IRVING, Texas – With the week coming to a close at Valley Ranch, here are some of my thoughts as the Cowboys prepare for Sunday's game with Cleveland.
Next Man Up
I continued to be impressed with what coordinator Rob Ryan has been able to do with this defense, working with all of the backup players that he has had to use on a weekly basis and not missing one beat. These players and coaches have truly taken the "Next Man Up" approach and made it work to their advantage.
This week, look for Ryan to once again use everyone that he dresses on Sunday in the game against the Browns. Linebacker Dan Connor will most likely be back in the lineup next to Bruce Carter with Ernie Sims coming off the bench in the nickel packages.
At safety, Charlie Peprah, who had a rough game against the Eagles, now has another week under his belt to also help in the nickel and dime. In another development, if cornerback Mike Jenkins is unable to go on Sunday with his back, look for Vincent Agnew to get some time on the dime in his place.
I didn't include defensive end Ben Bass in my "Next Man Up" thoughts from above because I wanted to talk about what I think he can do for this defense separately.
First off, as a scout, I am a huge Bass fan because he is everything that I respect in a player. In this day and age, we all want the guy that runs the fastest or does the most reps on the bench, instead of just finding football players. We tend to forget what this game is really all about: passion and desire.
There are players that are not the most talented in the league, but they are able to overcome that because their desire to make a play is better than the guy that ran the 4.35 40-yard dash. I'm not saying you can win with just all try-hard guys, no. But I am saying that with guys like Bass, it gives you a chance to have some success.
From watching practice, Bass and Tyrone Crawford have been relentless on the scout team this year, making it difficult for guys like tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free. There is a side of me that believes that Bass has some of the similar traits that we have seen in Crawford, who has done a nice job in his rookie season. This will be a huge test for Bass against the Browns offensive line because they don't give up much pressure. Crawford made a huge jump when he was good against Carl Nicks of the Buccaneers; maybe Bass can have some similar success.
Making it Work
I called head coach Jason Garrett's offense "Grab Bag" several weeks ago, and I really didn't mean that in any disrespect, but more in a sense that he has had to try and find ways to run the ball and manufacture offense without DeMarco Murray in the lineup.
I gave a tip of the cap to Felix Jones last week for what he was able to do rushing-wise, but again, it was Garrett coming up with different personnel groups and formations to try and run the ball. The Browns play a four-man front like the Eagles with the exception that the Browns don't play their ends as wide.
Garrett was able to use movement with his line to create some space. He did so not just out of one-back formations, but also with fullback Lawrence Vickers in the lineup and by pulling his guards and tackles. Where this line was able to do some good was when they got to angle block and get position that way instead of trying to get movement one-on-one.
In my study, I don't have the feeling that the Browns' defensive front seven is as good as what the Cowboys have faced with other 4-3 teams like the Eagles, Falcons and Giants. Look for Garrett to stick with Vickers in a two-back set, but also use Phillip Tanner some to give a more physical attack.
When the Cowboys hosted the Bears in Week 4 of the season, it was a matchup where they faced one of the true dynamic players in this league, Devin Hester. When it comes to punt- and kickoff-return men, Hester is as rare as they come. But this week against the Browns, Dallas will need to stop a returner in Josh Cribbs that might be the best that has ever played.
What makes Cribbs different from Hester is how physical he is when it comes to running the ball. There is nothing soft about his game and his toughness is respected league-wide. If Browns running back Trent Richardson tries to finish runs, so does Cribbs, who punishes tacklers.
One of the best traits you can say about a returner when you are a scout is that he is fearless. When you watch Cribbs return punts and kicks, the first thing you notice is that he truly has no fear. Sure, it takes skill to bring returns back in this league but it also takes guts and the great ones have that.
Where the Cowboys special teams unit has gotten better during the season is in covering punts. This group is currently ranked first in the NFL, but it will take every bit of their skill to hold Cribbs in check. Brian Moorman has been outstanding with his directional punting and will need much of the same this week.
Look for coordinator Joe DeCamillis to ask Moorman to try and attempt to pin Cribbs against the sideline and try to close the gate on him there. The Browns don't have many game-breakers, but they do have one in Cribbs, and the Cowboys special teams cannot let him be a factor in this game.