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Opponent Scouting Report: Cowboys Defense — Just like the Colts defense, with more talent.

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NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

On December 16, 2018 the Indianapolis Colts will host the Dallas Cowboys. In this week fifteen match-up I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.

Let’s figure out what we can expect in week fifteen.


Defense

Rod Marinelli’s defense looks a lot like Matt Eberflus’ defense because Eberflus learned under Marinelli from 2011 to 2017. When I turned on the tape of these Cowboys it looked very similar to what I see every Sunday from our Colts, just with a lot more talent.

I found a short but solid breakdown of the basics of Marinelli’s defense over on Gang Green Nation from John B. back in 2015. From the article:

Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is a disciple of legendary defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Along with Tony Dungy, Kiffin developed a defense known as the Tampa 2. It was a very specific type of coverage that depended upon execution. more than deception...

On defenses like the 2002 Buccaneers, it didn’t matter whether the offense knew this was the what the defense was running. Success was based upon execution.

Marinelli does not stick strictly with the Tampa 2. The true Tampa 2 has gone out of style in the NFL as the offenses have adapted and adjusted.

Every zone coverage has holes. (If there were a zone coverage that didn’t have holes, defenses would play it on every snap.) Cover 2, with its static back seven defenders, has obvious holes. (Mainly, the deep-intermediate outside window above the corners and in front of the safeties, and the seams beyond the linebackers and in front of the safeties.) As the scheme became more prominent, offenses naturally focused more on exploiting those holes.

Offenses learned the weak points and how to attack them.

Marinelli’s defense in Dallas mixes its coverages, but many of the core principles of his defense are derived from the Tampa 2.

Marinelli does not like to blitz. A year ago, Dallas blitzed less than any team not named Jacksonville. The concept was simple. By only rushing four men on most plays, seven drop into coverage. With seven guys back, there are more people to cover and make a tackle in case somebody makes a mistake.

The aim is to avoid the big play. There are less pass rushers, which means less chance of something big happening for the offense. It also means more guys in the back. The players can keep things in front of them to prevent the big play. Sure enough, the Dallas defense has allowed the seventh least plays gaining 20 yards or more from scrimmage.

If this isn’t sounding and looking familiar to you by now, I assume you either haven’t watched a Colts game all year or you nap anytime Andrew Luck isn’t on the field. On to gap assignments:

The lack of a blitz leaves the bulk of the pass rush to the defensive line. This means those guys have to get to the quarterback. You will see some defenses where defensive linemen are responsible for eating up space. Their job might be to occupy offensive linemen and keep linebackers clean. That is not as much the case in this defense. Their job is to get up the field and shoot the gaps.

That is what the assignment might look like against the pass. Since these guys are playing the gaps, it gives the linebackers a responsibility to handle gaps against the run.

The author goes on to explain that the Cowboys value speed over size and reiterated their desire to limit the big play.

Like I said, if you’ve paid attention to the Colts on defense this year, you should know exactly what to expect schematically. The system is built on speed and execution and it’s designed to prevent big plays. The Cowboys don’t blitz a lot, but they really don’t need to given the players that will line up in front of our vaunted offensive line. Next we’ll take a look at the talent they have at all three levels of the defense.


Defensive Line

The Colts have racked up 35 sacks this year, which is tied for 12th in the league. The team they’re tied with; the Dallas Cowboys. Demarcus Lawrence leads the team with 9.5 sacks on the year. Tyrone Crawford is next with 5.5 and Randy Gregory has 4 of his own.

To go along with their slightly better than middle of the road sack totals, the Cowboys have an elite rush defense giving up the third fewest yards on the ground, allowing a paltry 3.5 yards per carry — the lowest in the league.

With that said, there are exploitable aspects of this defense

Due to the nature of the Cowboys attacking, one gap scheme, at times defensive linemen will get up field and unless they feel the pulling guard coming and squeeze down to counter his block, this is what happens. To be fair, this play is the exception to what the Cowboys have put on tape this season, but it is an area I hope Frank Reich will look to exploit.

Randy Gregory hasn’t been exceptional this season but every now and then he does something special:

Watch Gregory on the right side of the line. He’s lined up against Jason Peters he gets up field and Peters probably believed he had run Gregory past the play, instead Gregory bends around the edge and cuts back toward Carson Wentz bringing him down for the sack. There aren’t a ton of guys with the physical ability to bend, put a foot in the ground and make that sack.

It was a great play.

This reminds me of something Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis would have done in 2005. Both Lawrence and Gregory are great athletes and could present real issues for Anthony Castonzo and Braden Smith. Having a guy like Jack Doyle would have been huge helping on the outside. On the inside Maliek Collins and Tyrone Crawford will do their best to limit Marlon Mack. With Ryan Kelly back in action this week, that may prove to be a tall task. It should be a fun matchup to watch this week.


Linebackers

The Cowboys have maybe the most exciting core of young linebackers in the league. Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are what make it so exciting for Cowboys fans. It doesn’t really matter who the third linebacker is, those two guys look like great building blocks for this defense for years to come.

One thing to note about them is the way that the Eagles tight ends were able to produce despite the talent at linebacker.

This play was made possible due to the fact that the linebacker covering him had no idea the ball was even in the air. Rumor has it Dallas Goedert was almost a Cowboy before the Eagles traded up, one spot in front of the Cowboys and drafted the tight end. Here he came up with a grab after winning his route. Eric Ebron is another Colt to watch this week, if he can separate he could have another nice day.

A lot in the national media are claiming that Vander Esch deserves to win defensive rookie of the year over guys like Derwin James and our own Darius Leonard. I’m not in that camp but one thing Vander Esch does better than Leonard is shown above. Vander Esch does a good job taking on blocks and making stops and frankly Leonard’s slight frame has limited his effectiveness when taking on blocks inside. With that said, Leonard has had the bigger impact on his team but Vander Esch is also a special player.

Vander Esch is pretty good in the open field too. That’s Alvin Kamara. He can outrun a lot of linebackers and he can make most of them miss. Here Vander Esch makes a tough open field tackle against an electric playmaker and it’s not a fluke.

When you look at these linebackers and the defensive line, it’s not hard to figure out why they’re playing so well. While they’ve given up big games to talented tight ends, I wouldn’t trust that such an athletic group would continue to struggle. I’ve made it this far and I haven’t even mentioned Sean Lee, mostly because he’s been hurt most of this year (and most years in recent memory). When healthy Lee is an amazing linebacker in his own right. I’m not sure all three men could effectively play together at the same time, but the talent that exists in the Dallas Cowboys linebacker room is ridiculous.


Defensive Backs

Well if you were looking for some weakness, some smoking gun the Colts could exploit and you got all the way down to the defensive backs and instead of giving you good news, I have nothing but bad news for you.

Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown will get the lions share of snaps at corner and Jourdan Lewis may get some burn as well.

Jeff Heath and Xaiver Woods will play safety.

Awuzie, has struggled in coverage this season but in the past few weeks something seems to have changed and he’s playing at a much higher level. Jones has turned into a top 10 corner. Heath and Woods aren’t amazing but they’ve played pretty well all things considered and really Woods has played very well. If there was a weak spot in this defense it would be Jeff Heath, that said we’ve seen worse defensive back groups this year by a wide margin.

This is the type of play we’re going to need to run if the Colts hope to have consistent success through the air. Here Ertz finds a hole in the zone and sits in it. Vander Esch takes a false step in the wrong direction and Carson Wentz finds the open man.

This is a great example of how the Cowboys (and Colts) look to prevent big plays. This defense looks exactly like what the Colts have done many times this year. The Colts aren’t a good run after catch team, which is a problem, especially when your opponent is great at limiting RAC already. Andrew Luck can lead multiple 80+ yard drives with 10-14 plays per drive, but it means he’ll have to be perfect if the Colts want to win. Hopefully TY Hilton can get over the top and create some explosive plays.

I found this play by Awuzie that shows his ability. This is a pick play and instead of trying to work around the block, Awuzie closes the gap between him and the man he was covering which put him in great position to make a play. Awuzie hasn’t been out of this world but he has the physical ability to play very well at times.

This group of DB’s isn’t as good as the Cowboys group of linebackers but it is very good and this group has played very well in the past few weeks. Hopefully, they have a rough day against our Colts and T.Y. Hilton is good to go.


Final Thoughts:

Our Colts have played very well over the second half of the season, sans the Jacksonville game. The Cowboys have played very well over the second half of the season, only they haven’t had their “Jacksonville game” yet. Here’s to hoping our Colts will put together a dominating performance, but it could end up being a very close game.