What a difference a week makes. At this time last Monday a devastated Cowboys Nation was contemplating the very real possibility that Tony Romo had turned into Uncle Rico and that Jerry World would go the way of ancient Rome, destroyed by it's own hubris and invaded and laid waste to by angry barbarians, (or San Francisco fans). Now a delighted Cowboys Nation struggles to restrain dreams of DeMarco Murray running us all the way to the Superbowl, while hordes of star-wearing warriors lay waste to opposing teams stadiums. Yes my friends, after a victory, life is good.
But what actually changed between Week 1 and Week 2? Let's examine some of the coaching strategies that helped shape our victory over the Titans, starting with:
Murray's Law - If We Can Run We Will: I don't want to try and psychoanalyze Jason Garrett and why he does or does not run the ball. I'll be honest, I think memes like "lacks guts" or "gets too cute" are really overly simplistic rationalizations by fans trying to put a narrative onto extremely complex decisions. But we can say this with certainty thanks to audio from the game; the plan coming into the game was to run the ball. The 43 rushing attempts didn't happen because that's where the ebb and flow of the game led us, running the ball was part of the game-plan coming in.
It was a well-designed run game. According to Football Outsiders the Titans had the 27th ranked run defense for runs up the middle of the line, giving up a little more than four adjusted line yards, (FO normalizes their numbers against league averages), per run. And where did the majority of our runs go? Twelve of DeMarco Murray's 29 carries went middle left and middle right according to ProFootballFocus. The only area where Tennessee had worse defensive numbers was to the end of the right side...exactly where our next highest number of carries went. This was a really good job of our coaches analyzing Tennessee's weaknesses and then developing a game strategy to exploit them.
Interestingly enough, we know that the emphasis on running was part of the game-plan because of an in-game coaching strategy by Jason Garrett. Namely:
Murray's Law II - If He Fumbles Bench Dunbar: After Murray fumbled early in the game audio picked up Jason Garrett telling him he had to hold onto the ball, because he was going to touch it 30 times that game, (which was exactly correct, Murray had 29 carries and one reception). Now many coaches would have benched Murray at that point, with some reason; it was his second fumble in as many games. And it's not like we haven't seen Garrett bench running backs for fumbling before, as Lance Dunbar knows very well.
But the Rooster did not bench Murray. He went right back to him to start the next drive, and Murray responded with a 22-yard run. This highlights what are two of Jason Garrett's best attributes as a coach. First he knows how to get his players to respond. He's not rigid in his thinking; do x and y happens. When Claiborne was struggling last year, he got replaced in the starting lineup, (which probably took a lot of pressure of of Mo). When Dunbar had problems with fumbling he rode the pine, (telling him he needed to shape up or ship out). But DeMarco knows he's not going to get cut for fumbling. So Garrett went with a different tact, and it worked.
I think it also showed Garrett's tendency to stick things out. Garrett is a person who formulates a plan, and sticks with it. The plan was to run the ball, Murray is needed to run the ball, Murray will play. A lot of people don't like this trait, they think it shows a lack of creativity and an inability to adjust. I take a different view; it shows the ability to weather tough times, (which will invariably happen), and long term as opposed to short term thinking.
Sometimes though, quicker adjustments would be nice...
Time to Sack the Protection Scheme: Last year the Cowboys generally left both Doug Free and Tyron Smith "on an island" against the opposing defensive ends, with no double team help from the guards. And generally both tackles were up to the task, as both ranking 13th and 5th respectively in pass blocking per PFF.
This year though, the strategy is not going quite so well. Smith is still playing well, and is currently the 7th ranked tackle in pass protection. But Doug Free has free fallen all the way down to 60th place, just ahead of Washington's human turnstile Tyler Polumbus.
Now there is a lot to say about sample size, and Doug Free has certainly shown that he can bounce back. The problem is, can Tony Romo keep taking hits at the pace he's taking them?
It's not just Free's bad play either. The scheme itself seems off. On at least one play Sunday our pass protection scheme left Jason Witten one on one with the Titans Kamerion Wimbley. Jason Witten is a very good blocking tight end, but that's a battle he's going lose much more than he wins.
Speaking of blocking tight ends:
Blockers? We Don't Need No Stinking Blockers!: Speaking of blocking tight ends, the Titans don't use them. Or running backs. Generally speaking, the Titans don't keep anyone in to block, something the Cowboys took advantage of on Sunday.
Last week the Titans kept a tight end or running back in to block only five times out of 33 pass attempts. They did the same thing this week; out of 34 attempts the Titans again kept a TE or RB in to block five times. Dallas took advantage of this lack of protection constantly rushing from the linebacker and defensive back position. Those rushes paid off in the form of:
QB Disruption from Linebackers and Defensive Backs
Hits: 1 (note hits do not include sacks)
Those numbers may not seem like much, but actually account for 1/3 of our sacks, 1/2 of the hits, and 1/4 of our hurries.
What's It All Mean? It means that our offensive and defensive staff put together solid game-plans on both sides of the ball and executed them well. It also tells us something about what to expect going forward; if the issues in pass protection aren't fixed, (or aren't fixable), then we will probably see more run heavy game-plans. Bringing pressure from the back seven already seems to be business as usual; last week also saw a linebacker sack and multiple rushes from defensive backs. Prior to the season there was a lot of talk about Jason Garrett finally assembling a coaching staff he trusts, and so far it's looking pretty good.