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Film Room: How Packers Exploited Cowboys On The Ground

Kevin Brady

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Film Room: How Packers Exploited Cowboys On The Ground
Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Going into the 2017 season, we all knew what the Dallas Cowboys were. They were (and are) a team which must rely on an efficient, ball control offense in order to win games and keep their sub-par defense off the field as much as possible.

Simple enough, right?

Largely due to the lack of offensive efficiency, and some injuries on the defensive side of the ball, the 2017 Cowboys have underachieved. They haven't underachieved where we thought they would, though.

Last season the Cowboys were near the top of the league in terms of rush yards against. Of course, this isn't the best way to truly measure a defense's effectiveness, but it was a fact nonetheless. So far this season the Cowboys have allowed 590 rushing yards through five games, ranking 20th in the league.

There are a lot of reasons for these defensive struggles against the run. Up the middle, the loss of defensive tackle Terrell McClain has proved vital, as Stephen Paea has been getting driven off the ball a ton, clouding the linebackers' reads.

Those same linebackers have also been, well, bad. Jaylon Smith doesn't look himself, Kyle Wilber and Justin Durant haven't really impressed, and without Anthony Hitchens or Sean Lee the past two weeks, this unit has really struggled.

Last Sunday, the Green Bay Packers gashed the Cowboys off tackle on more than one occasion. So, I decided to break down the film to see why this defense is giving up so many long runs off the edge.

dalvsgb run d - Streamable

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On the opening drive of the game, the Packers came out and immediately tested the right side of the Cowboys' defense. Using a pin and pull technique, the tight end down blocks on Tyrone Crawford as the left tackle pulls around.

Kyle Wilber operates as the SAM on this play. Taking a false read, Wilber undercuts the down block and allows Aaron Jones a clear path to the outside. When your SAM and your defensive end both lose contain, the play is going to look a lot like this.

Crawford has struggled a lot this year in these situations. He simply cannot get blocked so cleanly by tight ends if he is going to be an effective run defender. Crawford is primarily out there to play the run, but if teams are going to continue to abuse the edge like this, a change will need to be made.

dalvsgb run d 2 - Streamable

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Here is an example of Aaron Jones utilizing his vision to beat the Cowboys defense. But, still, the Cowboys are at fault here as well.

The Packers are trying to run right between the left guard and tackle. This is a pretty basic "Power" play, with the tackle and tight end doubling to the second level, the playside guard blocking down, and the backside guard pulling through.

Reading the offensive line, all three linebackers try to fill the hole which has been created. Also trying to close the hole is Crawford, who attempts to rip down a gap later on in the play.

With Kyle Wilber and Tyrone Crawford committing inside to the b-gap so early, Jones is able to cut outside and find clear running room. Then, Byron Jones takes a poor angle, and Aaron Jones is off to a big gain.

dalvsgb run d 4 - Streamable

Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.

Let's watch an example of the Cowboys correctly defending the edge against the run.

Once again the Packers go with a pin and pull technique on the playside. They also pull the playside guard. Taco Charlton is at right defensive end here, and he does a nice job of shedding the tight end and keeping his outside shoulder clean.

Because he wins against the tight end, the pulling guard must work back inside and seal Charlton. Kyle Wilber also scrapes to the outside instead of getting caught inside the tight end. Although the other blocks are made, the Cowboys are now left with Orlando Scandrick one-on-one with the running back.

This just comes down to making a great individual effort, which is exactly what Scandrick does on this particular play.

The Cowboys defense has not been good enough against the run or the pass, but after watching the film, I'm convinced some of it can be fixed by current personnel. By getting Sean Lee back, and hopefully seeing less of Tyrone Crawford at RDE, the Cowboys can get their defense back in the right direction.



Die-hard Cowboys fan from the Northeast, so you know I am here to defend the 'boys whenever necessary. Began writing for a WordPress Cowboys Blog, and am currently a college student. Lets get going.

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1 Comment
  • http://www.dallascowboyschat.com Cowboysdude

    Seriously? Like it was hard to expose that team? They have a puppet for a HC and the GM is a joke…. it’s not a team….. it’s a punchline.

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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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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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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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