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Spagnola: Tight Ends Becoming A Royal Pain For Defense

Posted Oct 11, 2013


IRVING, Texas – Let us petition the cliché czar for a slight amendment to one of those verbal crutches used time and again in the game of football:

You can never have enough corners.

Because when it comes to the Dallas Cowboys after the first five games of this 2013 season we need to expand the breadth of this expression to …

You can never have enough defensive backs … on the field.

Adhering to this amended truism might be just what the Cowboys need if they are going to save themselves from themselves in this ever-evolving video-game world of the NFL, where the tight end is more than just some lumbering dude with trusty enough hands to catch you a bunch of five-yard passes, and the running back is more than a guy who simply totes the mail. He now dabbles in air mail, too.

The amending evidence has been unquestionably provided in the past two games by opponents combining to score 81 points – 68 of those in the last six quarters – and total an ungodly 1,023 yards and 61 first downs in consecutive wins over the humbled 2-3 Cowboys, a team incredibly still clinging to a share of first place in the NFC Least nearly a third of the way through the season.

Now, an objecting view might suggest a combination of savvy quarterbacks, San Diego’s Philip Rivers and Denver’s Peyton Manning, along with new-age hybrid tight ends, the Chargers’ Antonio Gates and Denver’s Julius Thomas, have taken a significant toll. That these last two games provide but a unique set of circumstances bombarding a suddenly reeling Cowboys defense.

Why, the tight ends in the past two games have become royal pains, combining for 20 receptions, 265 receiving yards and three touchdowns, Gates and Thomas for all but one of those catches for just seven of those yards. That’s glaring, especially since both tight ends were their team’s leading receivers in each of those games, and so was Giants tight end Brandon Myers in the season opener, leading with seven catches that went for 65 yards and accounting for that fourth tight end touchdown against the Cowboys.

OK, fine, but expanding the evidence to five games of work does not dull the glare of the position’s effect on the Cowboys defense. So far, heading into Sunday night’s nationally-televised game against the Washington Redskins (1-3) at AT&T Stadium, tight ends have accounted for 41 catches, 467 receiving yards and four touchdowns against the Cowboys – definitely a soft spot in this style of defense.

And if we expand those numbers to include tight ends and running backs, the numbers nearly double to 81 catches, 817 receiving yards and six touchdowns, which represent 56 percent of the opponents’ catches, 47 percent of the receiving yards and 38 percent of the touchdowns.

That seems uncomfortably high.

And here is how these teams utilizing tight ends and running backs masquerading as wide receivers repeatedly have victimized the Cowboys defense:

Employing multiple-receiver sets, spreading out the Cowboys nickel defense to create significant mismatches in space, where a wise man once told me the further you line up from the ball the more difficult the defensive position becomes.

Just think about when this Cowboys defense began to unravel, and no need for the smart alecks to point out exactly one half of football after I insisted with three games in the books that this was a Cowboys defense that can be leaned on, obviously now being classified as premature adulation:

With exactly 1 minute, 19 seconds left in the first half of the San Diego game, with the Cowboys leading 21-10, and the Chargers deciding to go with their three-wide, hurry-up offense, splitting out Gates from the offensive line. Zip, zip, zip, right down the field, and as time expired in the first half Nick Novack was kicking a 42-yard field goal to pull the Chargers within eight.

Well, that worked so well the Chargers spent the entire second half in their three-receiver, hurry-up offense, along with pushing Gates out into the formation along with running back Danny Woodhead at times to create an empty look. And they scored on their next three possessions to take that game-ending 30-21 lead.

And what did the Broncos do seven days later? What did they do for the entire game, save maybe three or so plays?

They, too, went three-wide, hurry-up, with Thomas getting down the field flanked wide or tight to the offensive line, along with running back Knowshon Moreno at times flanked out way wide, too.

And with quick-draw Manning in charge, the Broncos scored on nine of 11 possessions, the scoreless two possessions ending in a lost fumble and an interception. They finished with what would have been an unfathomable 517 total yards had Dallas not totaled five more than that.

So this damage was not done with the Cowboys playing their base, 4-3 defense installed this year by Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli, but against their nickel defense (four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs) that includes Sean Lee and either Bruce Carter or Ernie Sims as the linebackers, Orlando Scandrick moving into the slot between corners Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne and then Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox at safety.

Well, San Diego and Denver created many a mismatch, the Cowboys trying to either zone these multiple-receiver formations or asking their linebackers to play man coverage on the tight end and/or running back, or trying to use one of the safeties in man on the tight end.

If you remember, Gates scored his touchdown by beating Lee’s man coverage without any help over the top, going 56 yards. Woodhead scored his two touchdowns with Carter in man coverage both times.

This past game, Thomas scored late in the first quarter from the four-yard line on a cleverly executed shuffle pass, going from off the line of scrimmage left across the formation for the score inside. Thomas also caught passes for huge gains of 19, 16, 27 and 29 yards, several of those getting free releases off the line of scrimmage. There were times the Cowboys had Carter running with Thomas, while other times safety Barry Church tried to man him up 10 yards into his route, giving the fleet-footed tight end a two-way release in the middle of the field as the Cowboys blitzed their linebackers to no avail.

Thomas’ second touchdown, a nine-yard catch, came from lining up wide right with all three wide receivers wide to the left. He beat cornerback Brandon Carr off the line of scrimmage, slanting inside left, and when Church took a bad angle coming up from the end zone, whiffing on the tackle as Carr slipped to the ground, Thomas easily sauntered across the goal line.

Can’t be sure if the Redskins will go to school on just what the Chargers and Broncos did these past six quarters against the Cowboys or if their main threat at tight end, Jordan Reed (13 catches, 106 yards, 1 TD), can run like Gates and Thomas. But you would think the Cowboys have to consider altering that nickel defense if they do, and Reed is capable of creating one-on-one mismatches.

Maybe they double the nickel to a dime, bring in a second extra defensive back to help defend those tight ends or running backs flanked out wide. Back in the day, that defensive philosophy is mostly what the Cowboys employed on their nickel defense, safeties Darren Woodson and Kenny Gant moving into the slots, with either just one linebacker or nickel ’backer Bill Bates playing in the middle. But then the Cowboys were capitalizing on Woodson’s unique skills to play the run or pass from the slot on the line of scrimmage.

Can’t find another one like him at Texaco, eh Bill?

There has been talk this week of rookie safety Jeff Heath fitting into the game plan for the first time. At 6-1, 209, he certainly would have the size to help out against the run on the line of scrimmage if the Redskins decide to run out of multiple-receiver sets, but also the speed to run with these hybrid tight ends down the field.

What can’t continue to take place with this defense are the mismatches being created by tight ends and running backs coming out into the pass patterns and totally overwhelming the Cowboys as has been the case for six consecutive quarters now.

What also can’t continue is the Cowboys inability to create pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They recorded 13 sacks in the first three games (2-1), second in the NFL. They have recorded just one sack in the past two, both losses, the lack of pressure certainly complicating coverages.

So come Sunday night at AT&T Stadium just remember you can never have enough defensive backs … on the field, especially against these video-game formations that are making the Cowboys defensive heads spin.

Wonder if the cliché czar can hear me now.

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