Don’t sleep on the Cowboys defense
That ‘bend but don’t break’ approach kept the game close for their high-powered offense
As a former player, I have grown frustrated with the oversimplification of football analysis. So this season, I will be watching the coaches’ video and analyzing the impact of all 22 players on the field and the coaches’ game plan.
The Dallas Cowboys are the class of the NFL after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in a Sunday thriller. Thanks to the stellar play from the league’s best offensive line, rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are both being mentioned as NFL MVP candidates. With a healthy Dez Bryant, this offense is one of the most dangerous in the league. But what about the other side of the ball? What about the Cowboys’ defense? If Dallas is going to make a deep run in the playoffs, the team will need some timely plays from its defense. The Dallas defense has been virtually ignored so far this season. So, I watched the game film of the Cowboys’ last game. Here’s what I saw:
The Cowboys were able to stop the run while mostly in a six- or seven-man box. The defensive ends ran stunts into the B-gaps to disrupt the Steelers’ blocking schemes on running plays. And the linebackers and defensive backs did a good job tackling the very elusive Le’Veon Bell after the plays were broken by the stunting defensive linemen. While the stunts were good against the run, they were not against the pass.
Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and threw for 408 yards and three touchdowns, in part because the stunts put the defensive line in poor position to rush the passer. The Cowboys didn’t blitz much because, when they did, Roethlisberger recognized it and burned them. But the one sack was a result of an unexpected cornerback blitz.
DeMarcus Lawrence got the sack because the cornerback was able to surprise the protection and get in the backfield fast due to the tight receiver splits the Steelers started using. The Steelers were using the tight splits, along with bunch and empty formations, to counter the preponderance of Cover 2 the Cowboys were playing. Last week against the Cleveland Browns, Cover 2 wasn’t a big part of the Cowboys’ game plan. But this week, containing Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ big-play receivers was clearly a priority. They even double-covered Antonio Brown on some key third downs. He ended up with 154 yards and a touchdown, but 44 of those yards came on the last play of the game, when the Cowboys only needed to keep him out of the end zone.
The Steelers used the tight splits and bunch formations to put pressure on the safeties in Cover 2. Those formations brought the cornerbacks in tight and made it difficult for them to get out to their flat responsibility, which leaves a lot of area for the safety to cover alone.
The Steelers used an empty formation to attack the three hook defenders. That formation forced the Cowboys to spread out and allowed the Steelers’ tight ends and backs to get into their routes sooner and to exploit the holes in the zone. The Cowboys responded by occasionally dropping a defensive lineman into coverage and running more Cover 3, which added another hook/curl defender. Once the Cowboys were in Cover 3 and the corners had more deep coverage responsibility, Roethlisberger went after them. He had success at key moments, creating penalties and throwing what looked to be the game-winning touchdown.
It was clear from the Cowboys’ defensive game plan that they had enormous respect for the Steelers’ offense. The Cowboys attempted to execute a “bend but don’t break” defensive strategy. It wasn’t pretty, but I guess it worked. They kept the game close enough to give their offense a chance to win it at the end. And they did. I certainly wasn’t wowed by this Cowboys defense, but they did what they had to do to win a tough game on the road.