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Debunking The NFL’s “Blueprint” To Beat The Dallas Cowboys

Sean Martin

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It was the worst loss of the Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott era for the Dallas Cowboys.

On Sunday, the Denver Broncos bested the Cowboys 42-17 at home with a dominant showing from their elite defense and balanced offense. The Monday reactions from Cowboys Nation were naturally all over the place, as the blowout loss seemingly had some quickly forgetting that we are still just a year removed from this Cowboys' core winning 13 games and the NFC East in 2016.

There is one narrative going around worth addressing following this game, and it is that the Broncos exposed the Cowboys by providing a "blueprint" for how to beat this Dallas team. This of course comes after the team's first loss of this young 2017 season, failing to take into consideration that it was a week one loss to the formidable Giants last year that sparked an eleven game winning streak for the Cowboys.

Like the Broncos now, the Giants were seen as a team that had the Cowboys' number after beating them twice during Prescott and Elliott's rookie campaign. With a win against an equally tough New York defense already under their belts before this humbling defeat in Denver, it is ridiculous to begin assuming that teams around the league suddenly know how to stop one of the most well-built and dynamic offenses in the NFL.

Debunking The NFL's "Blueprint" To Beat The Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott is sacked by DE Von Miller.

The Broncos' defense is good, very good. This unit deserves a ton of credit for what they did taking Ezekiel Elliott out of this game so early for the Cowboys on the ground, but this was also not entirely their doing. Drives extended by defensive penalties on Dallas, missed opportunities to force turnovers, and failure to gain any rhythm in the passing game allowed Denver's defense to do what they did to the Cowboys on Sunday by holding Elliott to a career low eight yards and forcing Dak Prescott to drop back a career high 50 times - resulting in two killer interceptions.

The Broncos made the Cowboys' offense look so uncomfortable in this game by simply doing what they've done best for a long time now, putting elite talent on the field at all three levels and matching up against the Cowboys in man coverage.

Look around the defensive depth charts for any other team in the NFL, and it becomes evident quickly that this hidden "secret" to beating the Cowboys is not a secret at all - instead a simple lack of adequate depth in the secondary to cover against Scott Linehan's passing offense while also committing the ridiculous numbers the Broncos did to the box in the running game.

Debunking The NFL's "Blueprint" To Beat The Dallas Cowboys 1

Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott

The Giants are likely the closest to proving they could match what the Broncos did this week, but currently sitting at 0-2 with a loss on the record against the Cowboys already, it is clear that this once-elite defense has regressed a fraction while the offense holds the Giants back even more. It was the Broncos balanced offense exploiting an absolutely depleted Rod Marinelli defense (playing with two healthy CBs) that ultimately put Sunday's game out of reach for the Cowboys.

The Cowboys and Giants won't meet again at Metlife Stadium until week 14. Before then, the Cowboys will see three teams in the bottom ten of the NFL from 2016 in Yards Per Play Differential - an all important stat when it comes to a Cowboys team that wants to regain control of games by hitting on big plays on the ground while protecting leads with their zone defense looks.

Just because none of this came to fruition against a Denver Broncos team under former defensive coordinator and now Head Coach Vance Joseph - who said himself that the Cowboys' offense was easy to scout but difficult to actually stop - does not mean that much better days are not ahead for Prescott and Elliott running this Cowboys offense.

Preparing to do so against defenses that won't be able to man up on the outside nor get the best of Dallas' league-best offensive line the way Denver did, order can be restored quickly to a Cowboys offense that should hope to never throw the ball 50 times and hand it off only 11 times again anytime soon.

Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Dez Bryant

QB Dak Prescott, RB Ezekiel Elliott, and WR Dez Bryant. Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports.

The Cowboys' next opportunity to start a new winning streak following a loss will come in prime time on Monday night at the Cardinals. Arizona's defense is certainly tough, but the distance between their unit and that of the Broncos' playing at its absolute best is tangible - as should the difference in performance from week two to three for the Cowboys in all three phases.

It is not any easier to beat these 1-1 Cowboys than it was when they were 1-1 at this time last year, and for once Monday can't get here soon enough as the team will look to remain in first place and move to 2-1 on the 2017 season.

Whether or not they do so will have nothing to do with a blueprint that's out there for Cardinals' Head Coach Bruce Arians or any other team remaining on the Cowboys' schedule to use.

Tell us what you think about "Debunking The NFL’s “Blueprint” To Beat The Dallas Cowboys" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



Born January 28th, 1996- Cowboys Super Bowl XXX. Point Boro Panther, Montclair State Red Hawk, and most importantly a proud member of Cowboys Nation! I host "Upon Further Review" on 90.3 WMSC FM and wmscradio.com every Friday from 1-4 PM ET. Twitter: @SeanMartinNFL.

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4 Comments
  • Matthew England

    Totally agree, Denver has unparalleled defensive talent that let them stack the box wont happen often

  • Travis Diggs

    The coaching staff needs to be put on notice that their play calling is starting to become easy to call Even people at home know the plays already. The in game adjustments will be the difference in a playoff team and a super bowl contender. Once you seen Zeke giving up, it was time for a change, and i dont mean Morris. Once you seen Brice Butler struggling, Its time for Switzer or Noah Brown, In Game adjustments??? I personally could predicts half of their plays the whole game, so i know somebody needs to look at personnel and play calling ??? I dont even wanna talk about the same defense we’ve had for over a decade now. Lets go Boys

    • E Deplorabus Unum

      we saw this with troy and emmitt days also. cowboys think they are so talented they run too vanilla and just outclass the defense. often works, but being able to beat them at chess in play calling as well as straight forward power would be nice….

    • Russ_Te

      My problem was that Garrett & Linehan knew Denver would load the box on Elliott. Knew they had the CB’s to allow that. You can’t just run into the teeth of that, in that stadium. Those zero-gains fired Denver up, because everyone knows this is a dominant run offense. Now Dak is suddenly in long downs against their pass rush & CB’s.

      If I don’t have speed at RB, different matter. But I do have it. I’m attacking the edges with pitches, stretches, then maybe a reverse to Butler or Dez.

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Linebacker Group Key to Cowboys’ Defensive Success in 2018

John Williams

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Less Is More For Sean Lee And Cowboys' LBs?

In 2017, it was evident just how much the Dallas Cowboys were hurt by their lack of linebacker depth. When Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens were injured, especially Lee, the defense struggled. Look to the games against the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams and it's easy to see just how ineffective the defense was without their top two linebackers.

With more and more teams employing RPO and read-option concepts, more is expected of linebackers as they read the quarterback.

With teams like the Carolina Panthers, Philadelphia Eagles, Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Tennessee Titans all on the 2018 schedule, the Dallas Cowboys' linebacker corp is going to have their hands full each and every week defending quarterbacks who are really good at utilizing these concepts.

While the edge defenders are instrumental in containing the run concepts in the read-option and RPO, the linebackers are the next line of defense against the run and their discipline in the run-pass action is monumental to defending the passing concept of the RPO.

Jeff Ratcliffe from Pro Football Focus broke down who the best and worst teams using RPOs were in 2017 by quarterback yards per attempt and quarterback yards per carry.

The Philadelphia Eagles ran the most RPOs and, as Ratcliffe described in his article, "For Doug Pederson, no run concept could not have an RPO attached to it."

The Kansas City Chiefs were second in the NFL in the amount of RPOs utilized with quarterback Alex Smith, now with the Washington Redskins, under center. Speaking of the Redskins, with Kirk Cousins at quarterback, they accrued the highest yards per attempt of any team in the NFL when throwing out of an RPO.

So, if you do the math, you can bet that the Washington Redskins will utilize a lot of RPO and read-option concepts in their offensive game plan.

Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, the Cowboys' week one opponent, ran RPOs the fourth most of any team in the NFL and had 5.5 yards per carry when Cam Newton kept the ball himself. Cam is one of the best running quarterbacks in the history of the NFL. Newton is the only quarterback since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 to rush for double-digit rushing touchdowns twice in his career. Before he did it in 2011, no quarterback had accomplished the feat since Daunte Culpepper in 2002. The Dallas Cowboys and their front seven will have their hands full containing Newton in week one.

Also according to PFF's Ratcliffe, the New York Giants were the fifth best team in 2017 when the quarterback decided to keep the ball and run as they averaged 5.5 yards per carry out of RPOs. That has to be the most shocking element of his post. When you think of Eli Manning, you don't think of a running quarterback.

That just shows you how effective the RPO and read-option can be in the NFL.

With the speed of the game light years faster than it was 20 or 30 years ago, teams are having to use more and more misdirection to gain an edge in the run and pass game.

Another team on the Dallas Cowboys schedule was very effective throwing out of RPOs: the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the AFC Championship Game, they made a lot of headway against the New England Patriots using this concept.

Mike Renner on Twitter

Will be interesting to see how the Pats gameplan for the Eagles RPOs. Jaguars shredded them with same RPO 4 times in first half last week https://t.co/gYJWIPYIjj

In 2017, the Jaguars averaged 8.2 yards per attempt, the fifth best number in the NFL, just 0.3 yards per attempt behind the Philadelphia Eagles, who were fourth in the league when throwing out of RPOs.

This note from Jeff, I found particularly interesting:

"When the quarterback did pull, league-wide last year, the average yards per attempt was 6.52 and there was a 78.8 completion percentage. Once again, easy money."

Jeff Ratcliffe - Pro Football Focus

Most of the NFL is beginning to employ more and more RPO and read-option concepts into their offensive game plans, making the defense's job a lot more challenging. Especially at the linebacker level.

No longer can the linebacker just simply read run or pass based on the way the quarterback drops or turns to hand off, but they have to determine:

  • Is the quarterback giving the ball to the runner?
  • If the quarterback kept it, is he looking to run?
  • If he's going to pass, where's the ball going?

All of that has to be decided within one to two seconds of the play. A linebacker is taught to read and react to the play as quickly as possible, which can create a significant advantage for the offense if the linebacker reads wrong.

The whole point of the read-option and the RPO is to create a lose-lose situation for the defense.

No matter what they do, it's a wrong choice.

If they read pass and drop into coverage, the ball carrier gets an advantage as he begins to go downhill. If the linebacker reads run and begins to attack the line of scrimmage, the QB pulls it and throws it to the spot vacated by the linebacker.

Having linebackers with elite athleticism, range, and coverage ability, like the Dallas Cowboys do in Sean Lee and potentially Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, will help them minimize the damage potential as they face increasing RPO usage.

Even if we talk about standard run and pass play calls, the defense was a much better unit when Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens were in the game. Points per game, rushing yards per game, and passing yards per game were all lower when those two were available. When the team had to rely on Jaylon Smith and Damien Wilson as their top two linebackers, they were lit up like a pinball machine.

The Cowboys hope Jaylon Smith can return to the All-American type of player he was with Notre Dame, but if he doesn't, Vander Esch is a good insurance policy for 2019.

The Boise State product is good in the run game, but he excels in the passing game when he drops into coverage.

Having three linebackers that can play the run and pass like these three potentially can will be a huge key to the Dallas Cowboys success on defense in 2018. They will make life a lot easier for the rest of the defense if they are able to maintain play discipline against the read-option and the run-pass option.

Having these three linebackers and their dual-threat ability in the run and pass game will help the Dallas Cowboys be in far less lose-lose situations than they might otherwise be. And for the Dallas Cowboys to achieve the goals the hope to achieve, namely a sixth Lombardi Trophy, these three will be the key to that success.



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Star Blog

Can TE Rico Gathers be More Than a Just Receiving Threat?

Brian Martin

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Rico Gathers, Rams

Rico Gathers is trying to follow in the footsteps of Tony Gonzales, Antonio Gates, and Jimmy Graham as someone who has successfully made the transition from college basketball player to tight end in the NFL. Unfortunately, that transition hasn't gone quite as smoothly as he probably would've hoped.

To date, Gathers really hasn't been able to put a lot on tape. He spent his rookie season on the practice squad with the Dallas Cowboys, but did gain some valuable experience working with Tony Romo. Last year he was just beginning to show what kind of threat he could be in the passing game when he unfortunately sustained a concussion in practice, pretty much ending his season.

As you can imagine, Rico Gathers still has a lot to prove heading into the 2018 season. In no way is his roster spot guaranteed right now. He may still be the most talented and physically gifted TE on the Cowboys roster, but that will only get him so far.

I for one think Gathers can be a tremendous threat in the passing game. I think the flashes we saw in preseason a year ago are exactly the kind of weapon he can turn into for Dak Prescott. He is even working a route running guru, David Robinson, to become even better in the passing game. But, we all know the Cowboys coaching staff demands a lot more from their tight ends.

Rico Gathers, Dalton Schultz

Dallas Cowboys TE Rico Gathers

In the Cowboys offensive scheme, the tight end is an important position. They have to be able to block in several different areas depending on the formation, especially at the point of attack as an in-line blocker, sometimes being left one on one against a defensive end. That means they have to be assignment sound pre and post snap, with the ability to make the right adjustments in a split second.

For Rico Gathers, this is the area of his game holding him back the most right now. We all know what kind of threat he can be in the passing game, but the Cowboys coaching staff wants someone they can trust to leave on the field down after down. This is where Gathers will have to prove himself the remainder of the offseason.

The Dallas Cowboys knew Rico Gathers was a developmental prospect when they drafted him in the sixth-round of the 2016 NFL Draft. They didn't know how long it would take for him to be be able to contribute, but that time may be running out. Year 3 could be his last chance to prove himself in Dallas.

Gathers is a mismatch player in the passing game against smaller defensive backs, but that might not be enough for the Cowboys coaching staff to keep him around. I would personally get him involved in the receiving game, especially with all the new faces Prescott will be throwing to this season, but unfortunately I'm not making those decisions.

Do you think Rico Gathers is more than just a passing game threat?



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Star Blog

Tony Romo Documentary in the Works

Jess Haynie

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Cowboys Blog - 5 Most Heartbreaking Losses Of The Tony Romo Era

If you've missed seeing Tony Romo on the field, an upcoming documentary may be the cure. The former Dallas Cowboys quarterback is reportedly the subject of a film chronicling his football career going all the way back to high school.

"Now or Never" will tell Romo's incredible story, going from undrafted to one of the top passers in the history of the Cowboys' storied franchise. It's being produced by a Texas-based company run by Christian Hanna (no known relation to James).

According to an article from MyRacineCounty.com, Romo's hometown newspaper, the tale of Tony's football career will be told going back to his days at Burlington High School in Wisconsin. It will follow him to Eastern Illinois University, the same QB hotbed that more recently produced Jimmy Garoppolo.

But what most of us will want to relive is Tony's amazing NFL career, which stands out among the most unexpected rises to stardom of any player in league history.

Romo, who was an undrafted free agent signed by the Cowboys in 2003, didn't play in a game for three seasons. He rose the QB depth chart through practice and preseason play, eventually becoming the backup and earning the respect of then-coach Bill Parcells.

 - Tony Romo, #9

Former Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo

In Week 7 of 2006, Parcells pulled struggling starter Drew Bledsoe at halftime and went with his intriguing young prospect. Tony's first pass in the NFL was one to forget; an interception.

About a decade later, Romo would retire as the Cowboys' all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns. He currently ranks fourth all-time in NFL history for passer rating.

Tony's career never saw the playoff and Super Bowl success of predecessors Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach, but he remains a beloved figure in team history. The controversial end to his football career, losing his job to rookie phenom Dak Prescott in 2016, created a major rift among Cowboys fans.

While no longer playing, Romo remains one of the hottest names in football. His charisma and football acumen have him in a featured role with CBS Broadcasting.

From obscurity to "anointing oil" to one of the most discussed names in sports, Tony Romo's story is fascinating. This documentary crew picked a great subject, and we look forward to enjoying their work and revisiting the Romo Era once the film is released.



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