The Cowboys offense actually made sense for the first time in a month and it caused reactions from a lot of people ranging from excitement of what the future could hold to anger and wondering "where has that been?" Honestly, if Wade Phillips had as little to do with the offense that we thought he did, then why did it take his exit for the offense to suddenly look like it knew what it was doing?
Common sense things like challenging your offensive line to take the game physically to its opponent seems like the most obvious game plan you could have, and yet the Cowboys appear to have played as passive an offensive game plan as you can imagine From Week 5 in Minnesota until the very end of their destruction in Green Bay. You can suggest that there are logical reasons for the passivity, and alibi about the scoreboard, but basic truths of football cannot be ignored; You must play football with an edge. And if you are having your OLine constantly backing up and never firing forward, they can never have an edge.
But was it a mere mirage? Now we can find out against a Detroit team that struggles in many departments, but they have 2 things in great supply: 1) a Defensive front that can dominate you if you aren't ready to fight. and 2) great supplies of effort and energy which is a direct reflection of their challenging coach, Jim Schwartz. He preaches passion and desire, and his troops seem to respond by making every game a 60-minute battle of wills.
Before we go down that road any further, I wanted to share with you some interesting numbers about the Cowboys 4 more popular targets in the passing game for their QB's. Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Roy Williams, and Jason Witten. The first numbers are their season numbers on passes going their direction for all 9 games:
Target Distribution - Season To Date
This demonstrates the exceptional season of Dez Bryant, the mixed results of Miles Austin (still very solid, but it is interesting to see how his performance has been uneven since September), the odd season of Jason Witten (still productive, but not the same ol' Witten), and the so/so Roy Williams campaign (that some have over-rated due to his low bar of expectations and their desire to see him succeed).
Now, I want to break it in half. The next chart you will see are the first 5 games - the games that Tony Romo started and finished:
Target Distribution - Before Romo Injury
Clearly Miles Austin was all-world at this point and Roy Williams was playing very well. The Witten production was very low (as defenses are covering him differently based on his career arc and the tendencies of Romo), and Dez was just getting his feet wet.
Finally, here are the numbers for games 6-9, or the games that have been Kitna's games:
Target Distribution - Since Romo Injury
Amazing, right? The first shall be last. The last shall be first. Would this have happened if Romo was still here? Was Dez Bryant going to explode on the scene in this portion of the season (now that he is more acclimated to the offense) regardless of the passer? Was Roy going to level off? Was Witten going to normalize anyway? Don't know. But, those 3 looks at the target production
1) - Interior Line vs Suh and Williams - There is no doubt that the Giants have a very strong defensive front, but they are best on the defensive end. The Lions have a strong defensive front 4, with Cliff Avril and Ryan Vanden Bosch on the ends, Corey Williams and Ndamukong Suh in the middle - so the real battle is in the middle. Buffalo stuck their Left Guard and Center to double team Suh on nearly every play, because if they didn't, he is a real threat to dominate the entire game like he did a few weeks earlier against Washington. Clearly, this is a spot where the Cowboys have been vulnerable, and if they wish to display some physicality, they will have to get their 3 middle OL men (Kosier, Gurode, and Davis) to win the battle in the middle with those 2 giant and quick DTs. This is where the game can be won. Suh is a true game changer, even though he is merely a rookie. His sack total is amazing
2) - Take The Game At The Defense - As I have been trying to point out all week, there was a dramatic departure from the offensive posture of 2010 and a return to the more physical, aggressive posture of 2009. Because they thought their OL was weak, it was as if they were protecting them through the Wade Phillips run. Why Jason Garrett immediately changed that attitude when he was named head coach is a great debate topic - as in, why did he wait so long if all he had to do was begin to demand better - but, the bottom line is it worked like a charm. Suddenly, they could run the ball a bit, pass out of run formations, and keep the Giants off balance throughout. Now, hopefully, the days of nothing but shotgun and 3 WR will be reserved for 3rd Down, 2 minute drills, and when trailing by double digits (which also hopefully will be rare). I don't think the sample size of last Sunday is enough to declare a change in direction. We need to see it sustain, and Sunday is a great opportunity to see what this offense can do against a defense that is physical up front and has some decent LB play, especially in the middle from 54 DeAndre Levy. Physical play should be expected and delivered.
3) - Pass from Run Heavy Formations - This was the real beauty of the game plan last week is that once you establish the willingness to consider a power run posture, then the defense has to match up and bring on another LB or S to deal with your Running game. They have to sneak another player into the box, and that is when you can strike down field with a man to man situation that plays right into your hands. The Cowboys had passing opportunities downfield more and it is a simple math issue. When you run 4 targets against 6 DBs, there is much less space, but if there are 9 or 10 up tight and Miles or Dez against 1 DB with perhaps a safety trying to help, there is nothing but green grass. It wouldn't work exclusively, but there are opportunities to be had if you pick the proper down and distance. On running downs take a shot up top and get a big gainer.
4) - Stress the Safeties - We are starting to see this is a byproduct of those last 2 objectives. If you can have pass/run balance, the safeties are left guessing. Further, if you have 2 "X" receiver types that demand coverage, then you can also keep the "Single-High" safety guessing which sideline he needs to help. The Cowboys did a nice job of getting the safety to take a false step last week and going the other way. Dez is getting more and more coverage each week, which means in theory, more chances will be coming back to Miles Austin's way. And when all of this happens is when the Cowboys offense is really a handful. Hard to believe a 2-7 team can have this many ways to hurt you on offense, but it is what it is. Keep an eye on 26-Louis Delmas, who was the safety the Cowboys really wanted in the 2009 draft, but there was no way he was going to slide all the way to the Cowboys. Instead, the Lions grabbed him with the 1st pick of the 2nd round and are delighted with his ability. In a league where you need a big-hitting, difference making safety to have a proper defense, Delmas looks like a real find.
Summary: The Lions have a few very nice pieces and plenty of fight. They are also not very good. They have not won a road game since October 28, 2007. That day, the Lions won at Chicago with Jon Kitna and Roy Williams leading the way. Since then, they have lost every single road game - 25 in a row. It will be a fine test of the physical battle at the line of scrimmage. But, in the end, I would sure like to believe that the Cowboys can win a home game and that the Lions will not end their streak in Arlington.
Bob Sturm is host of BaD Radio on The Ticket 1310 AM Mondays through Fridays at 12-3 p.m. He also hosts The Ticket's Cowboys pregame show. Follow Bob on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bobanddan Bob offers his exclusive analysis after games on SportsDayDFW.com
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