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Thursday Cowboys Tape Review: Scouting Yourself, and Beating the Other Guy

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Last Friday, in the Saints preview, I stressed the importance of self-scouting, to prepare for a coordinator who is one of the best at recognizing and calling defenses to your tendencies:

Williams' fronts look vanilla till just before pre-snap; he gives a lot of base 4-3 looks, then makes a lot of late shifts.  He's a streaky game caller, and when he's on, it looks to opposing teams that he's in their huddle.  His philosophy is to take away your ten best plays and make you adapt... 

For this reason, opponents need to understand what they do, because the Saints will.  The challenge then is not to try to make yourself over, but to change your tendencies, so you can still do what you do best, but do it in slightly unpredictable ways.   Have a pet play you like to run in the red zone?  Run it, but run it outside the 20.  Have a play you favor on 3rd downs?  Run it on first instead this week.

-- Knocking Off an Undefeated in Six Simple Steps, BTB, Dec. 18, 2009

A review of the Cowboys early touchdown drives shows the Cowboys were prepared for Williams' packages -- completely.

The Wrinkle

The Cowboys struggled against San Diego, and have struggled all year, with simple, off-tackle plays and isolations.  Against the Saints, Jason Garrett and Hudson Houck sent an immediate message that things were going to be different. 

On Dallas' first play from scrimmage Garrett deployed his unit in the 22 package, two tight ends and two backs, with Roy Williams the lone receiver.  He called an off-tackle run for Marion Barber behind a fortified lead blocking scheme: the backs deployed in an offset-I left, meaning Barber was seven yards directly behind Tony Romo and fullback Deon Anderson was lined up four yards deep in the B gap, between LG Kyle Kosier and LT Flozell Adams

Tight end John Phillips was outside of Adams, giving Dallas a power left look.  Before the snap, F-back Jason Witten motioned to a standing position in the C gap, between Adams and Phillips.  This means that Dallas had two lead blockers escourting Barber to the left side, rather than the normal one.  They also ran this play to the edge of the package, outside of Adams.  Isolation plays usually hammer inside, but interior runs are where Dallas has stuttered, while Adams, for all the abuse he takes in the press, remains a stout run blocker.

The power cracked open a nine-man Saints front, creating a seam that Barber hurried through for nine yards.  Dallas let New Orleans know that they were going to run for the tough yards from this package any time they wanted to.  In fact, Garrett ran this play four more times.  He called the exact same play on Barber's three yard touchdown run, which capped Dallas' second drive.  He called it twice to the right in the 2nd half and converted third-and-short plays with ease.  On the last call, Garrett crossed up Gregg Williams by having Tony Romo fake the handoff to Barber, pivot right and throw a smoke route to Sam Hurd, who spun away from Mike McKenzie for a seven yard gain.

The play was five for five and it's the consistent muscle play this offense has lacked to complement its successful draw package.  Look for it more going forward. 

Back to the opening drive...

To DavidH22, with love, Jason

Blogger DavidH22 has argued for weeks that the Cowboys have made a fetish of trying to stay out of rhythm, to the point of being rather predictable; they rarely, if ever, run on 2nd down after a 1st down run.  Williams obviously noted this tendency because on 2nd-and-1, he took the odd step of inserting his nickel defense, completely selling out for a Dallas pass.  The Saints had only two linemen with hands down pre-snap, though one of their ends floated outside opposite Doug Free just before the play, giving the Saints a 3-3-5 look.

Dallas was in a 12 set, with Felix Jones as the lone back, two tight ends and two receivers.  TEs Phillips and Witten lined up with Jones in a Packers set, a diamond formation with each tight end in an offset-I fullback position behind each B gap. 

Though there is no tight end on the line of scrimmage, Dallas uses this as a running package, and they ran at the overloaded middle of New Orleans' front.  At the snap both Witten and Phillips closed to lead Jones to the right, behind RG Leonard Davis.  The Cowboys had seven blockers, the Saints six defenders.  Both TEs locked on to linebackers, giving Jones a huge running lane.  A safety dashed over from the slot to make an ankle tackle, but only after Jones had gained eleven yards.

Hiding Your Weapon in Plain Sight

Two plays later, on 2nd-and-10, Dallas went to a conventional two receiver, two back set, but deployed in a peculiar way.  Both receivers were in a slot formation on the right and fullback Anderson was offset to that side, giving Dallas an overload of receiving options.  TE Witten, meanwhile, was split wide left, as a wide receiver. 

Williams again had his Saints in a 3-3-5 nickel and this time he brought an outside linebacker and a safety off Romo's blind side, while rotating his other two linebackers towards Miles Austin and Deon Anderson on the Cowboys' right.

Witten ran a pattern up the left sideline, clearing out the left flat.  The Saints were completely exposed there and Garrett made the perfect call, a quick screen to Felix Jones over the blitzing safety.  Andre Gurode got away with releasing downfield early but Felix Jones didn't need lead blockers.  He caught Romo's floater and raced up the left sideline for another first down on the Saints' 49.

The Bait and Score

On the following play Dallas went back to the two tight end set with Barber as the lone back,but again presented New Orleans with a twist.   Garrett deployed an unbalanced line, with right tackle Doug Free flopping left and lining up next to Flozell Adams.  Dallas had three linemen to the left of center Andre Gurode, with blocking TE John Phillips flanking Free.  Jason Witten covered RG Leonard Davis, but he was an eligible receiver. 

The Cowboys have used this as a changeup formation before, and have run exclusively from it, either off-tackle power plays, or more frequently, a counter with the weakside guard pulling and adding to the overload on the strong side.  It's no surprise then that Williams went all out to stop the run, bringing his strong safety up and setting him directly over Phillips, putting eight Saints in the box.

Garrett, however, had called for a deep, two-man route, with Barber and the tight ends staying in to block, giving Romo an eight-man pocket.  The safety over Phillips recognized the pass, turned immediately and sprinted upfield to take away the slant and deep in lanes.  His pursuit was futile: Miles Austin spun Malcolm Jenkins around with a stop and go move and got five yards behind the rookie Saints corner up the sideline. 

New Orleans had Darren Sharper in the deep middle but he was too slow to close.  Austin caught Romo's pass in stride and rolled into the end zone after Sharper's dive cut him at the goal line.

Jason Garrett made four key plays where his calls were contrary to the defenses Gregg Williams called to stop him.  Williams believed he had Dallas' tendencies mapped out but he was far, far off the trail.  Dallas' self-awareness got them big plays and big scores; they had two touchdowns and Tony Romo had over 150 passing yards in the first quarfter.   Williams broke up a couple of mid-game drives with blitzes, but Dallas' offense remained one step ahead of the Saints all evening.

More of this please, Mr. Garrett.