Editor's note: Jonathan Bales is the founder of DallasCowboysTimes.com and occasionally writes for The New York Times. We thought it'd be fun to have him break out the Xs and Os and Oh Shits before Sunday's big game. We apologize in advance for the nerdiness.
While the "play-in game" that awaits the Cowboys on Sunday might seem like the culmination of a lengthy nightmare narrated by Bob Costas, they do still control their own playoff destiny. To fulfill that destiny, though, they'll need to alter the approach they took in the first game against the Giants. In my Week 14 pre-game story for the Times, I explained how the 'Boys and G-Men are strikingly similar teams and that the Cowboys could benefit from mimicking New York's game plan from that week.
Here's how they should do it.
DON'T blitz so often. The Cowboys blitzed a ton in Week 14, especially late. Although I credit Rob Ryan for his aggressive play-calling, the Cowboys don't have the talent in the secondary to save the defense when those blitzes fails. Eli Manning has a 92.5 passer rating against the blitz this season, compared to 88.9 when four or less defenders rush -- a statistically insignificant difference. They'll need to find a way to get pressure without blitzing, specifically by using a combination of stunts, unique alignments and zone blitzes.
DO play a lot of Cover 2 man under. In Week 14, to limit the effectiveness of the Cowboys' outside receivers (usually Miles Austin and Dez Bryant), the Giants played "Cover 2 man under" on more than half (36 of 63) of the defensive snaps. Other than a blown coverage on which Bryant shook loose for a 50-yard touchdown, he and Austin combined for four catches and 63 yards.
The reason Cover 2 man under works against outside receivers is because it leaves the two safeties responsible for the deep halves of the field, severely limiting the receivers' opportunity to get deep. The corners know they have help deep, so they can play underneath of receivers, jump routes, and so on.
The Giants have the same offensive strengths as the Cowboys, with a comparable receiver duo in Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. Dallas gambled in Week 14 with blitzes, but they would be well-served this week to mimic New York and play plenty of Cover 2 man under -- to contain Nicks and Cruz and force a slot receiver, tight end or running back to beat them.
DO find a way to beat Cover 2 man. The 'Boys can bet they will see plenty more Cover 2 man under on Sunday night, so they better find a way to beat it. Here's how they can do that:
- Run the ball well. - Put Miles Austin in the slot. - Run crossing routes from bunch sets.
The 'Boys will benefit from a strong running game even more than usual this week. If they can force one of the safeties to creep into the box, they will be able to get either Austin or Bryant isolated on an inferior cornerback.
Whether Dallas gets Felix Jones going on the ground or not, they should put Austin in the slot more than normal. He's deadly there, thanks to excellent route running and underrated quickness, and he will be matched up against a nickel cornerback who doesn't have much help.
The third way to beat Cover 2 man under is to use bunch formations to cause problems with the Giants' underneath man coverage. A popular Cowboys' formation known as "Gun Trips Left," for example, could be quite useful against man coverage.
In all likelihood, New York will scramble out of their man-under coverage into some sort of zone when they see this look. If that happens, Dallas should be happy they forced the defense out of Cover 2 man.
If the G-Men stay in the coverage, crossing routes can render the safeties useless and allow the receivers to get open via natural picks. Bunch formations could also focus attention away from tight end Jason Witten, whose presence on the backside of such formations is yet another asset for Dallas. And offenses usually find more success running from spread formations than tight ones, although Garrett has called exactly one run from 171 "Gun Trips" plays over the last three seasons. Yikes.
DON'T worry about Brandon Jacobs. Jacobs played on 30 of the Giants' 86 snaps in Week 14, running 19 times for 101 yards and two scores. Compare that to just 12 yards on eight carries for Ahmad Bradshaw. Obviously the Cowboys should focus on stopping Jacobs, right? Wrong.
Jacobs had a nice game, but Bradshaw is the back that will give the Dallas defense problems on a more consistent basis. He's quick and shifty, matching up well against Rob Ryan's 3-4 defense.
DON'T sell out for the run against double-tight formations. The Giants do a really nice job of not "tipping their hand" via formations or personnel packages. In Week 14 they lined up in a double-tight formation 34 times, passing the ball on 14 of those plays (41.2 percent). They had at least one tight end on the field (Jake Ballard) on all but one of their 86 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. In the past, I've shown how offenses can benefit from passing the ball out of double-tight and other run-oriented formations. The Giants do it better than just about anyone, and the 'Boys will need to be prepared for it.
DO pass with Tony Fiammetta in the game. Jason Garrett does not hide his intentions quite as well as he should, and this is manifested in his play-calling from specific formations and personnel packages. When fullback Tony Fiammetta is in the game, for example, the Cowboys pass the ball just 25.3 percent of the time. I've discussed how predictability can actually be useful to benefit an offense, but Garrett does not harness his predictability to generate big plays for the offense.
One of the formations from which Garrett is uncannily predictable is "Double Tight Strong." Since the start of the 2009 season, the Cowboys have lined up in "Double Tight Strong" 211 times, running the same strong side dive 147 times (69.7 percent) for only 3.4 YPC.
Garrett's predictability could be utilized to get the ball downfield with play action. But since 2009, Dallas quarterbacks have thrown for 20-plus yards on only 8.7 percent of play-action passes. And in two-plus years of passes, Garrett has called a play-action pass only eight times with 1-4 yards-to-go for a first down -- the situations when faking a run would actually work. Instead, he's called for a play-action look on 11 plays with 20-plus yards-to-go, when showing a running play is either an obvious decoy or hopeless.
The Cowboys can significantly increase their chances of winning on Sunday night by getting some quick scores, and the easiest way to do that is catching the Giants' defense off-guard with play-action passes from run-oriented formations.
DO help Doug Free. A lot. One of the toughest tasks awaiting Dallas this week is providing proper protection for Tony Romo. They need to contain Jason Pierre-Paul while not keeping playmakers like Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka at bay. If Romo is constantly throwing with defenders in his face, the Cowboys will lose.
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While there are problems all over the Cowboys' offensive line, left tackle Doug Free has regressed from a solid 2010 campaign to allow a team-high 31 pressures in 2011. Yes, he plays the most difficult position on the line, but he allowed only 21 pressures all of last season.
In all likelihood, Garrett will run a lot of "left-handed" formations to allow Witten to chip the defender rushing against Free. The Cowboys cannot double every defender, so you will probably see rookie right tackle Tyron Smith on an island quite a bit. He has surrendered only 18 pressures this year. If Dallas can limit the Giants' edge-rushers with extra blockers, they will need to simply hope for the best from interior linemen Phil Costa and left guard Derrick Dockery (who will likely start in place of an injured Montrae Holland).
DON'T use predictable alignments with DeMarcus Ware. Offenses often base their pass protection off of Ware's position on the field. When Ware lines up in his usual position and doesn't move, it's easy for the offense to set their protection. Ryan has combated that in recent weeks by aligning Ware all over the field, often calling for him to shift just before the snap. This increases the odds of Ware getting isolated against either Kareem McKenzie or David Diehl. The tackles have now allowed 44 and 45 pressures, respectively -- good for second and third-worst in the NFL. Even if the Giants find a way to double Ware, his pre-snap movement could open up lanes for other rushers.