The Cowboys’ Week 2 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs might have come as a surprise to some, but this was really how this game should have turned out. The Cowboys were three-point underdogs heading into the contest—a fact that many dismissed—and they played like it.
There are always little battles within the game that shape the outcome, and this one was no different. Defensively, Dallas played a really strong game overall, but one area where they were weak was stopping quarterback Alex Smith on the ground. Smith actually led Kansas City in rushing, escaping the pocket eight times for 57 yards—the most rushing yards of his career. Let’s take a look at why Smith was so effective with his legs.
A Big Third Down
Although Monte Kiffin had his defense playing well on Sunday, they stumbled out of the gates, digging themselves an early hole by allowing a touchdown on the first drive. The ‘Boys had Kansas City in a difficult spot, facing a third-and-15 at the Cowboys’ 35-yard line.
In that situation, I think Kiffin was more concerned with making sure the Chiefs didn’t advance the ball at all than ensuring they didn’t secure a big play. That’s understandable given the field position; if the Cowboys could force an incompletion or even get a sack, Kansas City would be forced to either attempt a long field goal or punt.
So Kiffin brought the dogs, lining up six defenders at the line with a soft look behind it.
At the snap, Orlando Scandrick rushed off of the edge and Sean Lee dropped into coverage, meaning the ‘Boys had five defenders coming after Smith and six in the back end. The secondary played off, seemingly content to give up any underneath completions.
Smith had time to throw the ball, so he hung onto it instead of taking the sure thing underneath to set up a closer field goal try. The problem for Dallas was that, once the receivers got downfield, the back six were out of position to corral the scrambling Smith. He took off down the sideline, diving for a first down that ultimately led to the first of only three total touchdowns for both teams in the game.
This is the problem with continually playing man coverage against a mobile passer. In such a close game, it’s pretty evident that Dallas would have won had they contained Smith as a runner. Kiffin probably felt as though Smith is accurate enough to consistently pick apart zone coverage if given enough time, but it might have been smarter to utilize zone blitzes if he wanted to send pressure. That way, the Cowboys could have forced Smith out of the pocket, yet still have defenders playing underneath to stop him on the ground.
Pressure Up the Middle
The Cowboys reached on center Travis Frederick in the back of the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft because Tony Romo felt uncomfortable with the amount of pressure he was getting right in his face. And given his skill set, that makes sense; I think Romo can adequately deal with pressure on the outside because he can side-step those rushers and buy time in the pocket, but he has nowhere to go when there’s a big defensive tackle barreling down on him. Romo isn’t the type of quarterback who can stand tall in the pocket and deliver the football over top of pressure in his face.
And although the Cowboys did a decent job of protecting Romo on Sunday, particularly early, there were still times when Chiefs defensive tackle Dontari Poe took over. One of those was on the Cowboys’ very first drive.
With a second-and-nine at the Chiefs’ 28-yard line, Dallas called for “12” personnel—one running back, two tight ends, and two receivers—and lined up in a formation known as “Gun 3 Wide Pro.” They used to run this formation quite a bit a few years ago, but they dialed it up only 18 times in 2012. The goal is to give Romo time by placing two “personal protectors” in the backfield, which is probably why the Cowboys passed the ball on all 18 plays last year.
This is why analytics-based film study can really help NFL teams. I’m a blogger—a blogger!—who studies the Cowboys for fun, and I know that they don’t run the ball out of Gun 3 Wide Pro. Don’t you think it’s possible that the opponents know it as well?
And that sort of information is actionable; you can’t tell me it’s not an advantage if the Chiefs had known the Cowboys would be passing on this play. The pass-rushers can run right up the field without fear of a run, even disregarding any play-action fakes.
In any event, Poe was lined up directly over Frederick, as he was on almost every play. Immediately after the snap, Frederick found himself lunging at Poe in an effort to neutralize him.
There are probably only a handful of people in the world who weigh as much as Poe and can still move with such quickness. He easily side-stepped Frederick, who was likely forced to attack Poe since the tackle could have bulldozed right through the center had Frederick played back on his heels.
From there, Poe’s path to Romo was a short one. Romo couldn’t step up, instead just conceding the sack to set up third-and-long. Poe is one of the best defensive tackles the ‘Boys will face this year, but there’s no defender who should get into the backfield this quickly. The Cowboys can deal with some pressure on the outside, but if the pocket continually collapses right in Romo’s face, there’s no chance of seeing Dallas play in January.