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The Value of a Defensive Spine, Part 2

Part one of this series showed how the Saints, one of the better offenses the Cowboys defense faced in 2013, exploited Dallas’ lack of a solid spine.  In particular, I showed how poor 1-technique play left the team vulnerable to basic inside running plays, even with a healthy Sean Lee at middle linebacker. Here, I’ll show how the vulnerabilities snowballed once Lee was injured.

The Situation

First New Orleans series of the 2nd half.  Lee left the game on the first series of the second quarter with a hamstring injury.  This forced Dallas to shuffle their linebackers, moving Bruce Carter from the weakside spot into Lee’s place in the pivot.  Dallas then shuffled Justin Durant to the strong side and used SS Barry Church more as a weakside linebacker.  The Cowboys are short on linebackers at this point and go back to the man up formula they used against the Eagles, where Barry Church played weakside linebacker.   Using Church this way leaves Dallas thin at safety, since J.J. Wilcox was out this game, so Orlando Scandrick was used as a nickel safety, playing man on TE Ben Watson.

The Saints again went with a three wideout look and a straight I formation.  They used Watson as a flex tight end, starting him in the left slot and then motioning him to the right side of the formation, next to the right tackle.  This is a standard I-right look from the Saints.  The Cowboys, playing a 4-3 base with 4-2-5 personnel, have eight defenders “in the box” where the Saints have seven blockers for running back mark Ingram.

The Cowboys should have a fighting chance, but they’re blown out, because they’re outweighed and out gunned inside.

The call is another isolation run, this time to the strong side.  As the stills roll out, watch how the players in the vital triangle at the point of attack,  1-technique Drake Nevis, the middle backer Carter and the weakside backer Church are over-run.

This had been

Saints gash 1

The play begins with double-team blocks by the Saints linemen against the two defensive tackles.  Center Brian De La Puente (60) and right guard Jhari Evans (73) will hit Nevis, with Evans releasing to take on Carter.  On the weakside, the left tackle and left guard Ben Grubbs (66) will do the same against Jarius Wynn.  The initial blow, if delivered properly, will give the LT time to turn Wynn, while Grubbs proceeds to the second level to cut off Justin Durant’s pursuit.

Saints gash 2


Wynn actually makes a good lateral charge and is riding Grubbs down the line.  He could have a chance to run the play down from behind, but Nevis is buried in the turf by De La Puente.  Wynn attempts to leap over the pile, but that lets the run get past him.


Saints gash 3


At the second level, Carter and Church are overwhelmed.  Church tries to attack the B-gap and is plowed into the ground by the fullback.  Carter is tentative in pursuit, and that lets Evans lock on to Carter and spin him completely around.  The ‘backer has his back to Ingram when the back blows though a massive hole.

Saints gash 4

more awful play from the 1-technique and poor play by the linebackers.  To be fair, Church isn’t built to take on fullbacks and guards in the hole down-after-down, and Carter was doing on-the-job training against one of the best attacks in the game.  That’s the wrong place to learn, and the Saints embarrassed Carter and his linemates.

Again, scheme didn’t matter.  Dallas had eight defenders to New Orleans’ seven blockers.  The Saints overcame this by leaving Demarcus Ware unblocked and running to the side away from him.  This made the math seven blockers against seven defenders.  The Saints won six of those duels, and all on the call side.  Ingram gained twelve.

The Cowboys coaches had no gimmick to counter.  Look again at the Cowboys line.  A broken down Ware.  Street free agents Wynn and Nevis at the tackles.  A weakside backer playing in the middle.  A safety playing linebacker.  None of the parts fit, so none of them worked.

Talent matters.  Having a defensive spine matters, and this day, Dallas didn’t have one.

How different will the talent situation be this year?  The season will hinge on that answer.

  • jarhead

    Cant blame the coaches when this is what the GM gives them to work with

  • SmartThinking

    Interesting analysis. Of course, the Saints’ superior players against our less able defensive players contributed to the loss as well. Their game plan was spot on against Dallas’ patchwork, chaotic defensive team, not to mention Payton’s aggressive coaching style v. Garrett’s, how shall I phrase it, minimalist approach. And the final analysis is Dallas got out-played, out-coached, and out-manned. Ouch!

    • David Morgan

      Aggression had little impact on the outcome. Running the ball isn’t the most aggressive approach, but we just couldn’t stop it.