There is a reason that self-scouting is so important in the NFL, because first you must know what and how teams will look to take advantage of you before you can stop them from doing so. The focus cannot just be on how to take advantage of an opponent’s weakness or how to combat their strengths, it must also be on how to mitigate the risk areas on your own team that your opponent will most likely look to exploit. The discussion over much of the next seven days for Cowboys fans will surely center on how, or if, the defense can possibly contain the red-hot Aaron Rodgers, or how the offense can best attack an average Green Bay defense. While all of that will provide plenty of compelling discussion, there is another side of the coin that must be considered, both for the upcoming game and hopefully the many battles to come.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some areas of potential concern that could derail a possible championship run, and what the Cowboys can do to combat them.
Lack of Top Pass-Rushing Talent
The Cowboys defensive line is quite obviously a “by committee” type of unit. There is no dominant threat and it is a unit that has been successful because they have played selflessly and with the pedal to the floor at all times. Schematically, many of the sacks that the team has gotten have been a function of effort and the fact that the linemen are willing to slant, stunt, and take on blockers to free up a teammate’s rush with the same intensity as if they were rushing one-on-one for their own sack.
It also seems like over the last four or fives game of the season Rod Marinelli has had great success with blitzing linebackers, namely Sean Lee, which is something you didn’t see much of earlier in the season. Much of this is usually done with only three down linemen and usually six or seven defensive backs on the field. The defense’s strength against the run has allowed Marinelli to put this type of “light” personnel on the field as opposing offenses are forced to play “behind the sticks”. You likely aren’t going to see six defensive backs on the field on third and 2.
This symbiotic relationship where the run defense forces teams into third and medium or long, which then allows Marinelli to open up the playbook, bring in extra defensive backs, and thus confuse offenses with various types of blitzes has been very effective recently. It has helped make up for the fact that the Cowboys don’t have an individual, elite pass-rusher with double digit sacks that offenses must account for. It also gets Lee, clearly the team’s best defensive player, more involved in the pass-rush without the run being as much of a threat.
The run defense was excellent during the regular season, ranking first in the league in rushing yards allowed per game and tied for eighth in the league in yards allowed per carry, and that must carry over to the playoffs.
By any measure Dak Prescott has had one of the best rookie seasons of all-time for a quarterback, and perhaps the best. With that said, there is a reason that no rookie quarterback has ever led their team to a Super Bowl, let alone won it. The intensity is ratcheted up to another level, weaknesses are magnified, and the pressure can crush a player who hasn’t experienced it before. I’m not saying any of those things will happen to Prescott, but you can bet your bottom dollar that defenses will do everything they can to test him in every possible way. Everybody knows how great he has been during the regular season, but coaches know that the playoffs are different and opposing teams will have to see him do it there before they believe it.
How should the Cowboys look to combat this?
Most importantly get Prescott into a rhythm early. He has shown time and again this season that if he starts hot, he usually stays hot. I can’t think of a single game where he started off well and declined as the game went on, although there have been several times where he started slow and it took a quarter or even a half for him to heat up. A slow quarter or half could end you in a one-and-done scenario, so Scott Linehan must look for ways to get Prescott comfortable and in rhythm early.
Further, defenses will certainly look to stack the box and force Prescott to beat them with his arm, because despite his regular season play, you can bet that teams will need to see him do it in the playoffs before they back off of the Cowboys elite run game. The coaching staff should also look for opportunities to be aggressive early by taking a deep shot or two, perhaps off play-action on early downs, to make defenses think twice before immediately dropping a safety into the box.
Over-Reliance on Previously Injured or Rusty Players
Tyrone Crawford has not played in a game since December 18th against Tampa Bay, and in that game he only played limited snaps (24) due to injury. Terrell McClain has not played since December 26th against Detroit, and he too played limited snaps (12) due to injury. Demarcus Lawrence has not played since the Giants game on December 11th where he only played 13 snaps, while Cedric Thornton also has not played since that night. Morris Claiborne has not played since October 30th.
The Divisional game will take place on January 15th.
That’s nearly an entire starting defensive line, plus a starting cornerback, who have barely played in a month or more. To ask them to come back in a playoff game, immediately thrust them into starting roles, and have them play 40-50+ snaps would be ludicrous. That is especially true in Claiborne’s case where there are several players who have filled in more than capably in his lengthy absence.
The defensive line’s sudden resurgence has largely taken place while many of these players have been out thanks to the emergence of David Irving and Benson Mayowa who have combined for six sacks over the last four games of the season. There is absolutely no reason to ask too much out of guys like Crawford and Lawrence who may be rusty or at less than 100%. The same goes for Claiborne.
The coaching staff must not be afraid of sitting a bigger name in favor of an Anthony Brown or Benson Mayowa if those bigger names show signs of being rusty or at less than 100% early on. Basically, dance with who brought you, because in a single elimination format just a few drives that go sideways due to rusty or out of shape players could doom a team.
This may seem odd considering the fact that Tyron Smith is most likely the best left tackle in the league, but he’s coming off an MCL sprain with just three weeks to rest, so opposing defenses will be looking to test him early to see if he’s 100%. Considering that right tackle Doug Free has been a complete turnstile at times, and you start to see that there could be issues on the edges of the line.
There isn’t much you can do schematically here except give Free help on the right side and hope that Smith is close to his normal self. They must also hope that the veteran Free, who is near the end of his career, actually comes to play with a championship on the line. If Smith is not 100% or struggles you may have to look at keeping Jason Witten and a running back in to block more while running three-receiver routes in the passing game. Also perhaps look at running more draws and screens to Ezekiel Elliott if defenses start to get a little too confident in being able to take advantage of one or both of the starting tackles with blitzes and extra pressure off the edge.