After April's draft, I wrote a post in which I speculated that, with the acquisition of DeMarco Murray and three offensive linemen who were good "foot athletes," that we'd be seeing an offense more attuned to the system Jason Garrett sees in him mind's eye when he envisions the Cowboys with the ball. Envisioning what I thought Garrett might be seeing, I said that we should expect a wide-open offense that puts tremendous pressure on defenses--especially on the perimeter, where nimble o-linemen pull or easily get downfield on screens to Murray and to Felix Jones, both of whom are dangerous "in space."
As training camp opened, this seemed a correct assumption; recall that the Cowboys spent a lot of time working on screen passes as soon as camp opened. As the team worked its way through the preseason and the first month of the 2011 campaign, however, we have seen only a few of these "space plays." What, exactly qualifies as a "space play?" I'm glad you asked. The good folks over at Grantland recently published a piece on the various ways New Orleans creates opportunities for waterbug Darren Sproles to get the ball in space. Its a good read; they break space plays down onto three categories: screen passes, draws and sweeps, and as an underneath receiver.
This last category is an important one. Most space players, according to the Grantland piece, are running backs: Sproles, former Saint Reggie Bush, Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy, Jahvid Best, Ray Rice. But perhaps the most feared space player in the league is a wide receiver, Wes Welker, who makes a living exploiting mismatches against linebackers and safeties, and finding gaping holes in underneath zones. Since releasing Patrick Crayton, the Cowboys could consider Jones their only real space player. That's why Murray, and sixth-round wideout Dwayne Harris, were such important picks in the draft; both have the potential to do damage in space.
Need more space? You'll get it after the jump...
Thus far this season, we have seen Jones and, to a much lesser extent, Murray, attack the perimeter in the running game--but without much success. Other than two Jones runs against Washington, the Dallas running attack has been fairly anemic; Murray and Choice are averaging 2.6 yards per carry. As a result, Garrett and Co. have had to find other ways to get them the ball. They have run safe passes--which function essentially like running plays--to all three of their backs. And, because of their inability to run, and the fact that opposing defensive coordinators have made it a point of honor to get to Tony Romo, the screen game has worked quite well in the early season. The one category of "space play" that we haven't seen nearly often enough is for Garrett to use either Jones or Murray as underneath receivers.
One of the things the Saints like to do (as the Grantland piece demonstrates) is to run four of their receivers down the field on vertical routes, forcing the corners and safeties to run away from the line of scrimmage (and, more than likely, to turn their back to it). Because New Orleans has a) a stable of terrific receivers and b) does so much damage down the seam, especially by going to Marques Colston, defenses must respect (read: fear) these four-deep patterns. What this does is to open up a tremendous amount of underneath space, with Sproles matched up on linebackers. That's a mismatch, and can get the ball to Sproles with a lot of room to run.
We haven't seen the Cowboys do this much. The obvious reason is that the Cowboys wideouts have been banged up all season. Other than the first quarter against the Jets, they have been operating far below 100% health--and even then, you'll recall, MIles Austin was coming off the hamstring injury that limited his preseason work. One consequence herein is that, with Austin and Dez Bryant (or both) ailing, opposing defenses haven't had to fear the deep ball. In the last two games, without the threat of Austin going over the top, Washington and Detroit crept their safeties up close to the line of scrimmage. This all but eliminated the possibility of using Jones or Murray underneath the coverage, because all the coverage was underneath.
Offensive football is a game of space. The best teams--those with deep receiving corps, tight ends who can both go over the top and work underneath routes, and backs who can run between the tackles, get to the edge, and also put pressure on linebackers in the passing game -- can attack any part of the field and ask defenses to cover a lot of acreage. As a result, they become very, very difficult to defend. Garrett understands this; when the Cowboys are at full health, they can be this kind of team. Austin, Bryant (and Laurent Robinson, it appears), as well as Witten, can put tremendous pressure on back sevens. When Dallas goes to an "s11" look, with all four of those guys spread, and Jones lined up next to Romo, in the shotgun, defenses are going to be stressed.
And this will soften the underneath for the Cowboys "space players": Jones, Murray and, once he catches up to the nuances of the sophisticated NFL passing game, Harris, who piled up impressive yards-after-catch numbers in college. Up to now, Garrett has been calling from a fairly limited playsheet; with his receivers back I suspect we'll see the whole arsenal.
Against the explosive Patriots, they'll need it...