When Rob Ryan constructed a way to slow down the Atlanta Falcons, he had to do it in a way that accounted for a team with plenty of weapons who are either at-or-above the average NFL level for a starter at each skill position.
Roddy White and Julio Jones might be the deadliest pair of starting receivers in the NFL at this time. Tony Gonzalez needs no introduction and draws all sorts of match-up issues. Michael Turner and Jaquizz Rodgers are both headaches out of the back field. Even their depth receivers are competent. Clearly, Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith have gotten things right and as Roddy White said in training camp, "They Can't Double Us All".
So, when the Cowboys have to play them, without Sean Lee, and with a middle linebacker who was unemployed a month ago and a safety who was 4th string when camp opened now as starters, you can understand why this wasn't the most aggressive game-plan ever assembled.
The Cowboys were going to play mostly soft zones and make the Falcons drive the ball down the field by demonstrating pin-point accuracy and avoiding any mistakes. The zone obviously lowers your risk factor as a defense and allows a strength in numbers approach where one player can bust and usually someone else is close by to bring down the carrier.
But, a very high number of explosive plays were found in the passing game for Atlanta and most of them were against a 7-man zone. It is a league where completions are going to happen, but you certainly don't want to give up 9 pass plays of 18 yards or more in one game. That is yards in big chunks and while anyone can argue that holding Atlanta under 20 points is an accomplished mission, we better not get carried away with any notions of having "shut down" the Atlanta attack.
To fully understand the Cowboys strategy, it isn't a bad idea to consider the ideas they had earlier in the game where they wanted to play a fair amount of man coverage behind blitzes and other more high-risk plays. But, they were comfortably burned twice in the 1st Quarter. One play, where we saw the deep shot to Julio Jones which we broke down yesterday, and again later in the 1st Quarter on the play below where the Cowboys decided to play "press man" on 3rd Down and 7 late in the 1st. It is what is called 2-man or 2 deep, man under.
The Falcons had no issue breaking this coverage down because they knew that if anyone is going to try to press Roddy White, they would just drag him across the field and thank them for that opportunity. It takes an accurate throw, but the rest is quite easy for this Atlanta tandem as Claiborne plays well, but is beat by a nice throw.
So, they tried riskier coverages earlier twice and Matt Ryan seemed to have a laugh with both of them. This scared the Cowboys off into a situation where they played predominantly zone coverages the rest of the night. This wasn't going to stop Ryan, either, but it would make them drive the ball rather than allowing bigger plays.
Let's see how these plays looked from the coaches' film and see if the Cowboys had zones that looked the part.
Here is one from late in the 2nd Quarter - This will demonstrate how complicated a proper zone coverage can actually be. The Falcons are expecting zone, so their tight splits are not an accident as the entire league knows that tight splits and bunch formations are all about causing confusion for zone coverages. If every defender sees the coverage responsibilities exactly the same, there will be sound coverage. But, if one player might get the wrong guy, now you will have players running free in the middle of your zone.
But, on this occasion, it appears everyone was misreading their assignments, leaving White, Gonzalez, and Jones as the only three players in the middle of the field. BY THEMSELVES!
Ryan takes the easy throw to White and he turns and runs untouched for 20 yards.
Below, is a play from early in the 3rd Quarter. From this point on, we will see a ton of shallow/deep combos which is zone-busting 101. The idea is to send one receiver into the flat and draw the middle linebacker up in his coverage and then slip the receiver behind him on an "in-breaking" route. This works easily if the safeties are dropping extra deep. And if you watch the Cowboys for a moment, you see that McCray and Sensabaugh are as deep as you will ever see safeties on most plays - often 30 yards back.
Below, Jones runs his dig at about 14 yards and Ryan puts it on him before he fully makes his break.
Here is a crucial play in the 3rd Quarter where the Cowboys have Atlanta in a 3rd and long. But, you will remember this one as a play where the Cowboys are not lined up and have chaos all over the place as they try to get 11 players on the field. It is actually impossible to guess the coverage they are supposed to be in here, because they look as unorganized as possible.
I am not a proponent of wasting timeouts, but when your opponent is in a 3rd and 12, you have a very important opportunity that cannot be thrown away like this. Unacceptable, really.
This may be tough to see, but White runs a diagonal route and then sits in the zone while the Cowboys try to figure out what coverage they are supposed to be in. This is a good spot to see that the safeties are at 40 yards deep, leaving White a giant cushion between the linebackers and safeties of nearly 20 yards.
Here is the very next play, and the Falcons basically go back to the same well. White in the slot on the right goes all the way across the middle zone defender (Carter). Then, with Jones running deep, he sits in behind him in this giant area that is now freshly vacated.
It is a more difficult throw than last time, but Ryan makes these throws in his sleep. Safeties are back respecting Jones, and White sneaks in beneath him. Atlanta layers its attack to where they have 3 levels. Jones deep, White at 15-20 yards, and Gonzalez/Rodgers below that in case the linebackers get too deep.
In other words, they are ready for your zone idea.
This is the last one I will show you today. Early 4th Quarter. Again, notice the tight splits. Notice how the Cowboys are not disguising their coverage at all. If you ever want to see what a zone looks like in pre-snap, you generally don't need to look any further than the direction of the cornerbacks' rear end. If his tail is facing the sideline, they are in zone. If it is facing the end zone or the inside of the field, they are in man. Of course, he may be disguising it, but Mike Jenkins is certainly not here.
Look at 21 across from Jones tell Ryan what coverage they are playing.
Now, look, shallow route to occupy the linebackers, and an in-breaking route away from the zone corner to the middle of the field - with deep safety drops. Pitch and catch. Candy and babies. Over and over and over again. It gets worse as Jones breaks a poor tackle effort from Sensabaugh and runs for a 48 yard gain.
So, in conclusion, the zones are here to stay with the Cowboys not believing that their linebackers and safeties are ready to take off the training wheels.
With safeties dropping so deep, the Cowboys zone has giant gaps in it - especially at 15 yards to the middle of the field. This happens to be one of the few places Michael Vick throws the ball well.
You can bet that the Eagles are looking at this film and praying for similar treatment for their weapons. No blitzes and soft zones do not seem like the proper approach on Sunday against the Eagles.