The Breakdown: Cardinals 'D' vs. Cowboys 'O'

FREE PREMIUM CONTENT - With Terrell Owens, Julius Jones, Terry Glenn, Jason Witten, and Tony Romo, the Cowboys have an awful lot of star power on offense. They've also been exceptionally inconsistent this season, which is one of the reasons the Cowboys are 4-4. The only trouble is that the Cardinals have been inconsistent on defense all year. Which is one of the reasons they're 1-7.

Defensive Backs:

Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn form one of the more lethal 1-2 punches in the NFL.  Glenn is an explosive deep threat that is also very dangerous with the ball in his hands after the catch.  Owens is... an explosive deep threat that is also very dangerous with the ball in his hands after the catch.  That is, of course, when they do actually catch the ball.  Both Glenn and Owens are, historically, sure-handed receivers, but they've had a severe case of the dropsies this year (especially Owens).  Owens dropped a sure touchdown against Washington last week and it cost the Cowboys the game.

Since Owens and Glenn present a pretty sizable match-up issue for the also inconsistent duo of Antrel Rolle and Eric Green, the Cardinals had better hope that Owens and Glenn continue to drop easy catches at critical junctures in the game.  Green will most likely draw Glenn in coverage and Rolle will get Owens.  Owens is a more physical player and Glenn is more of a finesse player, while Rolle is more of a finesse player and Green is more physical.  It would seem to make more sense to match finesse against finesse and physical against physical, but both Owens and Glenn have an advantage over Green and Rolle in their respective areas of expertise.  Therefore, rolling the dice and matching Green up against Glenn and Rolle up against Owens might successfully take the receivers out of their game and cause them to either melt down on the sidelines, or have a lapse in concentration on the field.

The match-up of physical vs. finesse and finesse vs. physical worked to Arizona's advantage in the Chicago game, as Rolle effectively neutralized Mushin Muhammad and Green didn't allow Bernard Berrian to get a clean release off the line of scrimmage.  Let's just hope it works on Sunday.  Otherwise, Tony Romo could have a very productive afternoon playing pitch-and-catch with his talented duo of receivers.

On top of Owens and Glenn, the Cardinals need to keep a watchful eye on Dallas' other receiving threat, Jason Witten.  Witten has the size and blocking ability of a tight end, but the speed of a receiver.  A slow receiver, but a receiver nonetheless.  The Cowboys are very good at using motion to give Witten a favorable match-up.  They also mix and match the types of routes he runs so that, if teams decide to play zone against the Cowboys, no one player can zero in on him.  He runs routes into the flat, the intermediate middle, the outside, the deep middle, and everywhere in between.  Romo used him as a security blanket at first, but has since stopped looking Witten's way as frequently.  If things start to break down offensively, watch for Romo to start looking Witten's way often.

In order for things to break down, though, the Cardinals need to pressure Romo, which is something they haven't done well as a team and none of Dallas' opponents have been able to do in Romo's two starts.

Defensive Line:

Ultimately, this game will come down to the defensive line and their ability to pressure Romo without blitzing and stop the two-headed monster of Julius Jones and Marion Barber in the running game.

It looks as though Arizona is going to get run-stuffing stalwart Kendrick Clancy back for this game.  While that's good news for the run defense, it's bad news for the pass rush, as Gabe Watson was starting to show flashes of being a disruptive pass rushing force in the middle.  Teamed with Darnell Dockett, Watson was starting to get the disruptive penetration typically associated with a tackle in the Cover 2 scheme.  Given the fact that Watson has that experience, coupled with the fact that Bert Berry and Chike Okeafor haven't been able to get consistent (or pretty much any) pressure on the quarterback, the Cardinals would be well served to rotate Watson in on third down, possibly also including Calvin Pace (who used to be an end) and Karlos Dansby (one of their better pure pass rushers) in the third down rotation.

As has been written before, when you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose.  It's hard to imagine that Arizona could be any worse than they have been thus far this season.  Therefore, they should try whatever they can to get the desired results.  And, as evidenced by the number of big plays given up and the lack of big plays created on defense this season, blitzing on every down (even against an inexperience quarterback) doesn't seem to be the answer.


Gerald Hayes recently signed a five year contract extension.  While he doesn't have the talent of Brian Urlacher, he does his job, sticks to his assignments, and is less of a liability than recent middle linebackers.  Calvin Pace and Orlando Huff have been most useful coming off the edges (or stunting up the middle) as blitzers.  They both struggle in coverage, Pace especially, and have not been particularly dependable in run support.

The bad news is that, in order to at least slow down Dallas' offense, the linebackers are going to need to step up in coverage and run support.

While the Cowboys have had to patch their offensive line together with bailing wire for much of this season, the unit appears to be slowly coming together.  They still miss departed guard Larry Allen and haven't been able to keep Flozell Adams healthy or come up with a satisfactory solution at right tackle, but they are making progress.  In order for the Cardinals to have success on defense, the linebackers need to step through the holes created by the defensive line, which should be able to tie up a number of blockers at the line of scrimmage, and make plays in the backfield.

Even though Romo has been impressive thus far, Arizona's best shot is to put the game in Romo's hands and make him beat them.

If the Cardinals are able to shut down Dallas' running game, they should focus on creating pressure with only their front four, forcing Romo to scan the field and fit the ball into tight spaces.  The Cowboys have been effective getting Romo outside the pocket and allowing him to use his mobility, arm strength, and decisiveness to tear opponents apart when they blitz.  They've also been keeping extra blockers in the backfield to give Romo more time to throw deep passes.

The end result, though, will be whether or not the Cardinals can execute well, running a scheme that doesn't play to their strengths.

Game Plan:

Conventional wisdom says to pressure an inexperienced quarterback up the middle, forcing him into early mistakes, and keep bringing pressure until he shows he can beat you.  This approach has not worked on Romo.  The Cowboys have done a tremendous job in pass protection, moving the pocket, and giving Romo several "hot read" options when defenses do blitz.  He has also faced two defenses that historically have lived and died by their ability to get to the quarterback.  He didn't wilt under the pressure and succeeded in the face of adversity.  Therefore, it's time to try something different.  Something the Cardinals aren't good at.

The Cardinals should come out in a conventional Cover 2 defense.  On first and second down, Clancy should be in the game.  On third down, Arizona should sub in Watson, Pace, and Dansby.  The idea is to create as much pressure on Romo as possible with only four pass rushers.  If Romo is given all day to scan the field and find a target, he will eventually find an open man.  If, however, he's forced to make quick decisions with linebackers blocking his throwing lanes to his hot receivers and Rolle and Green jamming Owens and Glenn at the line of scrimmage, he's going to need to either throw the ball away, or force it into tight coverage.

This scheme not only requires the Cardinals to pressure the quarterback without blitzing (which is something they haven't been able to do in the last 10 years), but forces the linebackers into coverage and requires them to read-and-react in the running game (which is a severe weakness for the unit as a whole).  And, perhaps most significantly, it turns Adrian Wilson, perhaps Arizona's most dangerous defensive weapon in to just another safety covering the deep half of the field.

It is, however, better than the alternative.  Bottom line, the Cardinals don't have the talent on defense to cover Dallas' receivers one-on-one or man-to-man.  Romo has proven that he can be accurate and effective when he faces man coverage and steady doses of blitzes.  What we haven't seen, though, is how he reacts against zone coverage where he needs to be more of a tactician and less of a gun slinger.

Of course, we could just be doing someone else's leg work for them.  If Romo struggles against the Cover 2 package that we send at him, another team in the league will copy that blueprint and likely has the personnel and the talent to execute it more effectively.

We'll just need to see how well we do in execution on Sunday.

CardinalsSource Top Stories