-game plan back.