The Cowboys do some pretty complex stuff, so I won’t begin to dive into how the Lions should go about attacking it, so this week will be more assessment of the schemes and how I expect the Lions to perform against them.
First, let’s trace the lineage. Jason Garrett learned his offensive scheme from Norv Turner when Garrett was the 3rd string QB of the Cowboys in 1993 and Norv was the offensive coordinator. Ernie Zampese took over from 1994-1997 as the Cowboys OC. Norv learned his system from Zampese when they overlapped with the Los Angeles Rams from 1987-1990. Zampese learned from the famed Don Coryell from 1979-1986 when they worked together for the San Diego Chargers (in the Dan Fouts days).
Given all that back-story, the Cowboys use the Air Coryell system (obviously named after Don Coryell). This is the same type of system that is run by former Lions offensive coordinator, Mike Martz (presently the maddest scientist in Chicago), to give you a frame of reference. Of course, there are some significant differences, but the roots are the same. Here’s a description from Wikipedia:
The Coryell offense is a combination of deep and mid range passing and power running. The offense relies on getting all five receivers out into patterns that combined stretched the field, setting up defensive backs with route technique and the Quarterback throwing to a spot on time where the receiver can catch and turn up field. Pass protection is critical to success because at least two of the five receivers will run a deep in, skinny post, comeback, speed out, or shallow cross.
Overall the goal of the Coryell offense is to have at least two downfield, fast wide receivers who adjust to the deep pass very well, combined with a sturdy pocket quarterback with a strong arm. The Coryell offense uses three key weapons. The first is a strong inside running game, the second is its ability to strike deep with two or more receivers on any play, and the third is to not only use those two attack in cooperation with each other, but to include a great deal of mid-range passing to a TE, WR, or back.
Many of you are probably familiar with the “Greatest Show on Turf” type of offense that Mike Martz ran with the Rams and (less successfully) with the Lions, which is a very complex offense that uses a lot of deep passing and timed routes. Martz’s approach of cutting all running backs and tight ends from your roster and going 5 wide hoping your QB is capable of withstanding a massive beating is quite a bit different than what Norv Turner runs.
Turner’s variant is not the most robust flavor of Coryell offense. It is a very sound, QB friendly scheme that favors taking controlled chances, like quicker midrange post passes to WRs off play action rather than slower developing passes that leave QBs exposed. It is almost exclusively run out of the pro set. Turner favors a more limited palette of plays than Coryell and most other Coryell disciples, instead insisting on precise execution. His offenses are usually towards the top of the league standings, but are often labeled predictable. His offenses tend to include a strong running game, a #1 WR who can stretch the field and catch jump balls in the end-zone, a good receiving TE to attack the space the WRs create in the middle of the field and a FB who fills the role of a lead blocker and a final option as an outlet receiver. In Dallas, Turner made RB Emmitt Smith & WR Michael Irvin Hall of Famers, and TE Jay Novacek a five time pro bowler. As head coach of the San Diego Chargers, Turner’s system helped quarterback Philip Rivers set new franchise records for single-season quarterback rating and touchdown passes in 2008.
Obviously, the cowboys have a lot of the personnel necessary for this to succeed. They have good WRs in Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, a power runner in Tashard Choice (although the more elusive Felix Jones is the feature back), one of the best pass catching TEs in football in Jason Witten, and most importantly, a very good QB in Tony Romo. With their current weapons, the Cowboys seem to take on a heavier passing attack more than a power running game. Against the Lions, I expect the Cowboys offense to struggle. With Miles Austin and Dez Bryant looking like they won’t play (although nothing is ever final until game time rolls around), the wide receivers should struggle. In week 3 against the Redskins, Romo had plenty of trouble with the fill-in wideouts. He was constantly directing traffic and yelling at them for making mistakes. With the heavy reliance on timing, wide receivers that aren’t well versed in the offense quite often lead to offensive mistakes. Additionally, they’ve had trouble with their replacement center in recent weeks. Romo likes to use hard count and read the reactions of the defense out of the shotgun, and lately, he’s been tricking his own center more than the opposing defense, as there have been a number of shotgun snaps that were early, low, or past him entirely. With bad snaps and disruption by the Lions’ potent defensive line, I expect the timing to be thrown off even more.
This lineage is pretty easy. Rob Ryan (Cowboys OC) is the son of Buddy Ryan, famous for the “Monsters of the Midway” Bears defense of the mid-1980s. The end.
Oof. This defensive scheme is incredibly complex. Want to know just how crazy this defense is? Ask Cowboys LB Victor Butler:
“It’s crazy. You’ve got d-linemen lining up at the free safety spot. I’d love to see Jay Ratliff line up where Alan Ball is. It sounds crazy but when you get out there and run it it makes a lot of sense.”
There is no “base defense” other than to just say that confusion is the base defense. Their personnel would most closely be called 3-4 personnel, but on any given play, they’ll roll with anywhere between 0 and 5 down linemen. Sheesh. Breaking down the Vikings 3 basic formations was much easier. If you want to get some insight into their playcalling frequency, here is probably the best thing that I’ve read all year. This guy breaks down the frequency of different formations, blitzers, pass rushers, and 1-gap/2-gap responsibilities for the Rob Ryan defense.
Overall, we can expect to see 1-3 down linemen on most plays with a 3-5 man pass rush with most of the unannounced blitzes coming from the inside linebackers, but also on occasion from both the safeties and corners. He utilizes mostly 2 deep safeties, but isn’t afraid to bring one down in a short zone either and his defensive linemen are usually in a 1-gap, attacking scheme.
From watching the game film myself, I saw less of the “cloud” (0 down linemen) and “psycho” (1 down lineman) fronts, but a healthy dose of the others. It seemed like Rob Ryan went with fewer down linemen and more exotic blitzes in the more obvious passing situations (3rd and long). I only saw the “cloud” defense once in the 3 games that I watched. Here’s a screenshot of it:
With no down linemen and everyone just floating around, obviously this is supposed to confuse the QB and force a mistake.
On 1st and 2nd down, he tended to go with more 3-4, 3-3, 4-3, and 4-2, while on 3rd, there were a lot of sets with 1 or 2 down linemen. When the other team got inside the 10 yard line or so, he’d put in 5 down linemen to try and plug up the running game. Here’s the 3-4 that they seem to run most often.
With so many blitzes and so much of the linebackers’ focus directed towards rushing the passer, the corners play a lot of man coverage and rely on the pass rush to find its mark, usually leaving a good portion of the middle of the field open. The Lions receivers will have to be well-practiced on their quick slants and the offensive line better be ready to adapt on the fly.
Another defensive variant that Buddy Ryan passed down to his sons is the famous 46 defense. In this defense, the defensive line is shifted to the weak side (the side without the TE), while two linebackers are up at the line and the 3rd linebacker and the strong safety manning the traditional linebacker positions. Here’s a diagram of what that defense looks like.
Here’s a look at the Cowboys running what I believe is the 46. It’s tough to tell exactly what they’re running a lot of the time.
It seems like Rob Ryan likes to use this more for stopping the run than rushing the passer like Buddy Ryan originally created it to do.
The Cowboys’ personnel seems to be a good fit for this defense, as their linemen and linebackers are very athletic and good at rushing the passer, which allows them to work interchangeably to give the offense different looks. The Lions should have an advantage against this defense because of the continuity of their coaching staff and at QB. Stafford should be able to make the necessary adjustments at the line and read the defense because of his familiarity with the offense. Still, I expect the Lions offensive line to have a lot of trouble with the blitzes that Rob Ryan will dial up.