Thursday, October 07, 2010

Game Plan Friday: Defense vs Titans

ON DEFENSE: The Cowboys defense is coming off its best game of the season as they did a fantastic job of limiting a Texans offense that is thought of as powerful and dangerous to almost nothing. This week, they play one of the best Running Backs in football, but an overall offense that has very little that could be described as dangerous.

The Topic of the 2008 RB Draft has been well covered this week and by now you have been reminded that the Cowboys took Felix Jones at #22, the Steelers grabbed Rashard Mendenhall #23, and then the Titans landed Chris Johnson #24. The 3 will be forever linked and at this moment, here is where they each are in terms of running the football at this level:

PlayerCareer GamesRush YardsRush TDs
Felix Jones2310396
Rashard Mendenhall24157711
Chris Johnson35358827

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Obviously, each has come with his own unique brand of circumstances, and we will never know if Dallas made the same pick that Pittsburgh or Tennessee would have done in the same spot. However, the only thing people wonder about Chris Johnson is if his sub-200 pound frame can maintain this level of productivity. His yardage is down a bit this season, and many are considering the loss of Alge Crumpler to be a main culprit.

But regardless, Chris Johnson is a special player and clearly the biggest threat for this run first offense.

At QB, Vince Young is an amazingly odd study. In a league where winning is the only thing, he is 28-15 as a starter. And yet, he oversees an offense that can never seem to mount any sort of successful production. The team clearly played better when he led them in 2009 (8-2 as a starter) and yet he threw for 200 yards just 4 times during that run and only once did he eclipse 300 yards. This season, he has started all 4 games and played 7 of the 8 halves, and has only 511 yards passing (League Leader Kyle Orton has 1419 yards so far). In 4 games! His throwing motion lacks fundamentals. He seems to have an inconsistent pocket presence. And yet, his team seems to leave the field with a win 2 out of every 3 games.


1) - Keep Contain on the Edges - A pretty basic concept to playing OLB in the 3-4 defense is to turn everything back to the inside. Well, when playing Chris Johnson and the Titans - a team who since the start of 2009 has more 20 yard runs (28) and more 50 yard runs (7) than any team in the NFL - this is especially vital. For comparison purposes, the Cowboys have 14 and 2 in those last 2 categories. For DeMarcus Ware and for Anthony Spencer, the objective is not to run around like a mad man and pursue the play because that is when you get caught up in over-pursuit. And if you allow Johnson to break contain, he turns the corner and is gone. This starts with turning everything back inside. The trouble with this point of emphasis is that Tennessee builds plays to defeat it anyway. Here is one of my favorites:

This example is not even Chris Johnson - it is his backup, Javon Ringer. But, you get the concept - push the OLB back inside and then pull LT and LG to get on the DBs down the field. Get the corner and gone:

2) - Win The Early Downs - Watch the Titans play for 2 seconds and it is quite obvious to see what the Titans do well and what they most certainly do not do so well. Tennessee will not convert on 3rd and long very often because their offense is just not set up for it. If you can put the game on the shoulders of their QB and their Wide Receivers, then you can beat the Titans right into the ground. They are 25th in the NFL in 3rd and 4 yards or more. 31st in the NFL in 3rd and 10 or more. For the Titans to win with their offense they absolutely must win 1st and 2nd Down or get huge plays. If you can be stout against the run (which we know the Cowboys are) then the Dallas defense will be in a great spot. Young doesn't beat you with his arm very often, and when he does it is not down the field.

3) - No Explosives Allowed - Having watched the Titans play their last 3 games, I am pretty convinced that they are not going to beat you on long drives down the field. The pass catchers just do not stress you. They run the ball early and often and there is a bit of a Barry Sanders element to the running game in that they know that many of their carries are going to go for 2 yards or less, but if they stay committed to the premise of running the ball, eventually they will bust one. And if they bust one or two huge plays over the course of the game, then they believe they can beat you. Ask the Giants, who tried to play turnover roulette with the Titans and were routed at home. This is a team that needs big plays, but they generally only get them on the ground. There are almost no teams in the NFL like Tennessee, but they have a proven formula that has won a lot of games under their coach Jeff Fisher. The Cowboys need to make sure they do not make the TItans job easier by busting on defense.

4) - Key On Tight Ends - In 2003, the Dallas Cowboys were led in receptions by a WR by Terry Glenn with 52. That is the last time they had a WR lead them with a catch total below 70. In 2004, Derrick Mason led the Titans with 96 catches. That is the last time the Titans had a receiver catch more than 55 balls in a season. Let that sink in. Most seasons, they don't have a single WR get to 50 catches, and all seasons since 2004 (6 seasons since) they have had no WR over 55. And this year appears to be no different as Nate Washington is on pace to get to 56 if he keeps his normal pace. They have no ability to get WRs open on a regular basis, so Young consistently finds RBs and TEs as his general targets. This makes for a very feeble offense, but it also plays to the Cowboys coverage weakness - Keith Brooking and Bradie James in coverage. If the Titans can force the LBs into coverage, they may get something going. I am eager to see Sean Lee on the field Sunday.

My esteemed colleague TC Fleming wrote a nice summary of the Titans aerial attack here and their option read Here and I would recommend you check those out, too.

Summary: There is no doubt that the Cowboys will be quite angry with themselves if they are unsuccessful as a defense on Sunday. They are at home and have a chance to get back to 2-2 following an off week. They are playing an offense that doesn't put many points on the board. And their ability to stop the run is being challenged. I fully expect an effort where Dallas keeps Tennessee well below 20 points.

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