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Cowboys HOF Game: Coaching To A Win, Defensive Edition

The Dallas Cowboys have taken an evolutionary approach on their offensive scheme, but the defense has undergone a full revolution. Fans got a look at some good things and some bad about the 4-3 in the opening pre-season game.

Jason Miller

It is certainly hard to put too much emphasis on how the Dallas Cowboys performed against the Miami Dolphins in the 24-20 Hall of Fame game victory. First of all, that was really not the Cowboys team we expect to see take the field against the New York Giants on September 8. Nor was it, for more than a brief period to start the game, going up against the best the Dolphins had to offer. Such is the nature of pre-season.

The only starters involved, for the most part, were the ones who don't wear pads. The coaching staff was the same one we will see when the wins and losses start to actually count for something. I already gave my take on how the coaching worked out offensively. Now I want to take a look at how the defensive staff handled things. I'll also briefly comment on the special teams.

Aggression, aggression, aggression

You can talk about the turnovers, the three sacks and seven tackles for loss, and the quarterback hits. I think there is one underlying trait for all the good things that happened defensively for the Cowboys in the game. This is an aggressive, attacking scheme that takes the fight to the offense. Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli have been drilling this into their defender's heads. There is no read and react here, at least up front. The rushmen were doing exactly what we were told to expect, driving up the field and adjusting on the move.

This played a big part in the first turnover of the game. Certainly that was because of a Miami miscue, but the Cowboys went hard for the ball and succeeded in taking possession, something that did not always happen last year. It doesn't do much good to knock the ball loose if you let the other team fall on it. That was exactly what Dallas did to the Dolphins on the one play that could have been a disaster, Alex Tanney's fumble on his second play from scrimmage. Instead of returning the favor of turning the ball over near their own end zone, the Cowboys managed to recover the fumble thanks to an alert play by Tim Benford. And he picked up enough yards for a first down in the bargain.

A gift fumble still has to be capitalized on, and that is what the defense did. The same thing happened on DeVonte Holloman's interception. The ball went off the receiver, and was up for grabs due to nothing that the Cowboys really did on the play. But Holloman was watching the play - in the end zone view, he looks to be watching the quarterback's eyes - and he closed on it hard. Some quick reaction to the ball, and ten seconds later Holloman was in the end zone, living his dream.

A subset of attacking things is to close on the ball, and it was pretty clear that the players took that to heart. They moved to the ball and there was some hitting going on out there.

Another sign of the aggressive nature on the front line is the seven tackles for loss. The rushmen were penetrating and disrupting the running game as well. Sometimes.

The aggressiveness is not always going to work out, however. Sometimes, the defenders overran the play, and Miami was able to get some big runs. Which is something that has to be dealt with in a Monte Kiffin defense.

It ain't a perfect scheme

The ability of the running backs to sometimes get past the onrushing linemen and exploit the soft middle of the zone was used by the Dolphins. Similarly, the receivers exploited the open area that can develop when the defensive backs are carried deep. Miami was racking up a lot of yards, especially through the air. This became especially pronounced after Matt Johnson dinged his ankle and left the game. J.J. Wilcox looked to be playing too soft and the Dolphins, particularly Matt Moore, took advantage of it. Wilcox did show his own brand of aggression, credited with seven tackles by ESPN, but they were too often after significant yards had been given up.

This is part of the design for Kiffin. He is willing to give up completions as long as the safeties can keep the play in front of them. He wants to stop the big plays.

Red zone stoutness

And for most of the night, the Cowboys stopped the big plays. Miami got into the red zone four times. Once they settled for a field goal. Once they turned the ball over on downs at the Dallas 3. Twice, in the fourth quarter, they finally scored touchdowns - and had to go to fourth down on both of them. That stiffening as the field shortened was encouraging, if logical. If you can't stretch Kiffin's zone, it is harder to find a soft spot to complete your passes. That certainly seemed to be how it worked against the Dolphins.

Penalties still an issue

There were four offsides penalties, including one pair of back-to-back infractions. That is one kind of aggression that has to be contained, given that Dallas only had nine penalties (plus a pair of offsetting flags) the entire game. Look to see a lot of work done on this when the team gets back to Oxnard.

Overall, the defense looked, well, better than it did last year. And this was without the stars. For much of the night, as I pointed out in the article on the offense, Dallas was lining up against players that should have outclassed them. With only one projected starter ever taking the field for the Cowboys D, they faced the starting quarterback and most of the starting Dolphins offense briefly, and for much of the game, Dallas had 3s lining up against 2s and 4s against 3s, as the Cowboys went deeper in the roster earlier than Miami did. The end of the game saw Matt Moore, the second team quarterback, having to return to the field after a reported injury to Pat Devlin. And still it took a carom off one receiver into another's hands to score that last, meaningless touchdown.

The players have certainly absorbed the teachings of Kiffin and Marinelli. The coaches look to be able to get the most out of the material they have to work with, which is certainly exciting when you look at who did not take the field. As for who they did use in the game, none got more attention than DE George Selvie, who has become the story of the moment. After getting cut multiple times by other teams, he may have played himself onto the Cowboys' final roster in Miami, proving that the standout practices he was having were no flukes. That says something . . . well, here, I'll let someone else make my point.

I'll admit, that is a case of finding something to support my contention. I still think it works.

Special teams

There was not as much going on here. The good news is that there were very few flags in the kicking games for either team, which is almost unheard of in pre-season. There was one holding call on Dallas, and not a block in the back flag to be found the entire game. That in itself is rather remarkable.

Kick/punt coverage was pretty good. Kick/punt returns were anemic. Spencer Benton just about assured he will not achieve anything other than camp body status with some bad punts. Dan Bailey cut it close but made his only field goal attempt. The only real excitement came on the attempted onsides kick at the end of the game, when Anthony Armstrong executed a masterful kill shot across the net. Unfortunately, the game is football, not volleyball, and you are not allowed to spike a kickoff (OK, technically it was called "batting", but that was a spike, folks). As it turned out, Miami was also a little shaky on the rules, and got an offsetting penalty for illegal formation. Armstrong then fielded the next attempt, effectively sealing the game.

But there was not much exciting, really, on special teams. We will have to wait to form a more definitive opinion of Rich Bisaccia's contributions.

That is my take, anyway, on how things went. What did you see in the first action of the year? Besides the proof that football, thankfully, is back.


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