I subjected myself to something difficult today: Watching the Dallas Cowboys vs. New York Jets game from last Sunday. Why did I do this, you ask? Simple: to get an idea what Dallas likes to do on both sides of the ball and come up with some theories how to be successful against them.
What I try to do is stop the action just before the snap to determine what personnel package each team is in. Here's a brief refresher on personnel packages on both sides of the ball, as I'll be referencing them throughout the rest of this piece.
- XY Personnel - X is how many RB's and Y is how many TE's are on the field. There are five spots for RB, TE, and WR...so subtract the number of RB's and TE's from 5 to see how many WR's are on the field. For instance, 12 personnel is 1 RB, 2 TE's and thus 2 WR's. 11 personnel is 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR's.
- Base (or base 3-4) - is the team's primary defense, which in the Cowboys' case is the 3-4. This means they have three down linemen and four linebackers, leaving 4 defensive backs.
- Nickel - This defense usually features four DL's, two LB's and five DB's. It can have a 3-3-5 alignment too (DL, LB, DB) but that is somewhat rare. Notice we refer to the positions from the ball-backward.
- Dime - This is a 3-2-6 defense.
Let me start out by saying that Dallas' offense didn't really "scare" me watching the game. The Jets weren't exactly stuffing the run early-on, which set up a lot of things later. Dallas likes to run out of 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE) which is a typical base offensive formation nowadays in the NFL. Having an extra TE means there's seven blockers, so you have to be able to stop the run.
The reason 12 personnel is so attractive to teams who can run out of it is that it forces the defense to play more base defense to stop the run, and/or bring a safety down into the box. If you have an athletic TE who's a good receiver, now you have less coverage in the pass game than you would against a Nickel or Dime front.
The bottom line, though, is that you have to be able to run the ball to make 12 personnel work. Early in the game Dallas was running quite well against the Jets base defense, opening up lots of opportunities for the passing game to expose the lack of defensive backs. Jason Witten had over 40 yards receiving with four minutes left in the first-half.
I can't be sure, but it looked like the Jets 2-gapped a lot on the DL, meaning they played straight-up on their offensive counterparts and waited for the run to come to them. As you might remember, the 49ers were a 2-gap team last year but Fangio has changed to more 1-gapping this year, preferring to have his DL's penetrate and disrupt the backfield. Ray McDonald and Justin Smith were both very disruptive in the run game vs. Seattle, who feature an inexperienced offensive line much like the Cowboys do.
If the Jets had been able to stop the run in Nickel, they would have had extra help in the back-end versus the pass. They went to Dime defense on the first three third-downs of the game and I thought they played those downs well other than favoring man-coverage and sending a lot of blitzers, which Romo beat once to Dez Bryant down the sideline. I'm surprised the Jets didn't compromise and play more Nickel, but I'm not a NFL coach.
The Cowboys defense definitely caused me more of a scare. They 1-gap penetrate in base 3-4 just like the 49ers. In fact, the defenses look very similar in alignment. The difference is that Dallas likes to blitz from different angles and features a more athletic defensive line whereas the 49ers have more size up front.
San Francisco will definitely have to game-plan and account for the Cowboys' pass rush. The Jets beat pressure with screens and hot routes quite well. This is something that Alex Smith and Co. have struggled with in the past and I sure hope they're better prepared for it now.
Another thing I forsee is keeping a RB in to help block on passing plays. The 49ers offensive tackles won't hold up against Dallas' athletic edge-rushers. Demarcus Ware on Anthony Davis could be ugly if Davis is left alone, and this is before we even talk about blitzes.
The best thing the 49ers can do is find ways to get the ball to the edges and beat the pocket pressure. Screens, sweeps, slants, anything to force the Cowboys to keep defenders wide. I also think that running inside will be tough unless the offensive line has turned a major corner since last week (and most of the pre-season).
So, in summary, I think the 49ers should play Nickel against 12 and 11 personnel, counting on the front six to stop the run. The Cowboys will likely want to test the 49ers newly re-formed secondary, which has struggled over the past years. Mix in some blitzes with Willis and Bowman to keep Romo in the pocket. This will surrender some of the middle of the field in short passes, but is worth it if the pressure succeds.
On offense the team is going to have to be prepared to beat pressure and make the Cowboys pay. The run game has to beat Dallas' front seven in any way, probably to the edges. I think the short passing game is crucial as well. Do these things early and you can set up some big plays down the field when Dallas sells-out to stop the short stuff.
One last point, Dallas came up with many of it's yards later in the game when it was on the line. Dallas passed for 121 yards in the 4th quarter, over 35% of their total passing yardage. They didn't shred the Jets defense early-on. Point-being, don't get scared by their offensive stats. Remember the kinds of games the 49ers offense had in 2009 when trying to come back from big deficits in the 2nd half.
For more in-depth analysis follow me on twitter. I tend to tweet bits and pieces while watching games and all of those points don't make it into the stories!