Going into last Sunday’s game the Ravens defensive strategy, generally speaking, was to stop the run on the early downs and force Dak Prescott to beat them with his arm. They hoped to force the Cowboys offense into difficult down and distance situations, banking on the idea that Prescott couldn’t beat them without the support of a dominant running game and the luxury of playing ahead of the sticks. This seems to be a common theory when it comes to the Cowboys offense; that the best way to stop them is to do what you can to stifle the running game, then take your chances with Prescott and the passing game when your defense can bring pressure from different angles on third down.
The Ravens defense is built to carry out this strategy; they have perhaps the best 3-4 nose tackle in the league in Brandon Williams, they have one of the best three-down linebackers in the league in C.J. Mosley, they have a penetrating defensive tackle in Timmy Jernigan who not only plays the run well, but can also rush the passer, they have a physical safety in Eric Weddle who does a great job in run support, and they have a top-flight edge rusher in Terrell Suggs who is also very physical against the run. If all that isn’t enough, they also have a back-up nose tackle in Michael Pierce, all 340 lbs of him, who they can put on the field next to Williams to form a 700 lb wall in the middle of the field. Unlike the Packers earlier in the year it’s not a fluke that the Ravens rank first in the league in rushing yards allowed.
There aren’t many defenses better equipped to stop this Cowboys offense than this one and they employed the exact strategy that so many think could be the solution to stopping an offense that has been so potent so far this year. So how did they fare?
For about a quarter and a half it worked out great. Ezekiel Elliott had a few decent runs but he wasn’t gashing their defense, Prescott was sacked on his first pass attempt of the game on a third and 7, his accuracy suffered as the Ravens pressure was beating the Cowboys offensive line, and the offense wasn’t playing ahead of the sticks. Everything was going according to plan, right?
The turning point of the game came when the Cowboys were faced with a first and 30, a situation that is the exact opposite of playing ahead of the sticks, so what did the Cowboys do? Go shotgun three plays in a row, culminating with this:
Third and 6, a manageable third down, but not an easy conversion by any means. The Ravens bring five as they had plenty of success bringing pressure up until this point, but how does the offensive line respond? Well, Prescott has about three seconds to scan the field without a Raven defender getting near him, allowing Brice Butler to run a long-developing route that resulted in a catch that changed the game.
How about this red zone third down in the second half?
Again, third and 4 here, not an overly difficult conversion, but in today’s NFL it’s a clear passing situation. The Ravens bring five, and again, nobody gets near Prescott. Look at the right side of the screen, that’s future Hall of Famer Terrell Suggs about 7-10 yards away from the quarterback on a critical third down thanks to Tyron Smith. Now look at the left side of the screen, the protection allows Witten to actually chip the blitzing linebacker before getting out into his route, which carries him all the way across the field. Despite that, Prescott still has plenty of time to find him.
What about Dez Bryant’s second touchdown?
Second and 8, Elliott had just gained only two on first down, the Ravens strategy is working on this particular set of downs, but what happens next? The Ravens bring an all-out pressure with seven, Prescott has to get it out of his hand quickly in about two seconds, but on a blitz like this you have to commend the offensive line and Lance Dunbar for the pick-up. The defensive back on the right of the screen comes free, but that is by design when the defense is bringing more rushers than the offense has blockers. It also means there are only four defensive backs covering four receivers. Prescott does a fantastic job of making a quick decision and hitting Bryant with an accurate pass, but you have to give the line and Dunbar credit for giving him a clean pocket to set up in and not allowing any real pressure up the middle. The free blitzer is Prescott’s responsibility, he has to make a throw before he gets home or evade him with his legs, and the job done by the protection in stonewalling the other six allows him to do just that in finding Bryant.
And what about the final Cowboys drive of the game right after the Ravens cut the lead to seven? The strategy seems to be working again here as on the first two plays Elliott gained only five yards, setting up a third and five. Again, this is manageable, but it is by no means a layup and it is a situation where the Ravens know Prescott will have to beat them with his arm. So what happens?
Shotgun again, four wide. The Ravens bring six and again the offensive line holds. Prescott only holds the ball for about three seconds, but that should be more than enough time when the defense is bringing six as nobody really gets through clean to the quarterback here. Zachary Orr bounces off of Dunbar for a little late pressure but the ball is already out of Prescott’s hands. Another situation where the Ravens game plan worked to perfection as far as forcing Prescott to beat them, it’s just that, you know, Prescott beat them.
This Ravens defense sits at the top of the league in almost every defensive category and they most certainly have the personnel equipped to stop Dallas, theoretically. They employed the strategy that so many have hypothesized would be the best one to stop this Cowboys offense, and yet the result was Prescott going 23/26 with three touchdowns over about two and a half quarters following a slow start that saw him begin the game just 4/10. Elliott had a few strong plays and he certainly helped keep the offense balanced but he wasn’t the engine that drove them on this day. The offensive line struggled early but as the game wore on they started to control the Ravens front, while Prescott was able to quickly process the blitzes/coverage and find open receivers on time.
The Ravens did what they hoped to do as far as containing Elliott (he averaged just under 4 YPC), forcing the Cowboys into obvious passing situations and bringing pressure. It worked for a period of time, but then the Cowboys adjusted, scoring on five straight possessions. Anything can happen in any given NFL game, but from what I’ve seen, there is no clear solution to stopping this offense. There will be tough times ahead because that’s the nature of the NFL; penalty filled games, turnovers, perhaps a game or two where the Cowboys defense just can’t get off the field, but as far as I can tell, if this offense doesn’t beat itself with mistakes, there’s no breaking this machine.