The Dallas Cowboys have an interesting recent history with the Los Angeles Rams. In the Cowboys final game of 2018, their defense surrendered an astonishing 273 yards on the ground as they lost 30-22 to end their season in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. However, in Week 15 of 2019, the Rams could only muster 22 yards on 14 carries. Heading into another matchup with the Rams, we still don’t have a great feel for how the Cowboys will deploy their defense schematically, particularly in coverage. With that in mind, we’ll discuss their keys to a successful Week 1 defensively in different coverage situations.
Cowboys defense: Keys to success in Week 1
Defending the run
Discipline versus motion: linebackers
The Rams rushing attack took a step back in 2019, but it wasn’t because Sean McVay forgot how to scheme up an interesting and difficult attack to defend. The offensive line was a major struggle in 2019, and Todd Gurley’s unfortunately arthritic knees didn’t help the cause. Additionally, we mustn’t dismiss the fact they didn’t have that dump truck C.J Anderson in the backfield either.
Here we take a look at a run from the nightmarish drubbing late in 2018. The linebackers and members of the Cowboys secondary that were active in the run fit were not ready for what the Rams were looking to do.
On the above zone run, the Rams use jet motion in an attempt to occupy the left side of the defense and hold the linebackers. This allows the Rams offensive line another few moments to remain on the first level on combo blocks as the interior blocker attempts to get their head in front of the defender and into good positional leverage.
It takes only a moment, but at the 00:07 mark, look at the box. The numbers are even between blockers and defenders, despite beginning the play with eight offensive players condensed tight, with a ninth just inside the end zone camera view on the left. If you count the tight end that arc releases to Byron Jones they’re actually one up in numbers. Now is when the old Jason Garrett adage of “man beat man” actually works.
The motion holds Smith long enough that he’s unable to get to his assignment, which was to discourage an attempt at peeling the run back against the zone flow. In turn, Gurley reads the blocking correctly and cuts it back for a nice gain.
Discipline versus motion: defensive line
This particular rep did not bear the fruit that the Rams offense yearned for, but this is still one of the more interesting looks you’ll get for a run. The layers involved make eye and gap discipline paramount. It starts with jet motion, then looks as if there will be a misdirect pitch to Gurley opposite, to an interior run from Robert Woods back in the direction of the original jet. If Jared Goff could beat anybody other than Jeff Heath in a foot race, there could realistically be a world where the QB gets downhill with the ball off all that misdirection.
However, the Bengals defensive line remains connected in their run fits, all remaining head up on their blocker and able to defend gaps off both shoulders. Without that discipline from the defensive line, this play goes for massive yards for the Rams offense because the playside linebacker gets caught peeking to Gurley and gets down blocked into Narnia by Tyler Higbee.
The philosophical flip from a more penetrating style to deploying more two gap principles should help the Cowboys defensive line keep rushing lanes tighter, instead of over-penetrating and opening up a hole the average toddler could run through.
Defending the pass
Pressure Jared Goff
This may seem like an obvious “DUH!” moment, but it’s particularly important against Goff. Depending on where you look from a statistical standpoint against pressure, his 2016 draft mates Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz performed at the very top of the totem pole versus pressure. Jared Goff, conversely, has the reputation of being horrendous against pressure. Although that’s not necessarily the case, he is worse than the average quarterback when it comes to the difference between pressure/no pressure.
In the above video, the Rams offense runs play action from under center (they’re either running it here or it’s play action) with a levels concept to the right side of the formation. It’s an outstanding call against the coverage. The triangle coverage ran between the slot, safety, and cornerback on the left side of the defense becomes outnumbered.
The safety is forced to carry the #2 receiver vertical up the seam to defend against a deep out. The cornerback is responsible for all of the #1 vertical, which is the result here. They do have a safety deep middle to help against #2, which allows the underneath safety to separate and find the dig route. The slot defender gains depth, but with Gurley releasing to the flat, he sits.
The timing of it all leaves the dig open for a huge gain through the air. Honestly, I’m unsure why Goff doesn’t deliver that ball. Goff is a gifted passer down the field, and that dig is dangerous. Getting pressure against these longer-developing play-action passes is of utmost importance to the Cowboys, given the safety situation in Dallas.
Defending against boots
Hopefully, this isn’t as big a problem for the Cowboys in 2020. News from camp is hinting at a lot of two high shell looks, which would mean your Jeff Heaths and Darian Thompsons of the world aren’t consistently put in these situations having to flow inside and flipping to the outside. Hopefully, now they’re to remain more square and downhill from inside the hashes where they’re able to simply plant and drive to the fast flow to the flat. The Rams consistently picked on Heath in these situations, and they’ll do the same to Thompson if he’s forced into these spots.
Communication matching routes in the red zone
If the Cowboys join the 21st Century and begin running a higher % of match-based looks as the Saints do, communication will be the key to success. The Rams offense runs a mesh concept here against the Saints match zone coverage. The Cowboys defense must communicate these quick under routes and correctly pass them off.
The big plus for the Cowboys defense in these situations is the athleticism they have at linebacker. Although Jaylon Smith can struggle to change direction at times, he does not struggle with physicality, and within the contact window, he can thwart short crossers and turn to flow off that. Processing these movements is an instantaneous thing. A tick late by the slot defender on the bottom of the screen and that underneath crosser is open in the flat.
With injuries of undisclosed severity to cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and safety Xavier Woods, the Rams will be able to put a ton of pressure on a young and inexperienced secondary depending on their availability and health come Sunday night.