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Cowboys @Titans Position Breakdown: Linebackers

A play-by-play look at the All-22 film, focusing on the Dallas linebackers.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Last week I charted the Cowboy's cornerbacks and learned a valuable lesson; my initial impression watching the game is wrong a lot. Well this week I thought that Rolando McClain was the most dominant player on either defense, but does the All-22 tape back that up? Here is the play-by-play breakdown of every first half defensive snap, as well as the first drive of the 3rd quarter, Tennessee's first scoring drive. This week I tried to make sure I didn't include plays that ended in a penalty, but I'm not sure if I got that 100% so there may be some discrepancy in play number from this write up to the official play by play.

Play 1: Tennessee is in a 2TE formation. Dallas comes out in their base defense, (with McClain at MIKE, Anthony Hitchens at WILL, and Bruce Carter at SAM). McClain rushes the QB, and looks to force the throw early. Carter is playing zone, and helps double a receiver crossing his area. Hitchens plays man-press on one of the tight ends.

Play 2: Tennessee comes out trips left, and Dallas counters with their nickel package, meaning Carter and McClain at LB with a DB substituting for Hitchens. Tennessee runs away from the trips. McClain flows with the run but is blocked out of the play by center Brian Schwenke. Carter stays to the backside of the play and makes the tackle after a five yard gain.

Play 3: WR bunch to the right, with Dallas in nickel. McClain looks somewhat lost in coverage, he just kind of drifts to the right, watching the QB the entire time, but never gets near a receiver. Carter immediately follows the RB out of the backfield and has good coverage the entire time. No completion.

Play 4: Tennessee comes out in a traditional pro-set; the RB motions into the slot on the weak side. Dallas is in their base defense, and Carter moves out with the RB. All three linebackers take a shallow drop into zone. Tennessee runs the tight end on a shallow curl right where the linebackers vacated. All three linebackers converge immediately stopping the play with no YAC. Five yard completion.

Play 5: Tennessee comes out with 3 WR, with the TE to the left and the slot receiver on the right of the formation. nickel defense. The Titans run left behind the TE. Carter and the defensive line flow to the left, forcing the RB to cut back. McClain does a good job playing backside and drops the RB for a two yard loss.

Play 6: Titans line up 3 WR, with both the TE left and the slot receiver on the right. nickel defense. TE goes in motion to the right creating a bunch look. Carter takes a shallow drop to the weak side, McClain takes a shallow drop to the bunch side, and Tennessee runs another shallow curl to the vacated area. This time J.J. Wilcox and McClain get to the receiver in time to knock the ball out resulting in an incompletion. McClain looked a bit slow reacting to the pass and gets to the receiver a few steps after Wilcox.

Play 7: Tennessee lines up with 2 TE to the right in a tight formation. Dallas is in base defense. Tennessee runs right. Carter does a great job exploding into the backfield and taking on the lead blocker, forcing the RB back inside. McClain gets blocked out of the play by guard Chance Warmack. Hitchens hesitates on the backside and is nowhere near the play. Solid run gain.

Play 8: Trips left, countered by nickel defense. Carter runs a stunt with the defensive lineman. Lineman crashes in and Carter looped around him on the blitz. Gets picked up by the running back. McClain makes a shallow drop and picks up a receiver running a crossing route underneath, good coverage. Pressure from Carter and DL force Locker to rush his throw, which is almost picked off by Morris Claiborne.

Play 9: 2 TE one on either side of formation, each flanked by a WR. All in tight splits. nickel defense. Both linebackers take shallow drops, McClain picks up a receiver crossing underneath. Play ends with interception.

Play 10: 2 TE left, twins right. Base defense, but is slow to set. Carter is on the line, standing up between Tyrone Crawford and Nick Hayden. McClain and Hitchens are lined up about three yards deep, directly behind the 1- and 3-techs. Run to the strong side. Carter can't get off his block, and McClain gets lost in the trash. Hitchens reads the play well, and takes on the lead blocker. Can't get to the blockers outside shoulder and tries to cheat to the inside; RB bounces out for a big gain.

Play 11: Trips right, TE left. Nickel defense. It looks like Carter is playing MLB on this play as he takes a deep drop to the middle of the field, and McClain drops to the shallow flat on the trips side. Incomplete pass.

Play 12: 2 TE left, with a flanker on the right of the formation. One TE goes in motion to the right, settling into the slot position. Base defense with the linebackers shifting with the TE. Hitchens plays man with TE #84. The TE beats Hitchens on a kind of flag route, but Locker overthrows the open man. McClain bites on the initial play fake, then fades back into a very, very shallow zone in the middle of the field. It looks like Carter bites on the play fake as well, hesitates for a moment, then decides to rush the passer, but is blocked at the line. There is a blown coverage (on McClain?) as the FB leaks out into the flat and is never picked up.

Play 13: Trips right. Nickel defense. Carter and McClain line up on either side of the center showing blitz (safety is on the line showing blitz as well). Carter drops into coverage on the trips side and misses tackle on WR who has just caught ball, though he does slow him up and force him inside. McClain does a delayed blitz and gets good pressure, might have gotten a sack if the throw hadn't been so quick.

Play 14:  (Titans on own 2 yard line after great special teams play by Dwayne Harris). 2 TE power I formation. Base defense with Carter lined up on line standing outside the TE. Run strong side. Carter crashes inside hard and blows up the lead blocker. McClain shoots inside initially, then stumbles trying to bounce outside. Recovers in time to run RB down from behind. Hitchens is able to beat the pulling guard to his spot and combines with McClain on the tackle. Two yard gain.

Play 15: Same formation by both offense and defense. One TE motions to the left. Titans run a counter with the RB initially going left then cutting back hard right. Both McClain and Hitchens initially flow to the left along with the defensive line, and both get blocked out trying to recover to the right. Carter reads the play the whole way, and is engaged with his blocker all the way down the line (meaning Carter is moving towards the RB, but can't get off the block), but is never able to get off the block. Big gain for a first down.

Play 16: Shotgun formation 3 WR, TE left, slot right. Nickel defense. Draw play up the middle. Carter is blocked out by Warmack. McClain drops initially, then comes in unblocked and makes the tackle. Four yard gain.

Play 17: Shotgun formation, 3 WR, TE right, slot left. Nickel defense. Both linebackers look to be playing a kind of spy zone, though neither actually drop, both flow with the QB. QB flushed out of the pocket by DL. McClain beats him to the edge, showing some really good speed in the process, and forces him back inside towards the defense. One yard gain.

Play 18: Shotgun. 3 WR, Slot right, 2 RB. Nickel defense. Carter lines up on the line between the center and the left offensive guard. Drops back into coverage and picks up a receiver running a shallow cross. Good coverage. McClain drops into a shallow middle zone, no receiver enters his area.

Play 19: Trips right. Nickel D. Both linebackers initially show blitz before dropping into zone coverage. Incomplete pass.

Play 20: Trips right. Nickel D. Carter plays a shallow middle zone, McClain carries a wide receiver into a deep middle zone. Good coverage resulting in a sack.

Play 21: Shotgun formation, 4 WR. Both linebackers show blitz then drop into deep zone coverage. McClain makes a good open field tackle on a crossing wide receiver.

Play 22: Shotgun formation, 3 WR with both TE and Slot on the right. Slot motions across formation to the left. Nickel defense. Wide receiver screen. McClain bites hard on play fake. Carter follows screen all the way, engages the lead blocker and eventually forces the WR out of bounds after a 12 yard pickup.

Play 23: Shotgun formation, 4 WR, empty backfield, TE right. Nickel defense. Man coverage, McClain covers one of the slot receivers downfield. Carter jumps on an outside receiver who looks to be a safety valve for the QB as he never leaves the line or enters a route. Good coverage by both linebackers, pass completed on Brandon Carr for a first down.

Play 24: Shotgun formation, Trips left, TE right. Draw play. Both linebackers attack their respective gaps quickly. Carter is in wrong gap and can't fight through garbage towards play. McClain is blocked out by Guard Andy Levitre. Big gain.

Play 25: Shotgun formation. 3 WR both Slot and TE to the left. Nickel defense. Carter picks up the running back coming out of the backfield. Not sure if he was playing man coverage or if that is an automatic check for him. McClain is playing zone, and picks up a WR crossing underneath. Good coverage but pass is completed on safety downfield.

Play 26: Shotgun formation. 3 WR Slot left, TE right. Nickel defense. Titans run a counter draw. Both linebackers sniff the run quickly and crash inside hard. RB bounces into gap vacated by Carter and runs for a big gain. Carter has the WR crack block him and is unable to correct back to his original gap.

Play 27: Tennessee runs the same play. Both linebackers crash inside again, but this time the defense gets to the RB in the backfield before he can counter. RB is strung far outside and brought down for a loss near the sidelines.

Play 28: Shotgun formation. 3 WR, TE right, Slot left. Nickel defense. Carter again picks up the running back out of the backfield. McClain picks up a TE running in the middle of the field. Good coverage.

Play 29: Shotgun formation. Trips right. Nickel defense. Again, Carter picks up the running back out of the backfield and has good coverage. McClain is playing a spy on the QB; when the QB is flushed out of the pocket McClain comes up for the sack.

Play 30: Field goal.

Takeaways: There was some interesting stuff going on with the linebackers in this game. First, I was really impressed with how aggressive both Carter and McClain were in attacking the run. Tennessee occasionally took advantage of that aggressiveness with counters, but it was nice to see our linebackers being decisive and not hesitating. It shows they are feeling comfortable in the system.

There was also an interesting thing where Carter and McClain would occasionally switch sides in the nickel defense. I couldn't see any obvious triggers for this switch and I don't know if it changed any of their responsibilities.

Rod Marinelli is not afraid to dial up the blitz. And both McClain and Carter responded, getting good pressure when their number was called. Many times the linebackers showed blitz but then dropped into coverage.

Last year Bruce Carter had a horrible time covering receivers out of the backfield. If this game is any indication it seems like that problem is fixed. It looks like the RB is a key for Carter when they are in a nickel defense and he will drop his zone and play man if a RB leaks out of the backfield.

It was a bit concerning watching McClain in zone. He uses his athleticism to good effect and can cover a lot of ground to make up for bad coverage, but there were too many plays where he just seemed somewhat lost and slow to react to receivers entering his area.

The rookie Anthony Hitchens didn't play much, and had an up and down day. He was decent in coverage except for one play when he let the TE get behind him on a flag route, for what would have been a big gain. He played the run fairly well, but needs to get stronger at the point of attack.

All in all I was really impressed with our linebackers. Rolando McClain definitely stood out the most and you can see watching him why he was a top ten pick. But I thought Bruce Carter actually played the best. He was the steadiest, both in coverage and against the run, even if he didn't make any splash plays. Both linebackers need to do a better job maintaining gap discipline, but if Week 2 is an indication of the future then linebacker, the position I was most worried about going into the season looks like it could be strength.

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