Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Decoding Linehan - Week 9 - Pittsburgh


Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs over the goal line for a touchdown ahead of Pittsburgh Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell (23) during the fourth quarter of their game on Sunday, November 13, 2016 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Cowboys won 35-30.  (Ashley Landis/The Dallas Morning News)
Ashley Landis/Staff Photographer
Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs over the goal line for a touchdown ahead of Pittsburgh Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell (23) during the fourth quarter of their game on Sunday, November 13, 2016 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Cowboys won 35-30. (Ashley Landis/The Dallas Morning News)
We have certainly entered the point in this season where we should not be marveling at the Dallas Cowboys' accomplishments given how frequently they have occurred.  But, forgive me for looking at their trip to Pittsburgh with a somewhat "wait and see" attitude, because I knew Pittsburgh was going to put everything it had on the table and it would be one more test to see what this Scott Linehan offense could do in a hostile situation.

Well, they ran up another 400 yards, 35 points, and pretty much demonstrated they can beat anyone, anywhere.  This offense travels as well as any in football, and they have a few weapons that prove together that you can't handle them all.  
Eight straight wins.  Several of them knockouts.  This one was an NBA-style "whoever has the ball last" feel to it, and with a rookie QB, the Cowboys had to make some high-leveraged third-down conversions that are as good as you would expect from any franchise QB in the sport.  Yes, this running game is the leading component, but without quality QB play, this train cannot run this fast.  To minimize Dak Prescott's season feels like a purely agenda-driven play at this point.  He has continued to knock down every challenge and has done so in a way that leaves room for improvement and yet puts him among the league leaders in many of the toughest categories for his position.  
The offense has not been below 24 points since Week 1.  They have not been below 400 yards since Week 2.  They haven't been below 220 yards passing since 2015.  They haven't lost a game since September 11.  
And they have just run through three road games in four weeks like it was nothing.  They are 8-1.  
I look at these numbers and then hear all the noise about who should be QB and it is really puzzling.  I have the highest regard for Tony Romo and am sure his time will come again (perhaps sooner than we think).  But I will say this: If he was the QB of this team right now, there isn't a Cowboys fan alive who would not start booking rooms for Super Bowl LI.  This team -- this offense, especially -- is playing at an elite level, and it seems this hang-up about who is doing it is causing the angst in Cowboys land right now.  
No rookie QB has ever won a Super Bowl, right?  
I can't help you there.  There are no promises that 8-1 turns into that.  But, I can tell, you as someone who follows sports closely, that there is generally a first time for everything.  I will also remind you that no QB who is Romo's age who had never already been to even a Conference Championship Game has ever won a Super Bowl, either.  
So, if you are looking for something that has been done before, the 2016 Cowboys might not be your jam.  
But, if you like a team that appears to be doing many things very well, check out this offense.  They are fantastic.  
We changed it this week (we means John Daigle), by making all of Dez targets a star.  
He continues to use the sidelines to stay out of trouble.  If you can pass for this many yards and never challenge safeties' air-space, then so be it.  
Also, Pittsburgh brought a lot of heat that we had not seen a lot of early.  There is no question that teams are tired of Dak being comfortable and now want to see if they can rattle him.  Well, Philadelphia provided some belief, but look how he quieted that down this week:
Like any talented young player, Prescott was shown a weakness and went to work to fix it.  Much better work in Pittsburgh that future opponents will now have to study.  He carved some blitzes up. 
I will be honest, I planned on making this plenty about Ezekiel Elliott.  He is getting ignored a bit too much in these reports as we discuss the passing game each week, but I will quickly confess that Zeke is on my short list for NFL MVP.  I assume he has rookie of the year locked up, so we might as well figure out if he can just haul off and get the league's highest honor for an individual.
He is an absurd game breaker and I am reminded constantly about my draft stance.  It is articulated here that "he better be Adrian Peterson"and he better be a star if you are going to use a pick like that on a RB (which is almost always a bad play).  Well, guess what, he seems to be of that quality.  Now, he just needs some Adrian-like longevity.  
Let's look at some video from Sunday:
This is the first play of the game.  Nothing special here, but I want you to watch how Pittsburgh has to play that end-around motion from 83-Williams honest.  They stay wide in case he gets the ball and that opens up some inside lanes for Elliott.  
It is setting something up.
Once again, fake the end around, Elliott down the middle.  Steelers stay wide to play it honest, which opens up a bigger crease inside.  This time it is Whitehead.  Again, sinking in a hook by making them think that this means it is always going to be an inside run, right?
The third time, it is play-action.  So, the fake end-around, then the play-action fake.  Now, Dez Bryant is deep.  So, there are three places where the Pittsburgh defense is playing it close as they are uncertain of where the ball is going.  Now, Linehan calls for option No. 4.  The screen to the opposite side as the end-around action.  Guard-Center-Guard are out in front.  This is where the Steelers start cussing in unison.  
There is just so much to look at on this play.  I have watched each player.  Watch Leary.  Frederick.  Martin.  Shazier.  Williams.  It is beautiful to behold.  And then, Elliott.  A game-breaker who doesn't get caught from behind.  If he gets a crease, it is a touchdown.  What a weapon.
A masterpiece.
Here is another.  Third-and-11 from midfield.  Pittsburgh is bringing the house to rattle the rookie.  What happens next?
You may wish to check out what Jason Witten said on the radio with us Monday to properly enjoy this: 
There is so much to look at here.  Max-protect.  The Cowboys run three verticals against Cover-1 man coverage and therefore, the safety has to pick his poison.  Prescott holds him to the right and then unleashes a beauty.  Meanwhile the protection holds up just well enough.  Let's look from the end zone.  
Do you want to see elite QB play?  This is it.  His subtle movement in the pocket here to allow this and then to put a 50-yard pass on the money is as good as it can be.  The protection from little Lance Dunbar on Ryan Shazier is barely enough.  But, given how well Tyron holds up, Dak has space to move.  Then the throw is to the field (not the sideline) and the play turns the game on its ear.  
This one is great, too.  Third and 8.  In field goal range.  Witten talks about this one, above, too.  The old Cowboys take the field goal, but these guys believe that their rookie QB can make a throw and move the chains.  And he is right.  Witten's Y-option to the outside.  Have you seen this before?  Yes.  Of course.  
Fourth and 6 against the Lions in the 2014 playoffs.  Y-option to the inside.  
He just uses the leverage of the defender against him.  What a great player.  
One more play here.  We will call it the kill-shot.
Elliott is great.  But, the real MVP is this offensive line.  Look at this mauling from side to side.  
Total domination.  I think any RB should be lucky to run behind this someday. 
This is as big a test as they will face before the playoffs, and the offense was phenomenal.  Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott have been so good.  
I am a bit worried about Geoff Swaim's injury and what they lose there.  Gavin Escobar to the main stage, please.
Otherwise, prepare for a talented defense in Baltimore.  The beat goes on and the division keeps winning their games to not give much space.  

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