Thursday, October 8, 2015

Cowboys' Lack Of Depth On Offense Spells Doom Against Fresh Patriots' Defense

The Dallas offensive line is considered to be the best in football. Unfortunately, the rest of the offense doesn't follow suit.
In the National Football League, a team wants to have a good balance between style and substance.

Having substance, of course, means being fundamentally sound - which puts a unit in position to be successful, while style is the manner in which a team applies its fundamental base.

Both the New England Patriots and thier opponents this Sunday afternoon, the Dallas Cowboys, have plenty of substance. The Cowboys can boast the best offensive line in the game and one of the best defensive lines that provide them with their fundamental base, while the Patriots substance is in their preparation for their foes on an individual basis, morphing into whatever they need to be to give themselves the advantage over their opponents...
Sheard and Collins plan on meeting in the Dallas backfield many times...

...and while the Patriots gain their style from impressive depth at virtually every position on the field, the Cowboys' lack of depth has cramped their style in the wake of one devastating injury after another, to the point where they are forced to just take what the other team is giving them and hope to break off something proper in the way of the big play.

Advantage, New England.  Impressive advantage.

Before the season began, this week four matchup was one that the fans of both teams had circled on their calendars because, hey, it's America's Team in the Cowboys against the Evil Empire of the Godless Patriots - both favored to win their respective divisions and some brave pundits even choosing the two to meet in Super Bowl 50...

...which may or may not happen, but with all of the injuries the Cowboys are dealing with, by the time they get back their starting quarterback and All Pro receiver Dez Bryant, they may be too far behind in the standings to make up enough ground to even qualify for the playoffs - but then again, they DO play in the NFC East, where the teams beat the living crap out of each other and a mediocre record just north of .500 is usually enough to wear the caps and tshirts.

One of the reasons why the Cowboys were favorites to win the east is due to their explosive offense, which features Bryant, Terrence Williams, Julian Edelman wannabe Cole Beasley and tight end Jason Whitten running patterns and catching passes from veteran quarterback Tony Romo, with a running game that would be ok despite losing All Pro running back DeMarco Murray to rival Philadelphia in the offseason.

Besides, all of this style operated with the best offensive line in the game, a fact that had the Cowboys' brain-trust certain that it didn't matter whether it was Murray or some scrub taking handoffs, because the line would open holes wide enough for Jerry Jones' ego to drive through - and at first glance of the statistics thus far in 2015, they would be right - but, as always, a little digging down through the numbers reveal a much different perspective.

Dallas' running game averages 4.1 yards per carry - but that includes the work of passing back Lance Dunbar, who is now lost for the season after tearing his ACL against the New Orleans Saints last Sunday, leaving the trio of Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden and Christine Michael to operate as a committee, a conglomerate that is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry, good for a bottom-third-of-the-league standing.

The problem being that the Cowboys are having issues running straight up the gut, averaging just 2.2 yards per carry between the tackles where the excellent trio of left guard Ronald Leary, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin set up shop - most of which can be attributed to their opposition loading up the box since Romo and Bryant went down with season altering injuries, but some of the blame has to go on management for letting Murray walk without a suitable replacement.

Not that Murray is all that - he's averaging less than two yards per carry with his new team - but he could exploit the creases created by his interior line in a way that the other three apparently can not - which is a death knell in the absence of the two biggest play makers the Cowboys have.

The injuries have certainly sapped the Cowboys of their style, which for our purposes is defined as flashiness among the skill positions, leaving them in the middle of the pack so far as scoring points and, obviously, in overall record as they have dropped their last two games since Romo's collarbone was snapped like a twig in the week two matchup with Philadelphia.

Curiously, however, it has been the defense that has been the bitch-kitty for the Cowboys, allowing nearly double the number of points to their opponents in the two losses as they did the first two weeks of the season. The offense has continued to produce points at a clip of 24 per game, but the math dictates that when your defense is handing over 33 points a game to the opposition, there's not going to be many crooked numbers in the win column.

Not all of that is the fault of the defenders, however, as Dallas has lost the time of possession battle against their last two opponents and the offense been a pathetic 4 of 18 on third down conversions, their average drive lasting just five plays - meaning that the Dallas defense is on the field far too long, which enables the opposing offense to wear them down with sheer snap numbers.

So what the Cowboys need to do to is to find a way to counter what they've been left with on offense by converting a more reasonable percentage of third downs - which for a team that has been left bare bones in style points, falling back on the substance of fundamentals is going to carry them through most games, given the talent left on the roster.

But, unfortunately, it won't be enough for them to get by New England.

That is, unless they either cause a bunch of turnovers or actually start running the ball up to their enormous potential.

Leary, Travis and Frederick are flanked by one of the better tackle tandems in the league, fragile veteran Doug Free a drive blocking force on the strong side while two-time Pro Bowl selection Tyron Smith protects his quarterback's blind side - who at this point is former Cleveland draft bust Brandon Weeden, with recent addition Matt Cassel right on his heels.

Weeden is primed to be a career backup, and the Cowboys have shaved their playbook all the way down to the bone in bringing the fourth-year player along slowly, but there just isn't much more they can do with his sloth-like athleticism and his penchant for telegraphing his throws, two facts that have to have both the Cowboys' brass re-tinking the position and the Patriots' safeties drooling in anticipation of reading Weedens' eyes.

Cassel has been with the team for three weeks, and given his veteran status and the fact that he's had to learn five different offensive philosophies in his ten NFL seasons, he would seem to be the better option for Dallas against the Patriots, so no one should be surprised if Dallas coach Jason Garrett pulls the plug on Weeden if he struggles coming out of the gate on Sunday.

The running back position is another matter entirely, as Garrett is dealing with a running back by committee approach.  Randle has performed decently as the "lead" back in this offense with a 3.9 yard per carry average, while McFadden and Michael really don't have defined roles in the offense, other than being second and third on the depth chart.

Losing Dunbar could be the straw that breaks the offense's back, as he has been their most dynamic and stylish player as the third-down back and lagging just behind Witten for the teams' receptions leader.  Randle has a decent set of mitts and could see his workload increase across three downs, saving McFadden and Michael as seldom-used change of pace backs.

Shaving down the offense has meant checkdowns and dink-and-dunk passing, which is fine if you're making first downs and chewing up the clock to give your defense a rest, but when Garrett had seen enough of the inept product he kept trotting out onto the field with four minutes left in last Sunday's contest with the Saints, he exposed his remaining receivers as having enough potential to maybe let Weeden incorporate a liitle more of the playbook into his resume.

With their backs to the wall and facing a seven point deficit, Garrett had Weeden air it out, the result being an 8 play, 91 yard touchdown drive in which the besieged signal caller completed passes of 24, 28 and 19 yards to get the Cowboys in scoring position, then hit Williams with a 17 yard strike to tie the game.

Dallas eventually lost when New Orleans scored just seconds into overtime, an 80- yard wheel route by Saints' back C.J. Spiller the difference, but the drive led by Weeden was enough for Garrett to name him as the starter against a Patriots' defense that is rested and focused on continuation of New England's "Scorched Earth Tour", as it were.

During their bye week, the Patriots brought aboard plenty of reinforcements to their so far less-than-stellar run defense, Trading precious draft capital to the Saints for defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, who was curiously being phased out of their defense after an up-and-down 2014 season. Hicks wore down at the end of the season, so joining a Patriots team that has enough depth in their front seven to rotate players in and out to keep them fresh without much of a drop off has to be intriguing.

Same with former Green Bay defensive tackle Khyri Thronton, whom the Patriots activated off the practice squad after the Packers cut him after just one redshirt season. Thornton joins fellow Southern Mississippi teammate Jamie Collins in a Patriots' defensive rotation that has been trying to find its gumption in the run defense after being shredded by the Steelers and Bills running games in respective weeks to start the season.

They were much better against Jacksonville in the week before their bye, but it appears that head ball coach Bill Belichick has chalked that up to the ineptness of the Jaguars' offense in bringing aboard two outsiders.  In reality, the New England run defense hasn't been as bad as their numbers indicate, as they have adjusted well during the course of games to what their opponents have run at them, and have been able to make key stops in helping the team start the season 3-0.

How deep are the Patriots in the front seven? How about the fact that they now boast 18 players for seven spots, with each one of them able to contribute in different positions.

That is a powerful toy which will enable the Patriots not only to rotate players in and out to keep them fresh, but also for them to disguise rush packages and to help the Big nickle secondary to hide their coverage assignments underneath. To aid in this task, Belichick sent more draft capital to Chicago for third-year weaksider Jon Bostic, who is an immediate upgrade to anyone the Patriots had the cover backs wheeling out of the backfield.

Despite the Cowboys' lack of depth at receiver and in their backfield, the Patriots will probably still play in their three safety nickle package with the focus being on stopping the run and shutting down Dallas' best weapon in Witten. Gavin Escobar has seen an uptick in his snaps since all of the injuries have occurred and is a lithe receiver in the intermediate game.

Dallas is razor thin in the pass catching department with Bryant and Dunbar gone, so the Patriots secondary will have to only deal with the likes of Williams and Beasley, with Devin Street and Brice Butler thrown in to the mix as possession options - but the fact of the matter is that without Romo and Bryant and even Dunbar, the Cowboys just don't have the weapons to challenge the New England defense.

But suppose the Cowboys did something perverted like going into an up-tempo offense to limit the Patriots' ability to morph from play to play on defense, held the players on the field in their stances until the play clock is almost wound down, then found the ability to run the football with authority?

That's a nice thought for Cowboys' fans, but given that Weeden is their quarterback should give them pause and snap them out of any daydream they have about their offense being anything more than a bottom-third unit until Romo and Bryant find their way back from the hot tub.

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