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Dallas Cowboys Film Room: Run Defense Notes From Week One

An in-depth look at the Cowboys first defensive snaps versus the 49ers dangerous rushing attack in the 2014 season opener.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

As we head into week two of the NFL season, teams have let go of emotional baggage from the season opener. If Jason Garrett is indeed doing his job well, the players have studied their mistakes and are correcting them while preparing for the Tennesee Titans this Sunday. As fans, it's nearly impossible to forget, but like the team, we should study the events and move on, understanding a team's journey each season is truly a process of evolution, and hopefully improvement.

Let's set aside the catastrophe that was the first quarter. A fifteen-minute mistake-ridden massacre where the Dallas Cowboys offense turned the ball over and gifted scores, while two defensive errors (and near sacks) also gifted a touchdown. Forget the 49ers had completed only five offensive snaps to take a 21-3 lead and Tony Romo had just thrown his second interception. The remaining three quarters are what the Cowboys will be concentrating on building upon, and those efforts should be commended and studied.

This sub-game was a 14-7 three-quarter battle where the Cowboys overcame a conservative offense while trying to bounce back from an emotional gauntlet and nearly insurmountable deficit. Imagine this three-quarter sub-game and the 49ers finally called a running play to begin their drive. In 2013, the 49ers led the league in runs of 20+ yards and managed one against the Cowboys, their first run of the season. It was a great example of their intricate rushing schemes.

The First Cut is the Deepest & Most Complex



The 49ers line up with 21 personnel, but send a receiver in motion for twins left. Suddenly, they shift again, this time motioning their right tackle to create an off-set line with two tackles on the left and tight end Vernon Davis playing as a tackle on the right. After almost going off-sides seeing so many 49ers moving and shifting at once, the Cowboys defense had little time to do anything more than shift to compensate. Suddenly, Davon Coleman is forced to play as the 1-tech, while Nick Hayden inherits 3-tech duties. In their base defense, linebacker Bruce Carter shifts over to cover the second receiver and Brandon Carr is forced to play like a linebacker on the weak side.

If you think this creation of impressive mismatches shows all of the 49ers ingenuity, you are mistaken. To create further confusion and advantage, after the snap, the right guard pulled on a trap block to the left. For those keeping track at home, they now have four offensive-linemen blocking to the left of the center.



On the strong side, Jeremy Mincey and Rolando McClain put up a valiant effort. McClain presses the trap block allowing Mincey to knife inside and nearly stuff the run. However, Hayden gets carried out of the point of attack by the tackle-guard combo block that even manages to split and get to the second level keeping safety Barry Church out of the box. To make matters worse, Justin Durant is taking on a tackle/tight end. On the weakside, the pulling guard leads to rookie Coleman (suddenly at 1-tech) and Selvie attacking the same gap, never a good sign against a run play. And don't forget, Carr has been forced into a linebacker position, and instead of reacting to the run as such, is taking his defensive-back muscle-memory backsteps into coverage. The Cowboys faced a well-designed run that beat them schematically and at the point of attack. Dallas was lucky to rally and limit the gain to 20 yards after Frank Gore cut it back to the weakside. But the Cowboys front-seven learned their lessons and rallied well after their rocky introduction to run defense this season, responding by not allowing another break-out run of 20+.

Make a Name for Yourself Versus the Run-Option

Whenever facing an offense that utilizes their quarterback as a runner in read-option, it really helps to never let it get going, making the risk of a QB in harm's way greater than the potential reward of yardage. The 49ers second rushing play of the game came immediately after the success of the first, and tested the defenses' focus with a read-option. Again, the Cowboys nearly stuffed the run, but at least this ‘almost' was contained for a minimal gain.



While it's technically a read-option play, this seems like a designed QB run. Both the tackle and the lead-blocking fullback ignore Selvie on the end, so he's in the backfield so quickly that he's forced to attack the running back at the mesh point. Colin Kaepernick has the ball and a tackle and fullback to lead the way against two linebackers, with a tight end going to block a corner who must never forget the play could quickly become a pass. At first, it doesn't look good for the Cowboys, but things start to break down for the 49ers as the Dallas linebackers are quick to react. Durant makes a great play against the center trying to cut-off any back-side pursuit and is actually being held without the benefit of a penalty flag. McClain does a phenomenal job with his speed and hand rip to avoid any block from the tackle, while Bruce Carter is doing a good job attacking the lead-blocking fullback while still containing the edge.



Carter looks solid as he presses the block, but then he sheds the block too early and gambles to make the play instead of continuing to do his job - which, ironically, he was doing well and would have led to a tackle for a loss by him or McClain. Instead, Carter allows a blocker who is losing the physical battle to get into good position to seal the edge, because he made his move too early. He also cuts off McClain's pursuit as he allows Kaep to get around the corner. While Dallas failed to stop the play for a loss, the initial great reactions of the linebackers help string out the play for minimal yards, with Carr fighting off Vernon Davis' block to seal the deal. Perhaps the minimal yards and close calls of their first read-option attempt (not to mention memory of their big lead) made the 49ers wary to call many more. In the end, the Cowboys held the dangerously mobile Kaepernick to just eleven yards on the day.

More First-Down Runs

The 49ers third attempt with their ground game was once again on a first down. And once again, the Cowboys held them to a short gain. With two tight-ends on the field, the 49ers bring Vance McDonald in motion and as they hand off the ball, the Cowboys rushmen are already penetrating the line. Coleman has crossed the face of the right guard, Hayden is holding strong against the center-guard combo block, and though the last one off the line, Tyrone Crawford knifes inside and has already beaten Davis.



As the play progresses, Mincey does a solid job attacking the trap chop-block, Hayden presses the combo-block back making it even easier for Coleman to work down the line. Meanwhile, Crawford disrupts the play enough to cutoff any attempt at a cut-back and has a chance for a tackle for a loss.



Mincey creates a backfield pileup that allows Hayden to bull rush the combo-block into a pancake. Carter has done an outstanding job fighting the tackle to contain the run, getting himself in perfect position and leverage. Crawford lunges over the pile in an attempt to stuff the run with Vernon hanging on him, and McClain is getting into position while Durant has already fought off the second-level block. However, Coleman manages to beat them all to the running lane and the Cowboys hold strong.

The Outlook on Stopping the Run

To help stop this opening drive of the three-quarter sub-game, the Cowboys later stuffed an option run for a loss with great reactions by McClain and Carr.




On second and long the Cowboys sack Kaepernick, and then manage to get off the field by stopping the subsequent long third-down. In any other game, ending the opponent's opening second-quarter drive with a forced punt is a win for the defense. But down 21-3, forcing a punt after your opponent has held onto the ball for seven minutes is not good enough. Especially when your offense suffers its fourth turnover less than two minutes later.

However, the Cowboys went on to do a good job containing the 49ers strong and complex rushing attack. Besides a few longer runs late in the game, the Cowboys consistently held the 49ers to short gains on the ground. Nearly 50% of every 49er rushing attempt was for 3 yards or less. This bodes well for the Cowboys moving forward, though it remains to be seen how seriously the loss of Durant may affect the front-seven. Cowboys Nation was certainly worried about how well this Dallas defense would hold up against the run, and there were a lot of good things to talk about in the film room this week. And it will do them well to continue to build on these successes as they prepare to face a Titans team that ran the ball 38 times in their season-opening victory.

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