The Colts defense has always been an object of much conjecture and blamed largely for any of the Colts shortcomings over the years. But, what it has accomplished has often been because they have been able to establish a consistent pass rush that many teams have tried to imitate, but often unable to duplicate. Two rushers on the edge that can both get to the QB on a regular basis.
In 2002, the Colts drafted an under-sized defensive end from Syracuse at #11 in the 1st Round named Dwight Freeney. In his 8.5 seasons rushing from the edge for the Colts, he has 91 sacks and counting.
Then, in 2003, the Colts drafted Dallas Clark in the 1st Round. But, in the 5th, at pick #138, they were able to find a small college defensive end from Alabama A&M named Robert Mathis. Still wildly underrated in most circles, in 7 1/2 seasons, he has put up 70.5 sacks. In would likely shock many people to find out that his career is already Top 10 in career sacks amongst current players behind only guys like Jason Taylor, DeMarcus Ware, Jared Allen, and Julius Peppers.
Together, that is over 160 sacks in less than 8 years. Exactly what every team wants when they try to find an "Alpha Dog" pass rusher, and then pair him with another end who can make every team pick their poison. Double team one of them if you wish, but there is no way to double team both of them without getting killed in the middle of the field the entire game. Not only that, but if you try this, you will not be able to get your Tight End or Running Backs into any sort of pass routes and you will be reduced to max-protect pass plays with 7 men kept in.
We thought the Cowboys had a similar situation when they saw Anthony Spencer break out late in 2009. Unfortunately, he has regressed with the sack totals and has only 3 in the first 11 games, and 13.5 sacks in his first 4 seasons. Granted, his playing time in the first few seasons was limited, but the idea that DeMarcus Ware has a similar threat on the opposite side to keep offenses honest. Now, unless we see another resurgence from Spencer, the Cowboys might go into the offseason wondering if they can ever find their Robert Mathis.
1) - Continue to Find Felix's Spots - Again, I don't want to make too big a deal about this because the Felix Jones' year has been disappointing given that he sits at just 448 yards after 11 games. 40 yards rushing per game is not going to get Canton stirring. But, if you add in his 350 yards through the air, then suddenly, you have 800 total yards of offense and a real stiff screen game that seems like an obvious match-up issue and plays to his strengths in space. The trend really has been in the last 3 games, so although we don't understand why the firing of Wade Phillips would cause more screen passes in space to Felix Jones, at least we see that they are happening and being properly executed. If Felix Jones can generate 100 total yards of offense, then suddenly you have something that could resemble the role of Brian Westbrook with the Eagles for all of those years. That, of course, is very high praise, but sometimes the idea that you are going to make him a traditional "between the tackles" Cowboys RB is just not fitting of the skill set. Work with what he does well. And he has looked very impressive in the open field since the coaching change.
2) - Get Dez Bryant Going - Another trend that is apparent, but less attractive, would be the down turn of the last few weeks for the rookie phenom, Dez Bryant. 539 yards through 9 games is very impressive, but he sits now at 547 yards through 11. I do want to concede that concerns I had last Friday about the tantrum on the sideline during the Saints game has since been explained as unhappiness resulting from his illegal shift penalty in the 4th Quarter, rather than the possibility that he was throwing a fit about not getting the ball. If he is upset that his penalty cost the Cowboys a relatively substantial gain on a Marion Barber carry that was called back because of that presnap foul, as it appeared, then I think that might show a lack of composure, but a heart in the right place. Regardless, he has been one of the few Cowboys who has been consistent in his competitiveness, so I am not going to spend any time complaining that he is too competitive now. Now, I will simply complain that I need the Cowboys to find ways to get him involved. Work the ball to him early, and let him use his talents to change the game early.
3) - Pass from Run Heavy Formations - The best way for the Cowboys to consistently move the ball down the field is to try to keep the under center/shotgun ratio where it needs to be. It was interesting earlier this week to see Hudson Houck blame his offensive line for the lack of much of a running game this season. And he has been correct. it has been a horrendous year for his offensive line and although it is next to impossible to measure how much of that has been a tactical mess versus performance being subpar, the fact of the matter is it needs to improve posthaste. But, when this team does show some level of mystery in its offensive strategy when it breaks the huddle - meaning, don't declare in the presnap that you are heading into Shotgun with 3 WRs - it seems to have greater success. Of course, don't fall behind 17-0 if you want to see this continue, and that will start with not being your own worst enemy on offense with such things as an interception and a ridiculous shotgun snap when your QB is not ready on 3rd Down. But, when you get a chance, crank up 2 TEs, and make the defense declare - then pounce on whatever they weaken.
4) - Help the Tackles Hold Off The Quick Ends - As we started with this game plan, there is no doubt what makes the Colts particularly difficult in their house. They are very good at jumping the snap count and getting around the corner. The Cowboys have been pretty good at dealing with pass rushers this year, but with the last few games, we have seen that Doug Free may not be completely solid in a 1-on-1 with a guy like Freeney. Freeney loves to drop the shoulder like Ware and use quickness to turn the corner, and then counter that move with a quick spin to the inside. Either way, you cannot send too much help his way, because we assume that Marc Colombo will need some assistance on his side against Mathis. The good news is that there is not much interior push from the Colts, but those edge defenders are most difficult to deal with.
Summary: Much like last week against the Saints, when you play an elite offense, your own offense has to figure out a way to generate yardage, time of possession, and ultimately, about 30 points. Certainly not an easy task, but after seeing 445 yards on Thanksgiving, we should not expect a feeble offensive effort. The question will be whether they can keep up. The key there doesn't seem to be a lack of explosiveness, but rather the propensity for not being able to always get that 3rd or 4th Down conversion at the moment of truth. The offense has to be extra efficient to win on the road, but the Colts have shown the last several weeks that they are quite beatable. This Colts defense appears to have some generosity in it.
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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