When we started breaking down the Cowboys offense on the Dallas Morning News a few months ago, it was great to get plenty of positive feedback and people who were enjoying this type of analysis for the first time. What was amusing, however, were those who were concerned that "we were giving Cowboys opponents too much information". Anyone in the NFL would snicker at that comment, because there are no secrets in the NFL.
I say all that because 8 days ago, the Dallas Cowboys ran a very curious and disconcerting game plan against a Minnesota Vikings front that can often over-power their opponents under the strength of their front 4 alone. It was a series of quick release passes and edge plays that were meant to minimize the DL vs OL matchup because in my mind, Jason Garrett knew he couldn't win a battle of strength in a head to head matchup (his 5 vs the Minnesota 4). I just can't come up with any other explanation. Given the chance it seemed to work for most of the game, you would expect Garrett to revisit this game plan because his Offensive Line will likely not get better with time. Tennessee and Minnesota both demonstrated to us that the Cowboys line is what seems to be holding the Cowboys back. To win games, the Cowboys will need to figure things out that work around their issues. This is what coaching is all about. Find the opponents weaknesses, while hiding your own.
Enter the New York Giants.
Right now, the Giants have a front 4 that may not be an exact carbon copy of the Vikings front - they don't seem to have any tackle that can quite match what Kevin Williams can do, but they are very, very good.
This has been the plan for several years in New York - continue to fortify the front 4 of the defense with depth and quality and spend many resources in that department. Their philosophy is a very sound one - if you have a dominant front, one which can get to the QB without the support of blitzers, then you can cover up personnel deficiencies in other areas of your defense with relative ease.
And if you have watched much of the Giants season, you will admit that is exactly what they have done. They now run the scheme of new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, the Tampa 2 scheme which is happy to surrender the underneath routes in exchange for making you drive the ball down the field with many short steps. As you can see, this doesn't really bode well for the Cowboys strengths.
They can get there with 4 guys and defend with 7. They are not a perfect defense - the Colts and the Titans both seemed to be able to make all sorts of things happen, but that was a month ago. Since then, the Giants have made quick work of the Bears, Texans, and let their mind wander a bit against the Lions before finishing them off. One could make the case that in early September they were still trying to figure things out, but as they have become more comfortable, they have become more destructive.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys know their margin for error is minimal. They must put drives together. Let's look at some of the obvious objectives:
1) - Establish The Fight - I think football is rather difficult when you don't believe your offensive line can compete. The trouble is that it is Game 6 of a 16 game season. I think it is unhealthy and pessimistic to get too carried away about their quality. I think you owe it to the team to challenge the OL to stand up to this challenge rather than run 17 screen passes and never use your WR talent downfield. This is the team that you brought out of training camp believing you could take the physical battle to your opponent. In 2009, this same Giants team was carved up by the Cowboys, with the run game knocking them silly for 248 yards on 29 carries. In "22" personnel, the Cowboys carved up the Giants for 121 yards on 10 carries. Almost everyone on each side of the ball is similar (Deon Anderson and Kyle Kosier are gone) so I would hate to think that the Cowboy staff would not even dare to go back to that well. But, against the Vikings, it was not a very high priority. I think you must decide to put the onus on the OL to stand up for themselves. But, whether it is the running game or just making sure Romo isn't assaulted like Jay Cutler was (9 sacks in 1 half), they need to step up.
2) - Tony Romo must be in control - Whenever the Cowboys do not play up to their expectations, the QB will get blame. Is it fair? Ask Danny White. Ask Don Meredith. Ask Craig Morton. Ask anyone who has ever played the position in this city. Tony Romo is now being picked apart about things like "leadership" and other intangible terms that cannot be objectively analyzed. I honestly have no idea what kind of leader he is, but I can look at his performance with metrics that we all agree are worth something. In the NFL, a QB rating is our best way to see if the QB is part of the problem or part of the solution. 90 or above in the QB Rating department is thought of as "Top 10". Year after year, Tony has been in the Top 10 in the league in this category. For his career he is 95.5 - In 2006, 95.1; In 2007, 97.4; In 2008, 91.4; In 2009, it peaked at 97.6; and so far this year, it is at a solid 93.6. I am not trying to tell you he has been great this year, but QB play has not been a glaring weakness. His career completion percentage of 64% has actually risen all the way to 69.4 (2nd in the NFL to Drew Brees 70.6% entering the weekend). He needs to make more plays at the moment of truth. In 4th Quarters this year, his rating drops to 83, and he has thrown 3 of his 7 picks in the final Quarter, with the Wash, Chi, Tenn, and Minn games still on the line. I cannot measure his leadership any better than the talking heads, but I do know that this team needs its QB to win games at the end. He has to pick his spot and make the play. He must be in control.
3) - Miles Austin, Roy Williams, and Dez Bryant must be the key to the plan - I know they have tried Miles Austin in a number of creative ways to get the ball in his hands (reverses, screens, and other gimmicks), but what ever happened to max-protect take a shot for the bomb? I think every game plan must have this in 1 or 2 times a half, and the Cowboys sometimes go weeks between shots down the field. 12 play drives are so difficult to put together, because it only takes one minus play to sabotage the whole thing. You now have 3 receivers who all seem to present some stress on secondaries. We know that the Giants secondary is not at the top of the league. If you have a moment, you can find some nice things downfield. Romo needs time, but he also needs the play to be called. If the Cowboys are going to ask him to throw passes behind the line of scrimmage, his completion percentage will rise - but the points won't. This WR corp is dangerous, but they need chances to prove it. I think Garrett needs to throw some caution to the wind and see if it pays off to back the defense way off.
4) - Doug Free vs Osi Umenyiora - We saw an interesting thing in the last few weeks. The Cowboys appear to trust Doug Free. I am not saying it is every play in every situation, but if you ask me to tell you which tackle is receiving less help these days, I would tell you it is their prized Left Tackle, Doug Free. Somehow, the man who was the majority of our worries has developed into the least of our worries. He has yet to give up a sack, and has but one holding penalty. Well, this week, that will be tested yet again (by the way, you know why left tackles make so much money? He has dealt with Brian Orakpo (until Orakpo flipped sides), Julius Peppers, Mario Williams, and Jared Allen already.) as Osi comes calling. Osi has been an absolute beast in the last 3 weeks with 7 of his 8 sacks coming against the Bears, Texans, and Lions. Not only that, but he has forced fumbles on 6 of those 7 sacks! That is flat-out obscene. Our DeMarcus Ware - also of Troy State - has 7 sacks this year for 0 forced fumbles. Osi is not the only guy to get to the QB, but he remains the biggest threat. Justin Tuck is there, too, and the depth is amazing, but it all starts with #72. Free is capable, we are finding, but he is facing a red-hot buzz saw tonight.
Summary: I feel strongly that this passive game plan business can not be in the cards tonight. Home game, division opponent, and the sharks are circling. Screen passes in moderation, but overall, this needs to be about attacking with the weapons that are obvious. The Cowboys may go down in flames this year, but let's see them sink or swim on the merits of their own performance - not on the protection of the coaching staff. Attack!
If they can get that balance game going again (like in Houston), they can beat the Giants at home. Turnovers and penalties pending, the Cowboys can move the ball on the New York Giants. Let's see them do it.