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The Cowboys Starters: Oakland Game in Detail

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I finally got some time to go back and look at the Cowboys at Raiders preseason game in detail. One thing I was curious about was how the starters looked in their two series on the field. We all spent a lot of time talking about the battles at places were there are still question marks about the backups, and rightly so, the majority of the game was played by those guys. Still, I felt the first-unit didn't get a thorough going over for their two series on the field.

First unit offense

When the Cowboys offense stumbled on the first drive, it came down to a series of missed blocks. On each of the first three plays, three Cowboys regulars just flat-out whiffed. Marc Colombo let Greg Ellis get inside him and the pressure forced Romo to throw early. On a running play to Marion Barber to the left, the line-blocking wasn't great so MB3 had to bounce outside. Now, the line was at least engaged with the Raiders defenders, meaning Barber could have gotten outside, but Patrick Crayton didn't even bother to block the corner, who easily stopped the play from progressing. On third down, the Raiders used the same thing that killed us all last year, they overloaded a side and ran a blitz with a stunting linebacker and a secondary player both coming off the edge. Flozell Adams didn't disengage from his block to step back out and pick up one of the blitzers while Barber was lousy in picking up the other blitzer. That's how you kill a series, a few guys whiffing on blocks.

For the good news, keep going below the fold...

Now the good news, on the second series they got it right, and boy did they ever. After a roll-out pass to Martellus Bennett, the Cowboys ran one of their core run plays, a counter with Leonard Davis pulling. With Bigg pulling into the hole and getting a block, Jason Witten and Flozell Adams buried their side of the line to the middle and Julius Crosslin busted the outside linebacker. That's how you get a clean running lane for MB3, and on a play the Cowboys run continuously throughout the season. Jason Garrett then called a 2-man pattern, the running back made only a cursory effort of getting to the flats to take a linebacker with him. Only Crayton and Roy Williams were truly out in the pattern and Williams caught the pass along the sideline. Romo had a lot of time in this set.

The offense followed up with an off-tackle run to Felix Jones behind a straight-ahead blocking scheme. Flozell threw his man like a rag doll to the outside, Kosier rode his man five yards upfield and Felix had a huge hole in front of him. Extending the run was a Roy Williams block downfield. After a Raider penalty and a nicely executed end-around to Crayton, the Cowboys pulled out a play we all love and scream for each week - the screen pass. The offense showed great patience in waiting for the trap to be set as they let the Raiders line get upfield, and the Raiders linebacker to drop into coverage. Felix was able to run behind an excellent block by Kosier and Ok block from Andre Gurode. After a run, a penalty that nullified a TD (Kosier's one really bad play, his holding was obvious), and another run, the Cowboys hit paydirt. After the line gave Romo all day in the pocket, Witten finally got himself a little room and Romo threw a perfect dart to him.

What's the take-away? When the line and the blocking was like it was in the first series - no chance. When it was like it was on the second drive - taking candy from a baby. Same as it ever was, the offensive line controls so much of the game.

Second take-away; Jason Garrett called a nice mix of plays. A roll-out pass, a 2-man route/max protect pass, a screen pass, and end-around run, a counter run, a couple of straight ahead runs off-tackle and up the middle. That will keep a defense guessing. And when the line is blocking like it was on that series - I dare say the read-headed one looked like genius.

First unit defense

The first unit defense was pretty good, except that got hurt by a pass interference call on Gerald Sensabaugh (how the refs missed the blatant hold on DeMarcus Ware on the same play is beyond me). Alan Ball gave up a pass on the first play because he was playing so far off the guy he never gave himself a chance to break on the slant, at the same time Keith Brooking didn't get a deep drop in his zone coverage even though no one was threatening his zone underneath. Igor Olshansky did a nice job of totally standing up his blocker to clog up a run and shut it down. Orlando Scandrick and Ken Hamlin had tight double-coverage deep to stop a bomb attempt (got to catch that ball Hamlin).  After the Raiders got the pass interference to move into the redzone, the Cowboys did a nice job of containing the Raiders offense and holding them to a FG. Jay Ratliff forced a holding call on the Raiders when he penetrated on a run play near the goal line. Anthony Spencer made a sure tackle on the FB after a swing pass and the secondary gave up a pass but short of the endzone. So they actually played very well except for the pass interference call.

The second go around they we're still formidable. Timing a blitz is everything in this league. On the first play, Bradie James and Keith Brooking ran a crossing stunt and both blitzed with Brooking shooting through untouched for the sack. The timing of their blitz was impeccable. Sometimes, you just get caught in the wrong defense as the Cowboys did on the next play. The Raiders ran off-tackle on what was expected to be a pass. The Cowboys had four down linemen and Spencer looped to the inside to rush the passer. Ratliff was supposed to go outside but he was engaged at the line and didn't get over. So with the defensive end looped to the middle and the defensive tackle stuck inside because of blocking, you can imagine the size of the whole for the Raiders on that side. Bradie James also made his initial run to the wrong side, leaving no one at home. Still, they had them at third and long after the run because the Raiders had lost so much yardage on Brooking's sack. They blitzed a linebacker on the third-down play but he rush was picked up and the Raiders beat Courtney Brown for a first down.

Remember above when I talked about the timing of a blitz? The Cowboys tried to blitz Brooking and James again (minus the crossing stunt) on first down but the Raiders were going on a long count. The linebackers showed the blitz way too soon and the Raiders picked it up easily. To compound the problem, with no middle linebackers to worry about and with the middle of the line opening up a truck-sized hole, JaMarcus Russell simply tucked the ball, faked out Anthony Spencer and picked up a huge gain. All because the Cowboys linebackers showed the blitz too early. The Raiders tried to go deep after that, but again Scandrick and Hamlin had tight double-coverage. Jay Ratliff then bull-rushed his guy back to the QB and he deflected a pass that he almost intercepted. Single blocking the Rat rarely works. The Raiders tried a screen and actually had two lineman out in front, but Sensabugh and Scandrick both did a great job of avoiding a block and converged to stop it and force a punt.

We should be pretty happy with that performance.

Overall, the first unit showed some promising signs in their limited play. The second drive by the offense was a thing of beauty and the offensive line was really clicking on that series.