Dallas Cowboys: Week 3 defensive plan for success

Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports /
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Dallas Cowboys Defense Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Dallas Cowboys Defense Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

Dallas Cowboys: Personnel Adjustment

The Philadelphia Eagles run 11 (1 RB, 1 TE) personnel 64 percent of the time and 12 (1 RB, 2 TE) personnel 25 percent of the time. Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz display versatility to line up inline as well as in the slot. In all situations where both these two players are on the field, the team needs a linebacker or safety to cover them.

But as for most of the remaining snaps, Philadelphia is utilizing three wide receivers, a common occurrence around the league. The Cowboys currently run Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis as their three cornerbacks in Nickel. (Or base, cause Nickel is base and all that…) The sub behind Lewis isn’t Maurice Canady or rookie Nahshon Wright, it’s been veteran safety, Jayron Kearse.

It’s quite unusual for someone of his stature and athletic ability to be as productive as he’s been covering slot receivers, but considering the last two teams’ slot receivers are Chris Godwin and Keenan Allen, maybe this makes a bit more sense. In fact, last week Kearse played more in coverage than Jourdan Lewis.

All of a sudden, a matchup that fits Godwin and Allen doesn’t seem like an ideal fit for receivers like Jalen Reagor, Quez Watkins, and DeVonta Smith. All three of them are smaller, quicker, and faster than Godwin and Allen making them more difficult for Lewis and Kearse who already struggle with their athletic abilities.

So what do we do? Lewis is pretty limited in coverage with only the ability to match up against wide receivers. (If even?) He also poses a matchup disadvantage as he doesn’t have the speed of any of the three receivers mentioned. What could work for him is the Eagles choosing to commit to a short passing offense so he won’t get beat deep as often, but that doesn’t prevent him from being a liability in coverage in the short and intermediate areas of the field.

Kearse does have the body type and press coverage ability to play against receivers and tight ends. He did a good job against LAs tight ends; hopefully, that would carry over to this game where the Eagles have two above-average tight ends at their disposal. My only question would be how well he covers wide receivers in man coverage?

Perhaps the ultimate answer to this question isn’t either of these two players, maybe it’s one of the five linebackers the team has at their disposal?

Being without Keanu Neal is less than ideal, but the team will still have four other linebackers at their disposal. Jaylon Smith impressed covering Austin Ekeler last week, but asking him to cover Quez Watkins or Jalen Reagor seems like a free 100 yard game for either receiver. Playing either Leighton Vander Esch or Jabrill Cox could work as both are athletic enough to cover receivers, but asking a linebacker to cover a receiver man-on is usually a last resort type of deal.

So how do the Cowboys approach this?

The Cowboys likely start with their base defense but then trend towards Big Nickel on early downs as well. If Neal isn’t cleared to go by Monday, this could be tricky, but the Cowboys likely start with their 3-4 with Osa Odighizuwa, Brent Urban, and Randy Gregory as their linemen giving players like Tarrell Basham, Azur Kamara, and Chauncey Gholston the ability to rush standing up on the edge with Micah Parsons, Leighton Vander Esch, and Jaylon Smith as the three off-ball linebackers on the field. (Gholston, Basham, and Gregory fortunately have the versatility to play in a two and three-point stance)

Playing as such should help the team on early downs when the Eagles want to run the ball. (The Eagles are 4th in the league in first-down rushing rate at 43 percent) The defense can contain the edge on zone read/read option type runs forcing Hurts to hand the ball off every time. It allows Micah Parsons to play as a linebacker on early downs just like he wants while giving the team a bigger body at the line of scrimmage to engage at the point of attack. It also gives the team confidence to stop the run, if they do, against a good run-blocking offensive line.

That confidence should spread to clear passing situations where the Cowboys should then adopt Big Nickel. The team missed Donovan Wilson last week, but Malik Hooker was able to fill in and made some crucial tackles on the back end of the defense. Hopefully, this week Wilson can be active so the team can run him with Kazee and Kearse with Hooker replacing him or Kazee at any time.

Now when the team wants to run man coverage they have the size to match all receivers including the Eagles’ two tight ends and when the defense runs zone they have multiple big defenders covering the flat and curl zones. I fully expect the defense to play more zone coverage, but it’s certainly something to consider.

Eventually, this should translate to running downs as well as the team can use two box safeties on either side to fit the run without having to constantly change personnel. Kearse is pretty much built like a linebacker while Wilson has the play strength of one.

The three safety base defense is a big part of what Phil Snow and Carolina are doing right now. It gives them the ability to defend the run and pass simultaneously from the same looks. Having to never take defenders off the field except for rest makes things difficult for opposing offenses because even though coverage shells might look the same, any player can drop into a different zone deceiving the quarterback’s eyes.

So now onto the playcalling.