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The Value of a Defensive Spine, Part 3

Parts one and two of this short series have broken down long runs from the Saints loss in week 10, showing the deficiencies the 2013 Cowboys had in their defensive spine, the 1-technique, middle linebacker, strong-side linebacker and safety.  Part one showed the Saints stretching the Cowboys front with formation, pulling linebacker Bruce Carter into space.  Part two showed how the Saints beat an eight-man Cowboys front with seven blockers, by releasing DeMarcus Ware on the weak side end and attacking undersized nickel linebacker Barry Church.

Part three will show the Cowboys scrambling in vain to find a bigger front and failing again to stop a fundamental run, despite having more defenders in the box than the Saints had blockers.

The Situation

1st and 10 for the Saints, on their first 3rd quarter drive.   One play earlier, they had mashed the Dallas weakside, where Barry Church was playing weakside ‘backer and Bruce Carter was playing middle linebacker.  On this play, the Cowboys have taken Church out and put in three linebackers.  They’ve moved Justin Durant to middle linebacker and put Carter back at his familiar role on the weakside.  Ernie Sims (59) has taken Durant’s place on the strong side.

The Cowboys are in an over 4-3 one of their base fronts, and have three linemen occupying the three blockers on the Saints’ left side.  The three Cowboys linebackers are stacked inside the ends:

Saints blast 1

The Saints are in a straight I formation with three wideouts.  This puts six blockers in the game for Mark Ingram against seven Cowboys defenders.  Dallas has a numerical advantage.  They’re going to lose the duel again, however, because they lose all but one of the individual battles along the line of scrimmage.

Saints blast 2

The Saints again run a straight isolation play and go at the Cowboys weakside backer and middle linebacker.  Look at the four battles that the two defensive tackles and the two linebackers play-side fight.  1-technique Drake Nevis is again handled easily by the center, who turns Nevis and drops him to a knee.

Saints blast 3

Right guard Jahri Evans scrapes off his initial double-team block on Nevis and locks on to Durant.  Evans goes 318.  Durant weighs 228.  Durant stays low and tries mirroring Ingram but he’s turned by Evans, allowing the running back a large cut-back lane.

Saints blast 4

Farther outside, Carter again plays this run tentatively.  He turns his body and lets the fullback come to him, rather than attacking and engaging the blocker.  Brad Hoover rolls Carter, who again has his back turned to the running back when he clears the line.

The only Cowboys lineman to beat his blocker off the snap was Jarius Wynn, who drove down the line and dove for Ingram.  When he missed, the back was free into a wide open secondary.

The three wide look put only one Cowboys defender more than five yards off the ball.  Barry Church was more than fifteen yards off the line when the ball was snapped, so he’s in a poor position to do more than prevent a long touchdown run:

Saints blast 5

 

Church made such a tackle but only after Ingram gained 38 yards.

Again, we see the results of being over manned.  The Cowboys had superior numbers, but that won’t matter if you can’t win off the snap and beat opponents’  blocks.

Let’s look at what remains of this underhanded group:

— on the line, only George Selvie remains from this line.  He was the only player who consistently held his edge that night.  DeMarcus Ware is a Bronco now.  Wynn is a Buffalo Bill.  Nevis was released only weeks after this game.

— at linebacker, you can see why the Cowboys targeted Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier, whom the Steelers picked one spot ahead of Dallas.  Bruce Carter looked lost in the middle and at his usual weak-side spot.  The team is hoping he can up his game playing a second season on the weak-side, but they had already put a target on his jersey.  Until he plays it off, it’s going to stay there.

— These plays show the potential dangers of playing middle linebacker by committee, in the wake of another Sean Lee injury   But what choice does the team have at this point?

Terrell McClain gives some hope that the team can upgrade at the 1-technique, but the Cowboys will no doubt be scouting linebackers hard this fall, even if DeVonte Holloman breaks out as Lee’s replacement.  The quality numbers simply don’t exist on that unit.

And that’s an issue that probably concerns the team’s coaches more than any other this side of Tony Romo’s back.

Rafael Vela is the senior analyst for Cowboys Nation.

Rafael Vela
Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ TheBoys.com in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for SportsTalkLine.com
Rafael Vela





  • jarhead

    Carter and lee are part of JJ’s big risk big reward drafting philosophy. Both were taken with injury issues, but carter has another issue too: he just doesn’t get it.

  • Michael

    The weak side ISO is a classic run against a 4-3 Over, so the Saints have a schematic advantage against this front, despite the Cowboys numbers. If your DL can’t beat their opposing numbers in the 4-3 then you don’t really have much of a defense. A couple guys have to defeat their blocks to stop that play.
    Thank you for this series, Raf. It has been jaw dropping.

  • DRS

    Right now, they don’t have Holloman playing at MLB–they have Durant there. It’s unclear to me where, exactly, they intend to work Holloman but one must wonder if they don’t want him to be insurance against Carter, just in case last season proves to be the rule, rather than the exception.
    Don’t know from where or who, but have a sneaking suspicion at least one starting LB this year is not currently on the roster.

    • Shreveport Fan

      Based on the Durant’s play all last year and the young LBs play the last few games of last season, it appears coaches should see how Holloman (mike), Wilber (strong), and Carter (weak) works out. Followed by Hichens (mike), Durant (strong – his natural position), and Will Smith (weak – watch his college tape – he’s always in on the play). Also, Sapp needs a fair shot somewhere. I believe Durant will be a big liability compared to Holloman when the mike has to cover the deep middle on pass plays (Holloman played safety in college) and Holloman is bigger (6’2″-242lbs versus 6’1″-228) for taking on O-linemen on run plays.