During training camp this year, I was oft heard to say that I found Oxnard 2015 to be a bit underwhelming. I attributed this to the fact that there were so few burning questions that the team needed to solve to get ready to begin the season. They had a healthy quarterback; we knew who at least 24 of the 26 "starters" would be; all the coaches had just inked multi-year deals; Dez Bryant had done the same and was his usual dominant self. Ho-hum. Yawn.
Since then, of course, it's been one long Halloween haunted house - and the depressing kind, at the local rec center, with spaghetti "guts" and peeled grape "eyes" and a couple of "mummies" played by weird theater kids from the local high school wrapped in toilet paper. As we have traveled this sad gallery of horrors, scary questions have certainly popped up, like kids in K-Mart Freddy Krueger masks: who will step up in Bryant's absence? Can the Cowboys run against 9-man boxes? Where, oh where, has the vertical passing game gone?
That said, we haven't had any real roster or deployment questions to consider. During the Brandon Weeden interregnum's first two games, the Cowboys ran essentially the same offense we saw under Tony Romo - or at least a version of it, based on the same principles - with the same personnel that would have been in the huddle had Romo not been hurt. The defensive narrative was similar: lots of 4-man lines, 4-man rushes, and nickle personnel, with Tyler Patmon in the slot. There were no personnel adjustments, no schematic wrinkles.
And then the New England game happened. The game itself, and its hot-topic aftermath, have introduced myriad questions about what we saw and will see from the team going forward. In fact, I would venture that there are more unanswered questions about personnel and scheme than at any time since, well, at least the beginning of free agency back in March, and perhaps as far back as training camp 2014. And there's the rub: there will be no instant gratification; we're going to have to wait until October 25 - and perhaps longer - to obtain answers. Let's take a peek at some of these burning questions, starting with the offense:
Will Matt Cassel (and Dez Bryant) make the offense more vertical?
I spent some time yesterday watching the Cowboys' opening night win over the Giants. At the time, I remember thinking that the Dallas offense wasn't in sync, that the running game was moribund, and that they struggled to push the ball downfield. I couldn't have been more wrong - at least not when compared to the Saints and Patriots games.
Part of this has to do with scheme - the Giants like to run a two-deep shell - but there was so much space for offensive personnel to operate against New York. With a healthy Ron Leary and backed-off safeties, Joseph Randle and Co. had nice lanes to run in, and consistently found creases. Jason Witten and Cole Beasley had their way with the Giants' underneath coverage. And, believe it or not, there were multiple instances wherein Terrance Williams was not only open but very open--even NCAA open.
The primary complaint about Brandon Weeden is that he did nothing to create a similar amount of open space by throwing the ball to his outside receivers. Since Romo was injured, defenses have been treating the Cowboys like boa constrictors, squeezing more tightly each week. Perhaps this actually started before Romo's injury, when Bryant was hurt in week one. If Bryant can return against the Giants, it will be a huge step towards re-creating the open spaces enjoyed in that now ages-ago September game. If not, does Cassel have the capability to do what Weeden could not: force the constrictor to loosen by getting the ball over the top?
Can Christine Michael and La'el Collins (and Bryant) help the offense regain its hard-nosed identity?
With Bryant out, the offense lost not only its most explosive downfield threat, but also its spiritual and emotional leader. On a recent podcast, I noted that the three men who emerged as the new team leaders last year, Bryant, Orlando Scandrick and Rolando McClain, were absent for the vast majority of the first four games. And the team appeared to miss their contributions, not only in their stellar play, but in the "dawg" they brought to the field. Without Bryant around them to play with such passion, fire and abandon, the offense has grown increasingly passive.
And passive offenses don't tend to run the ball well. If Bryant continues to sit out, therefore, the Cowboys will need to find a little "dawg" elsewhere. It's clear by now that the Cowboys miss DeMarco Murray - and not for his running as much has his hard-nosed attitude and superior will. I'm wondering if either of the reported new offensive starters/ increased contributors - Christine Michael and La'el Collins (his friends call him "L.C.") - can add a bit of that attitude to this offensive mix. Both have reputations as tough, physical players; can they help the Cowboys to get a bit of the edge with which they played in 2014?
It's unlikely that installing Cassel as the starter is suddenly going to transform the Cowboys' passing game and force safeties to play 30 yards off of the line of scrimmage. Thus a little attitude would go a long way.
Unlike the offense, the defense seemed to get some of its "dawg" back. No doubt that had to do with the return of Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain. But I can't help but wonder if their return to the lineup had other benefits:
Will we see more of the crazy good 3-2-6 defense we saw against New England?
I watched every snap of training camp this year and, while I saw a couple of interesting, quasi-exotic blitz packages, I never saw anything resembling the 3-2 alignment the Cowboys rolled out versus the Patriots. After the game, I spent a few days checking in with other Cowboys observers, to see if any of them had ever seen it before, and nobody could recall having done so. It seems pretty clear, therefore, that this was a brand new package, and one that Rod Marinelli and his defensive coaches (Joey Ickes believes Matt Eberflus's fingers are all over this one) either created for the Patriots game or added to the playbook and waited to practice until the team was back in the more restricted environs of Valley Ranch in August.
As has been well documented, it helped the Cowboys to generate a tremendous pass rush - they sacked Tom Brady five times in the first half. But it also added a measure of confusion; with five potential rushers, they could send any four, or all five, on any given snaps. With five across the front, it also ensured one-on-one match-ups for Greg Hardy (it also required Tyrone Crawford to line up over the center and employ a two-gap technique, which is not his strong suit). Moreover, it allowed Rolando McClain and Sean Lee to settle back into underneath zones to take away the shallow crossers that are such a staple of the Patriots offense.
Let's be clear: the Cowboys were only able to deploy in such a formation because Hardy and McClain were available. As noted above, it's set up to guarantee Hardy gets favorable matchups, but it also needs McClain - and, to a lesser degree, Sean Lee - in the interior so that the other team doesn't just run up the middle all afternoon. Imagine the same scheme with Lee and Hitchens in the middle and LeGarrette Blount running between the tackles. Yikes.
The return of Hardy and Ro-Mac, and the fact that the team cannot run this scheme without them on the field, is what makes this particular burning question so difficult to answer. Was it coincidence that they returned the same week as the Cowboys played an offense against which they needed this formation? Or will this be a critical defensive formation going forward, and the Patriots simply happened to be the opponent in the week of their return? Was the 3-2-6 a gimmick that worked for a half or something the Cowboys plan to use going forward?
Has Corey White supplanted Tyler Patmon?
This question is related to the one above. The weakness in a 3-2 dime-based scheme is against the run (indeed, one of the second-half counters the Pats employed was to go heavy and run at the Cowboys with LaGarrette Blount). This threat is made more acute when the tough but undersized Patmon is in the slot. With that in mind, it makes sense to go with White, who has safety size, to add a bit of size to an undersized defensive alignment. Furthermore, we saw White blitz off the edge on more than one occasion, and with great effectiveness. Was the corner blitz an important part of this package, which was clearly designed to confuse and pressure Tom Brady?
What we don't yet know is whether White replaced Patmon in the lineup for the foreseeable future or whether his work (and Patmon's complete absence of defensive snaps) was a one-game schematic wrinkle. Although he was picked on at times, it's not like Patmon was playing poorly in the first four games. I get the sense that the Cowboys would prefer to be more like the Patriots in this regard, unveiling specific innovations for each opponent so as not to be quite so easy to prepare for. Perhaps we'll see Patmon return in a scheme that requires his particular skill set? As with these other questions, clarity will come only after patience.
On one hand, the bye week couldn't have come at a better time; the team desperately needs this time off to regroup and to heal its wounds. On the other hand, we'll have to wait much longer than usual to see if some of these developments were the result of a single opponent who plays a singular game or whether they represent a schematic wrinkle that can only function with Hardy and McClain in the lineup. As I noted above, we're going to have to wait until at least October 25 to get some semblance of an answer to each of these burning questions.
Until then, feel the burn.
|Don’t forget to resister for our Blogging the Boys meet-up!
Oct 24-25, 2015
Cowboys-Giants in the beautiful Poconos
|Three awesome Cowboys-centric events!|
|Saturday, October 24
(8:00-10:00 PM): Dinner the night before the game
|Sunday, October 25
(9:00 AM - 1:00 PM): Pre-game brunch
|Sunday, October 25
(4:30-8:30 PM) Cowboys-Giants game, with free buffet
|Click Here to RSVP||Click here for more information on pricing, lodging, etc.|