Sometimes, a little jolt of embarrassment can do a football team some good. There were some circumstances to consider about the trip to Denver and some excuses that could be made. But overall, the best summary for that Week 2 performance we broke down in this space was just not good enough. Sure, the Dallas offense could do better to take some heat off the defense, but Denver's offense was never as good as the Cowboys helped make them look. There was poor tackling, poor team defense, poor effort at times and a very poor result.
The defense was challenged to respond.
They were again miles from perfection Monday night in Arizona. You surely do not want to give up seven explosives in one night, and you also don't want to let a Cardinals offense that was missing its star running back, deep threat at wide receiver, left tackle and left guard move the chains 22 times on you and convert eight third-down opportunities, but all in all, the Cowboys' defense did respond.
It put together a ridiculous six-sack night and dominated the second half on the way to a key road win in a game that was there to be lost. Six sacks is a threshold that is very rare -- the last time a Cowboys defense did that was 2013, and they haven't done better than that since the 2008 defense that led the NFL in sacks did it twice.
Dallas so ferociously destroyed Arizona's offensive line, often times with a three-man rush, that people now are starting to see what a talent DeMarcus Lawrence truly is. The group around him that includes Maliek Collins, Benson Mayowa, Tyrone Crawford, Stephen Paea, rookie Taco Charlton, Damontre Moore and, soon, David Irving, is not too shabby either.
They have built a deep group that is already at 11 sacks, which ranks second in the NFL -- behind Jacksonville -- three weeks into the season.
Every week is going to be a challenge, but this one developed into an impressive show of pass-rushing force as the night unfolded.
WEEKLY DATA BOX
If you read this every week, you know my regard for Lawrence. It took a bit to sell me on him during his rookie year, but after watching his dominant 2015 -- something that evidently was missed by many Cowboys fans who tuned out that season -- I was pretty sold on his future. I don't mind people finding something better to do during a disastrous season, but if you do, perhaps don't accuse the guy of "finally doing something" for the first time here in 2017. He played his butt off in 2015 and led the team in splash plays. That, and then a few big games in 2016 -- at Pittsburgh is the one that always comes to mind -- were evident, despite his suspension and back issue. He should have people recognizing that he is right where you would hope he might be in Year 4 and at age 25 instead of stirring up claims that he is an athlete who is only now performing his best because of his contract expiring. That shouldn't apply here, but I realize I am not going to be able to stop that discussion from being prevalent.
I am not letting Lawrence get away, and if they talk extension now or later, the price tag is only going to go in one direction -- and guys like him are extremely expensive. Guys his age who hit free agency coming off a big year are going to start at $14 million per year. Four years, $58 million (Minnesota's Everson Griffen) to five years, $85 million (Olivier Vernon of the New York Giants) is the range, so get ready to pick your jaw up off the ground.
But look at the pace he is on in splash plays:
SPLASH PLAYS - WEEK 3 - AT ARIZONA
As usual, if you think I missed any or credited someone incorrectly, drop me a note. Accuracy is the real objective here.
2017 SEASON TOTALS
CARSON PALMER THROW CHART
I think this should be said about Carson Palmer's performance: He was really, really good and stood tall and courageous in the face of a fantastic pass rush. He never let his eyes drop to the pass rush and never made a business decision. That is tough to do, and despite his line problems, he gave them a really nice performance with several explosive plays down field -- most to Larry Fitzgerald.
It is interesting to look at the roles the Cowboys have for their defensive players on a week-to-week basis. Especially in the front seven, where there will be weeks when Charlton or Jaylon Smith have lots of opportunities and weeks when much of Smith's work goes to someone like Justin Durant.
We also have seen Moore cut into the snaps that Taco might receive, and now that the Cowboys seem to enjoy rushing three men -- at least in this Arizona matchup -- perhaps that will make D-line rush options more and more challenging to get on the field and make it a necessity to create plays when they are out there.
OK, let's look at some plays -- both good and bad from Monday night.
If you follow this team closely, you have, without doubt, started to hear about the "Deacon" package that was on full display Monday. The Cowboys employed a lot of three-man rushes, and while we counted 12 of them in this game, you may be surprised to know they actually did more of this last season. According to my guy, John Daigle, "they topped Monday's total (12) three times last season -- 20 vs. Chicago, 16 in Pittsburgh, 19 vs. Washington."
It is interesting to see that number and it makes you wonder if they earmark it for specific matchups, then put it away for weeks at a time. Why do they call it the "Deacon" package? Well, two reasons. 1) Kyle Wilber was the original linebacker in this mix and he went to Wake Forest, and 2) "Deacon" starts with "D," and football coaches love their opportunities for alliteration to help everyone remember which "dime" package they want. Anytime you want to know about a football term, odds are the first letter is the key. WILL means weak side. SAM means strong side. In a pinch when the bullets are flying, they try to use terms that are easy to communicate. Deacon is one of their dime looks.
It employs six defensive backs, of course, but also three D-linemen and two linebackers. Their base dime is six defensive backs with four D-linemen and one linebacker. This gives them more mobility in the underneath stuff and we saw Denver attack with C.J. Anderson enough to know the Cowboys don't want to be exposed there every week. So, they add mobility underneath, but it sure looks like they want to run a lot of 2-Man behind it. This is two deep safeties -- just like a Cover 2 -- but with man underneath it instead of zone. That means Sean Lee is chasing the running back, with Durant as either the spy or rat in the hole. I imagine that depends on the opposing quarterback. Clearly, he also rushes on a delay when he sees the opportunity, which presented itself several times Monday.
This first play is not that at all. But it might be what made the Cowboys shift their approach:
This is the opening-drive touchdown to Jaron Brown. The coverage appears to be Cover 3 and the center fielder, Jeff Heath, gets pulled to Fitzgerald and gives up the deep center. Anthony Brown has outside leverage and is too wide, but I assume he is expecting help from Heath. To be honest, I have no idea what Heath is doing here. He looks like he is the only one not running the Cover 3 (on that side of the field at least), so he may not have gotten the call or adjustment. I could be seeing this wrong, but that is my guess. He seems to think he has Fitzgerald and Anthony Brown is expecting him to play that high safety role. Either way, they look very confused.
Look at Palmer step up in the pocket and Lawrence actually get to his chest as the ball is thrown.
The 15:00 mark in the second quarter -- this is the pivotal play of the game. Palmer hits Jaron Brown for what appears to be a second touchdown and a 14-0 Arizona lead. The Cardinals want to attack Xavier Woods (No. 25) underneath with a crosser where Fitzgerald is used as a diversion and Jaron Brown is pulled across. This looks like Deacon and you can see the delayed rush from Durant (No. 52). As you know, there was a holding call on the right tackle here and the play comes back.
Fair holding call on Jared Veldheer (No. 68) against Lawrence, but we have definitely seen that not get called in the past. The Cowboys are fortunate that was spotted and the Cardinals miss the field goal, too. Still 7-0. Huge sequence.
Here is a great look at this Deacon rush with the coverage behind it. Two deep, man under, three-man rush and the linebacker spying, then rushing on a delay.
Look at two O-linemen go toward each defensive end, leaving Collins to feed on the overmatched center right up the gut. You can't double-team everyone. Five should be able to block three, but that wasn't happening Monday in Arizona.
You can see the issues this causes. You have seven guys covering and there isn't anywhere to go with the ball. It really frustrates the quarterback to see only three rushers and still face pressure while nobody is uncovering down the field. Two safeties deep make this extremely sound if you can still get home.
The 1:11 mark in the second quarter -- this is a Lawrence sack that was nullified because of Lee's illegal contact. Lee was flagged for making too much contact with Brittan Golden (No. 10.) It didn't look like much.
But man, Veldheer has no chance on his own against Lawrence. I have heard people say Veldheer is a backup. That is not true. He has been an eight-year starter at tackle. Not a great player, but he is no practice squad guy.
The 1:06 mark in the second quarter -- the very next play. Here comes the Deacon again and the same result, with no flag this time. Look at that coverage behind it. Three rush, linebacker spies, 2-Man behind it. I think you have to go with the rub routes and some underneath stuff to chase Dallas out of this if you can. Because nobody is open again and you have two safeties up top.
Crawford gets this sack, but watch it close in. You can also see Durant waiting for the right guard, Evan Boehm (No. 70), to turn his head before darting in to chase the quarterback down.
The 11:41 mark in the third quarter -- here is another sack, but this one is just a bonus. Four-man front and it is just a second-and-5. But Lawrence is playing so well that, even on a simple play action, he is back there before Palmer can do anything with the ball.
They are trying to sell the run-action, but that requires Lawrence to be blocked by the tight end, Jermaine Gresham. That wasn't happening on this night.
The 4:52 mark in the fourth quarter -- the Cowboys have a lead and are now pouring it on. Deacon package again, same result. Cardinals insist on getting five out in routes, leaving five to block three. Again, this seems like a reasonable request, but they simply can't slow down Collins (No. 96) and friends. Lawrence isn't even on the field. But Moore and Crawford are causing the havoc, and Collins finally beats that poor center again to clean up the play.
Collins is a wonderful player in situations like this. Again, watch Durant (No. 52) in his spy role -- the Cowboys actually call it "shark." He is darting around, and I am sure they hope Smith can do this soon.
The 2:24 mark in the fourth quarter -- here is sack No. 6. I swear, most of these have been the exact same defensive call. Arizona just can't block it and insists on getting five out in routes. Same coverage, same result.
Does any of the Cardinals' O-linemen have a good snap here? Poor Palmer must be sore this week. Unreal work from the Cowboys' defense with what amounts to be the same call over and over again.
Six-sack games are rare around here. Monday night was quite a show. I am not sure if this Deacon package is the next big thing, or if it's a sign that Arizona is in big trouble on the offensive line, but I am sure we will find out soon. It seems like the recipe for Green Bay in two weeks, for sure.
I think it is fair to say the Cowboys want to run this to protect their safeties. I don't think they feel great about single-high right now and prefer the safer two-deep. But boy, did it yield results because they have an awful lot of long and active pass rushers right now. Some of them are even really good, it appears. And Irving is one Sunday from rejoining this group.
There was absolutely nothing easy Monday night for the Cowboys' offense. The Cardinals have a strong defense with solid personnel that was not interested in budging an inch against a Dallas team that needed to bounce back.
It was a classic case of the unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. Neither side was willing to give in, and that is what made the matchup fascinating. In the end, the Cowboys accomplished their ultimate goal of leaving with the win, but they expended a lot of energy in doing so and at various points in the proceedings looked frustrated from the issues that were being presented.
Every week in this space, we look at the offense from a number of perspectives. We want to see the raw numbers, the tactics, the commitment to those tactics and the results. We want to see what they were trying to do and how that worked out for them.
And in a game like this, we have to accept the good with the bad. More importantly, we have to understand how it all works together. I think that is the big key here. People want to know why they don't just run the plays that work more often and run less of the plays that don't work. But that isn't football. Football tells us that they are all related. In fact, a play that doesn't work should sometimes be run again right away with one variable changed slightly, as that is all it takes to yield a huge result that wasn't available on the previous play.
So, it tests your resolve. The other side is trying to shut you down and make you scramble for ideas. And sometimes, you need to change how you do things. But last week, I wrote about how disappointed I was that Denver bluffed the Cowboys out of their plan. It wasn't like Denver destroyed the Cowboys' highly touted run game. It was more that they scared the Cowboys out of trying it with any level of commitment and conviction. They stuffed a few runs, so the Cowboys crumpled up the game plan and threw it in the trash. They conceded to Denver that their best idea was not a good one. They did much better in Arizona -- partially aided by the defense giving them time -- of sticking with the plan and allowing the wear and tear of four quarters to help them outlast the Cardinals as the game went on.
WEEKLY DATA BOX
OK, let's look at the numbers above. Twenty-eight points is strong, 273 yards is not. The difference in yardage production from Denver to Arizona? Five yards. In Denver, the Cowboys produced 268 -- in Arizona, 273. In other words, Arizona did great defensively to limit the Dak Prescott- and Ezekiel Elliott-led Cowboys offense under 300 yards for just the fourth time in 19 regular season games -- the past four road games they have played. Games at Minnesota (264 yards), at New York (260), at Denver (268) and at Arizona (273) have been the four worst yardage performances of the "21-4" era, so we better not act like everything is better after Monday.
So that leads us back to 28 points. It was more a function of field position and a few big plays rather than the Cowboys gaining dominance over Arizona.
Another other thing we had better keep a close eye on is the third-down conversion rate. They are very poor this year after being fine overall in 2016. Dallas was 2 for 9 (22 percent) on Monday and is 13 for 38 (34 percent) this season in a league where the average is 39 percent. Last season, Dallas was over 42 percent. They are 4 for 4 on third-and-1 situations, but have converted just 9 of 34 tries (26 percent) when facing third and more than 1. This must get better, or it will result in more of what we saw Monday -- short drives, Dallas getting killed in time of possession and way too much pressure on a Cowboys defense that looks promising at times (but we had better not get carried away about how good it actually is until it sustains some success).
-- They were the best first-down rushing team in the league. They averaged 5.1 yards per rush on first downs, making second downs manageable.
-- When you are willing to run and run well on first and second downs, the defense is forced to step up and stop it. That sets up play-action (a pass that, at first, looks like a run), and the Cowboys ran the third-most play-action plays in the league, averaging almost nine yards per play.
-- Also, because of this, they faced third downs in a very advantageous way. Or, often not at all. They converted third downs at a very nice rate (especially with a rookie quarterback) of 42.3 percent. But, more importantly, they faced the 29th-most third downs. In other words, they never had third downs. And, did you know that in the past three (and even five) years, no team in the NFL has faced fewer third downs than the Cowboys? Thanks, running game!
-- According to Football Outsiders, that also puts the Cowboys as the best red-zone rushing offense and second-best rushing offense in goal-to-goal.
This keeps Prescott in a perfect spot -- passing into "light" secondaries. If everyone is sitting on the run, then you can pass into man-to-man spots and avoid turnovers, because avoiding safeties is the best way to avoid turnovers. He makes sound decisions, but they are all aided by the fact that this team puts him in spots where he can pass when he wants.
But what is the flip side of this equation? Passing when you have to pass, and when the opposition is waiting on you. This is when the windows get smaller, the success rate drops and quarterbacks get into trouble.
And this is why I keep bringing up the Russell Wilson comparisons. Seattle has done this for years, and then they designed a third-down package to complement what he does well. They never ask him to be Aaron Rodgers. They ask him to use his brain, feet and the deception of the design for it to all work in concert. That is the task this organization should embrace over trying to put him in spots where Tony Romo once was. That starts with making sure you are moving the chains on early downs and not putting yourself in third-and-longs very often.
DAK PRESCOTT THROW CHART
I think you can see above that there just wasn't much to watch Monday from a passing game standpoint. But what little there was didn't come from the pocket. It came from putting Prescott on the move, which should surprise nobody at this point of his young career. I had some people tell me what Romo could and couldn't do, and I had to remind them that Romo's first start was Oct. 29, 2006, when he was 26 years, six months old. Prescott will be that age in January 2020. At that point, he may be about 70 starts into his NFL career. So, perhaps cool it on comparing Prescott to a 34-year old Romo for a few weeks.
SHOTGUN vs. UNDER CENTER
Periodically, I show you this to demonstrate what the defense sees. It often is just a function of where the quarterback is standing on what the Cowboys are likely to do. When you consider that the shotgun runs are mostly zone reads, the number becomes even more convincing. This sets up play action, too. The numbers are to give tendencies, and then those tendencies are broken at precise moments to give you a real chance to attack.
If you combine that knowledge with the personnel grouping information below, you can really target what the Cowboys are doing in each situation -- both good and bad.
Above, you can really see that multiple tight ends was where this thing got rolling Monday. Furthermore, you can see that 11 Personnel is just not rolling yet. Twenty-six snaps for 100 yards is brutal. This will explain quite a few issues with the offense. It will also explain why Cole Beasley has had a hard time getting as much work -- they have to take him off the field when they put a second tight end on.
It will be a massive key to get the 11 package -- under center and shotgun -- rolling quickly, because 11 Personnel is where the Cowboys (and everyone) spend the majority of their offense in due to all of the issues it should give a defense. But, for the Cowboys, we have not seen that materialize at all in 2017.
Now, to all of those who said you cannot run into a loaded box, the Cowboys would show you these numbers and beg to differ. Power against power, the Cowboys won the day. It wasn't easy, but they stayed committed.
Let's look at some film to try to prove that point and see other interesting things:
This is a run at the 9:59 mark of the first quarter -- first offensive snap of the game -- out of 12 Personnel, where Terrance Williams (No. 83) is brought over by Jason Witten and James Hanna to provide another blocker on the edge. But you can see here that Justin Bethel is able to get inside, so Williams actually chases him around the edge (poorly) before the Cardinals defensive back brings down Elliott, who has nowhere to go. This is a lot of traffic for a team that wants to run on a team that wants to stop said run.
Here is another run out of 12 Personnel. The "drive starter" for drive No. 2, and another very poor effort. Anytime your center has his chest facing the running back when the handoff occurs, you can see that the running back has no chance. Travis Frederick loses badly and Chaz Green, on the pull, is not getting it done, either. This is the point in the proceedings when frustration starts to bubble. This won't cut it. A loss of three yards.
Drive No. 3, they keep grinding. This is third and 1, and the Cowboys line up 22 Personnel (love it). There is a huge traffic jam here and Tyrann Mathieu (No. 32) is firing downhill on the run blitz to blow this up. If Elliott can make him miss, it can be huge. Not many running backs will make him miss this easily, but Elliott shrugs him off and is off to the races. Very good sign there. He had no help on the dive-bomber. Well done to Elliott there.
Good work on dusting off the zone read. I think -- like Seattle -- this needs to be a big part of the diet for the Cowboys' offense. You can see that No. 44, Markus Golden (who I think I like), is sitting hard on Elliott. This was not the right decision for Prescott, but, as you know, they went right back to it. As you also may know, it is really easy for me to tell them what to do from behind a keyboard. But it is a blink-of-an-eye decision, and you are not always going to get it right. Nice job from the Cardinals here.
We saw this all night. Scott Linehan went right back to a concept a moment later to try it again. I love that demonstration of self-belief in the game plan and tactics. Look at Prescott finish this run and watch the Cardinals panic when they see what happened. Haason Reddick (No. 43) and Antoine Bethea (No. 41) are particularly turned around here. Prescott just made football look easy there.
Second drive of the third quarter. Here is a play out of 11 Personnel where you try to ask Noah Brown (No. 85) and Williams (No. 83) to block up on an outside run and it doesn't really go anywhere. But since it was second and 2, it did move the chains. La'el Collins (No. 71) needs to do better there.
Now, check out the next play. Does it look familiar?
Same concept, but with 13 Personnel. Hanna (No. 84) and Geoff Swaim (No. 87) are in for the two wide receivers. Run it again with Collins hitting his block better, Witten getting just enough, and now Elliott is off to the races again. Gain of 20, and you could argue this run turned the game. One play later, Dallas takes the lead on that Dez Bryant touchdown.
Here is the look from the end zone:
Witten against Chandler Jones was the big spot here. But one arm is not slowing Elliott down.
On to the fourth quarter. This is where the wear and tear of the first three quarters starts paying dividends. You have run the ball at them and now they are tired and feeling the scoreboard working against them. This is when you pull for some play action.
Second and 7 with 12:03 to go from the Arizona 37-yard line. This is not a rollout. This is improving because you are asking Hanna to block Golden by himself and Prescott knows he has to get the ball out or get on the run. So he chooses the latter, and as you can see, when he rolls to his right, there are no targets but Brice Butler to choose from. He would have had to consider running -- Golden is closing in fast -- if this didn't look right to him. But it did.
You can see from the end-zone angle that this is just beautiful work. Tell me you don't see Russell Wilson here.
Then, on the very next offensive snap:
First down, 12 Personnel, play action over the top!
This is a wonderful job all around. Look at those linebackers get sucked into the play action. And then look at Butler go make a play. Ruthless work, everyone. That is how you go win a road game.
Do that enough times, and then you can actually run out of 11 Personnel. Above is Elliott to the left on the next play.
And then, Elliott to the right with 11 Personnel again for a touchdown. Now you can start up the bus.
This wasn't easy and it wasn't pretty. But, Monday demonstrated what I was looking for -- determination and conviction to not give in when the opponent makes it difficult. You are supposed to be a dominant team with a dominant offense. Act like one. When someone tries to stop you, you try to run them over and break their will.
Wade Phillips and the Rams' defense are next. I am sure he has some plans.