Key to the NFC Championship: Make it About the Linebackers

In a quarterback-centric league such as the NFL, it’s understandable that so much gets written about the QB and his receivers. That is certainly the case here at Blogging the Boys. With regard to defense, given that Dallas runs a 4-3, it’s also understandable that many defense themed articles focus on the defensive line. And given the years of struggle with Dallas’ secondary, we also get a good many articles related to defensive back play.

What I tend to see with regard to linebackers, however, is usually somewhat limited and often it’s about Sean Lee’s health or speculation on Jaylon Smith’s recovery.

So I want to attempt something a little different with this piece.

I’m going to make this argument, and then try and back it up, mostly for the sake of getting a fresh perspective and starting a discussion.

Here is my opening statement: If Dallas can succeed in making each and every game about the linebackers, both from a defensive and offensive standpoint, they can finally retake the NFC Championship.

So let’s unpack what I mean by this. Let’s start with the most obvious:

Dallas spent a first round pick on a linebacker, LVE.

Dallas has Sean Lee.

Dallas has great optimism that Jaylon Smith is rounding into his old form and will contribute tremendous athleticism this year.

Dallas could have the strongest linebacking corps in the NFC. And if they can use that strength effectively, they may shut down offenses with greater regularity than we’ve seen in many, many years.

The defensive line should be strong this year. Maybe not great, but very solid and capable of getting a pressure. But if they are struggling to get pressure at any point in a game or the season, the strength of the linebackers should help Marinelli to feel better about sending extra men on occasion. Of course, in order to do that, you have to feel good about your secondary, and I think this year, the coaches actually do.

Another thought is that Dallas could mix in more 3-4 this year. I won't claim to have a handle on how often Marinelli does this or any other alignments, but I am aware that he surprises us sometimes with his creativity. If you have a strength and then you factor in unpredictability, you can do some real damage.

Linebackers are right in the heart of the action on most plays. It’s really hard for them to do their job if the guys in front of them or the guys behind them are struggling. But Dallas appears to be solid enough for their excellent corps of linebackers to not only excel, but to show up on highlight reels with some consistency.

We Need to Make It About the Linebackers When on Offense as Well

Dallas is blessed with an offensive line so talented that it is common for BTB contributors to post GIFs of our linemen climbing to the second level and driving linebackers clear out of the way of Zeke. It’s a truly beautiful thing to witness.

Drafting Connor Williams has most likely assured that Dallas will continue their O-line dominance and plenty more of those GIFs are on their way this year. My apologies for being clueless about how to insert such GIFS; right here would be a great spot!

Additionally, Dallas has made a few important moves that position it to attack opposing linebackers at a very high level with new plays and weapons.

First, Dallas traded for Tavon Austin. The fact that no one wants to definitively call him a RB or a WR speaks to his versatility and the role we all see coming for him. This is a guy they want to get in space, isolated on linebackers. If defenses want to take away Cole Beasley this year, they are going to have to take their chances with Austin. And the reverse is also true.

Speaking of reverse, Dallas will have their best weaponry for attacking the perimeter in years. Austin and Zeke represent a very rare combination. Jet sweeps, pitches, reverses—all of these increase the odds that a linebacker will have to make a play in the open field. In addition to forcing linebackers to chase to the perimeter, the value of success on the perimeter is that fakes move linebackers out of the middle of the box, leaving the defense vulnerable to a well-blocked run up the gut. With linebackers that have been wrong-footed by a fake pitch or jet sweep motion, plus stellar blocking up front, Zeke could be in the secondary more this year than ever before. Why? Because the threat to the perimeter will simply be greater. Dallas will be hurting defenses badly out wide and it will impact how strongly linebackers react to fakes of all kinds.

Now another guy (some of you may laugh at this one) who could really help in the attack of linebackers, is fullback, Jamize Olawale. At 6-1, 240, he runs like a running back and catches like a receiver. In fact, he played receiver in high school. This is a guy who could be the forgotten man in certain packages and plays---wide open in the flat because everyone was focused on guys like Zeke, Beasley and Austin. And beyond that, if the coaches are smart, they will use him as an H-back or "move TE" in some packages to keep defenses guessing and continue with the assault on the ‘backers.

And of course, there are screen plays of all kinds. Each year I hope for more screen plays. When Zeke gashed the Steelers with that 80 yard score on a simple screen, I thought "Okay, now we are going to see far more of these" Not so much. Hopefully this year we’ll see more of them.

And then we come to the tight ends. I now have little doubt that the tight end will continue to play a prominent role in Dallas this fall. Jason Garrett is far too stubborn to let this position fade in prominence. I think he and Linehan are quietly confident in the young guys that are about to step up. And as much as I’ve wanted to hype Rico Gathers, I don’t even include him in my thinking here. I still think that monster has a chance to be great somewhere, but I’m resigned to the idea that he simply wont be ready in time to make this club.

This is going to be about Dalton Shultz as a blocker and occasional receiver and Blake Jarwin as a receiver and occasional blocker.

The exciting part is that these are young, talented guys that opposing defenses have no film on. They aren’t HOF’s, but they aren’t 35, either. They will be quicker and less predictable than what the Eagles, Giants and Washington Redskins are accustomed to seeing. Sure, the routes will be the same, but every tight end has his own way of manipulating the defended that is covering him. Every player has his "tell". But these guys are new within this offense and new can be helpful. I’m not saying TE production will go up, but it will still be a vital part of attacking linebackers, especially since these are inexperienced guys that DCs are going to feel good about covering with LBs. Where I think the advantage will lie, is in attacking the seam. I think these guys will be quick enough to surprise the LB and take it somewhat deep up the middle for a nice 20-yard strike now and then.

Dallas is uniquely positioned to make every game about linebackers, which is a good thing, because they are loaded at the position. But, as I’ve laid out above, it’s also a great thing because very few clubs have the potential to attack opposing linebackers like the Cowboys could do. It will require ongoing creativity, though, which is where I have my concerns.

Will Garrett/Linehan realize that just because they get great production from a handful of new plays executed by new players, it doesn’t mean they can ride them all the way to a championship? Will they continue to innovate as the year goes along?

Will they allow the opponents scouting video that builds as the season progresses become the very thing that sets up those teams for even newer plays that look identical to the "old new plays" but take the ball aggressively in a different direction?

Will they incorporate more smash-mouth spread concepts together with RPOs that maximize the lethality of the players on this roster?

My guess is that four weeks in we’ll see if their new stuff works. But six weeks in, we’ll see if they’re going to continue to add much needed wrinkles as the season rolls along. If they will just do us all that solid favor, this year could be the year of linebacker dominance for Dallas, on both sides of the ball, and all the way to a championship.

Here’s hoping

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