This year, Matthew Sottile and I will break down the opposing team’s defense in our weekly scouting report. Like last year, I will be looking at the opposing team in a more broad, scheme-approach. Matthew will have a closer eye on the individual players.
Today, the Dallas Cowboys’ defense.
Alex’s Scheme Report
Cowboy’s Front Seven
Their run defense has been a little above average. Just 19 runs of 10+ yards, tied for 7th best, and only four of 20+. The Steelers have been sluggish in both these categories, even since Le’Veon Bell’s return, and that needs to change this week. Dallas is allowing 4.2 YPC, about middle of the pack, but they tighten up in the redzone. They’ve given up just three touchdowns this season tied for the top mark in the league with Kansas City.
As Todd Haley has talked about, and what I’m finding out, is like any 4-3 team, they are really deep along the defensive line. Want to be able to establish a rotation. On the season, eight defensive linemen have played at least 20% of the snaps and last week, seven played at least a quarter of the time.
Jack Crawford is a versatile piece, capable of playing inside or out along the right side. Terrell McClain, rookie Maliek Collins (a good fit for their system), and Cedric Thornton on the interior.
Tyrone Crawford and Demarcus Lawrence see a lot of time at LDE (Marcus Gilbert’s side) with Crawford and Benson Mayowa on the right.
It’s an athletic group that fits well in their one-gap scheme under Rod Marinelli. Always have been, even when they were a 3-4 team with Jay Ratliff as the nose tackle. That makes them tough but you can beat them with some perimeter runs if the line uses angles and washes the penetration. Like the Eagles did here on this touchdown on this cool wrinkle, a fold block with the playside left tackle pulling.
Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens are the every down linebackers. Damien Wilson (#57) comes on the field in base. From my view, it doesn’t look like they have designated positions in terms of strong/weak.
Hitchens will move to become the MIKE in their base 4-3 but I’ve seen Lee play the strong or weak in nickel and base. He’s talented enough to play basically everywhere on the field.
They run a 4-2-5 nickel but show a lot of 3-2-6 dime. So it’s a multiple front defense.
They’ve been hit hard with injuries so this group is coming in worse than any numbers would tell you. Safety Barry Church and cornerback Morris Claiborne are both out for several weeks. They’ve been replaced by Orlando Scandrick and JJ Wilcox, a pair of veteran dudes.
At corner, Brandon Carr is the right corner with Scandrick opposite in base. In nickel, it looks like rookie Anthony Brown will be the nickel corner but he’s playing on the outside at left corner with Scandrick moving into the slot.
As I wrote about before, Dallas plays a good deal of dime. Before, Church would be the box defender. Now, I’m not sure who that is going to with him out. Maybe Wilcox.
At safety, it’s Wilcox and the uber-athletic Bryon Jones, who lines up all over the field. Single high, two deep, over slot, he has cornerback and safety skills. A better version of Sean Davis.
Coverage-wise, they’re a little boring. Not getting yelled at by Gordon Ramsay bland but pretty basic. Cover 2 is their predominant coverage and they’ll use it in pretty much any “and long” situation.
Here is is on 2nd and 8.
Getting Ladarius Green back would be a way to exploit this down the seam, especially in base if you’re attacking Hitchens and not Lee, the latter being the much better athlete.
Also looking at throw in the “honey hole,” behind the corner and in front of the safety down the sidelines. Corner routes – and smash concepts (curl/corner) – are classic Cover 2 beaters. They don’t have to go far for advice; Mike Tomlin knows the strengths/weaknesses of this scheme as well as anyone.
They did a little more safety rotation against the Cleveland Browns than the Philadelphia Eagles but they are pretty static. Two high means zone, single high means Cover 1. I think they’re fairly predictable and definitely beatable.
But they can get aggressive as a blitzer. These almost all seem to be in “and long” situations, usually on early downs. Here are the down/distances of all the blitzes I wrote.
2nd and 11
3rd and 9
3rd and 11
1st and 10
1st and 10
1st and 10
You’ll get multiple linebacker blitzes and some nickel and boundary safety stuff too. There is a variety.
Cowboys’ Special Teams
Wilcox and Jones are the gunners. Tight ends Geoff Swaim and Gavin Escobar are the wings on the punt team. Always makes me nervous when there are two offensive players who could potentially catch passes. Both guys are pretty athletic too.
Safety Jeff Heath is the upman. Chris Jones is the punter/holder. As a punter, the Cowboys ran a 30 yard fake on 4th and 8 from their own 27 two weeks ago. It happened late in the third quarter with them down 20-10. He has not thrown a pass in his career.
Matthew’s Individual Report
After a bleak display last Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers hope to snap their current 3-game losing streak when they host the blazing hot Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboy offense is largely responsibly for their 7-1 start to the season- their defense, however, has experienced both ups and downs. Let’s take a look at the defensive culprits.
The Cowboys traditionally play in a 4-3 base, but as we know about the ever-changing offenses of the NFL, is not always utilized as much as it has in past years. The front 7 has been the “weakest link” of this defense, outside a few standout plays.
Starting inside, we see defensive tackles Tyrone Crawford and Terrell McClain. Crawford, and all intent purposes, is the workhorse on that defensive line; he leads the snap count at 357. He grades slightly above average in the pass-rushing category, leading the team with 4 sacks and 16 quarterback hurries. It’s against the run that he displays his struggles, as he has difficulty getting off blocks and using that 6’4”, 284-pound frame to his ability. That isn’t always the case, though. Take a look below.
He starts in the middle of the play, finger in the ground. The stunt is deployed, as Crawford gets a massive jump and actually uses that frame to his advantage. I highlight this play to illustrate the potential, especially with a banged-up Maurkice Pouncey (that is, if he plays). He eventually gets to the quarterback for a sack.
Terrell McClain is the ying to Crawford’s yang. His strengths lie in the run game; he struggles immensely when being deployed in the pass rush. He’s second only to Sean Lee when it comes to tackles behind the line of scrimmage, as he’s always giving offenses fits of rage when he swallows on ball carriers and ‘backs alike. He’s displayed incredible development since entering the league in 2011 out of South Florida, improving against the run each and every single year.
The ends consist of Jack Crawford (one Crawford isn’t enough for this defense!), and Benson Mayowa. Both of these players fall into the narrative of pass-rushing struggles (Steelers fans should be familiar with this by now), and frankly aren’t tout against the run, either. Of the two, Mayowa illustrates potential and has graded positively against the run.
Crawford, on the other hand, looks to be one of the weaker links on the front 7; he has difficulties with pulling guards, and seems to get lost quite easily and doesn’t recover well when pushed outside of his assignment. Look for the Steelers’ offensive line to get back on the horse when deploying Le’Veon Bell.
The linebackers are lead by standout Sean Lee, who leads the team in defensive snaps with 501. Consistently battling injuries, Lee has displayed his potential to be a monster on the defensive side of the ball when healthy- he leads the team with 29 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and overall tackles. What’s great about Lee is not only his defensive abilities against the run, but his pass coverage abilities.
He shows flashes all over the field, sticking to his assigned tight end or slot receiver. That being said, he did in fact struggle a bit last week against the Cleveland Browns, allowing a 100% reception rate on all 6 targets for 86 yards and a quarterback rating of 118.8. This should come as good news for the Steelers’ recent offensive struggles, as Ben Roethlisberger has been looking Jesse James’ way more and more often.
The remaining linebackers consist of Anthony Hitchens and Andrew Gachkar, although if any third linebacker sees the field it’s more than likely going to be Justin Durant. Hitchens does his work in the pass rush, and in coverage. He, like some of his teammates, struggles against the run; when I say struggles, I mean struggles, but he has his moments, too. Steelers better hope it’s an off day, because if it’s a day like the one below…
Number 59, Hitchens, plays as a spy and fakes a blitz off the line. Carson Wentz starts right as the pocket breaks down; Hitchens stays in his gap and pursues quickly. The result is a 2-yard loss, and can easily be substituted as a Bell-type toss.
Durant is sort of the team’s swiss army knife along the linebacking corpse; he does a bit of everything well, but nothing great. The beat of the front 7 really is with Lee, and only Lee.
The secondary is where things turn around for the defense, starting with their cornerbacks. Like I mentioned earlier, many teams are moving away from traditional base defenses and moving towards implementing the nickel and dime formations. Thus, the Cowboys usually have 3 corners on the field, of which are Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick (and occasionally sprinkle in Anthony Brown).
Starting with Carr, we see yet another defensive workhorse, second to Lee’s team leading 501 snaps by 1, sitting at 500. Although he struggled over the past two seasons, it seems as though he’s found his Cowboy stride. He recorded his strongest game against the Cincinnati Bengals, allowing only 1 reception on 4 targets for 9 yards, and a quarterback rating of 39.6. He also had a strong display last week against the Cleveland Browns, again allowing a lone reception on 4 targets, for you guessed it, 9 total yards and a batted ball.
Clairborne has been battling a sports hernia that saw him miss last week’s contest against the Browns, and will also miss this Sunday’s game as well. This may be a blessing for the Steelers, as Clairborne has gone from the goat on the defense, to leading the team in defensive coverage. If that’s the case, the Steelers will definitely see a lot of both Scandrick and Brown.
Both players have held their own this year, but do in fact make the secondary a bit more vulnerable. Scandrick allowed 4 receptions on 6 targets for 40 yards and a quarterback rating of 85.4 last week against the Browns. Moreover, Brown allowed all 3 targets for receptions that resulted in 30 yards and a touchdown; not to mention a quarterback rating of 147.9!
The safeties have also been battling injuries, as Barry Church will be out of action with a broken forearm, thus opening a spot for J.J. Wilcox. While filling in here and there, Wilcox has played admirably- the only problem for Dallas is the amount of time he’s going to be playing.
He’s played well when asked to fill in for about 50% of the team’s defensive snaps. When he’s asked to play an entire game, his play drops off drastically. Historically doesn’t help him either, as he’s graded incredibly poor against the run and pass since entering the league in 2013.
That leaves free safety Byron Jones, who has illustrated his instinctual coverage abilities over the past two seasons. While he started the year off hot (he graded positively in his first 3 games), he’s since cooled off, and is looking to regain his form.
With all of the injuries, he’s going to have to find it if they want to continue their success. Stopping the only target that came his way last week, he allowed 4 receptions on 7 targets for 23 yards the week before, against the Philadelphia Eagles. A lot of the Cowboys’ defensive success or failure hinges on Jones’ play, especially with the injuries to both Church and Claiborne.
Taking a look at their special teams, we see Chris Jones who has punted 24 balls thus far, averaging 46.5 yards with a long of 63. Nine of those were inside the 20, with 11 being returned by opposing teams. Conversely, teams have punted 32 times for an average of 44.3 yard and a long of 65. Of those 32, 9 were inside the 20 yard line, and 13 were returned- those went for an average of 7.5 yards, with a long of 15.
Opponents have returned 11 punts, for an average of 11.5 yards, with a long of 26. I mentioned it last week (and it did not come to fruition), but if the Steelers need a boost, look for Antonio Brown to be back there looking for a few key blocks.