January 17, 2010
As much as the pregame hype has been about Brett Favre(notes) and the Tony Romo(notes) who grew up idolizing him, the winner of the early Sunday game between the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings will have done one thing better than their opponent -- they will have discovered and implemented ways to deflect pressure in pass plays, and out of passing formations. The Vikings may have the greater challenge. Their offensive line, led by tackles Bryant McKinnie(notes) and Phil Loadholt(notes), is vulnerable to quality pass-rushers, and the Cowboys have three in their front five -- "endbackers" DeMarcus Ware(notes) and Anthony Spencer(notes), and tackle Jay Ratliff(notes).
Dallas improved from 23rd to ninth in Football Outsiders' Defensive Passing DVOA statistic in the second half of the 2009 season, and one of the main reasons was Spencer's development. The third-year man had trouble getting to the quarterback in the first half of the season, but racked up seven sacks in his last seven games, including last week's wild-card win against the Eagles. Spencer's advent has opened up opportunities for Ware and Ratliff, as well -- now, opposing lines can't just commit to Ware on the edge. The Cowboys made Donovan McNabb's(notes) life miserable over the last two weeks, but the Favre they're facing today has less of a problem problem checking down out of pressure -- with the line in front of him, it's a survival mechanism. Making Adrian Peterson more of a factor in this game would be a good idea, but we've been saying that for a while. It's Favre's show, and the team will rise or fall on his performance.
The Cowboys also have different ways of countering pressure, and it starts with an understanding of the importance of their running game. You'll see them in a lot of two- and three-tight end sets, but it isn't always about power football. Sometimes, it's Jason Witten(notes) in the slot or flex, taking a linebacker out of a blitz idea. Dallas runs the draw play better than just about any team with the three-headed running back monster that is Marion Barber(notes), Felix Jones(notes), and Tashard Choice(notes). Defensive end Jared Allen(notes) can be worn down if you run right at him, and no team wants to run straight at the Williams Wall.
The trick will be putting Allen and linemate Ray Edwards(notes) (the Spencer to Allen's Ware) in a box by forcing them to read run keys too often. Then, Romo can set up play action and get the downfield looks he wants. Even if that doesn't work for Romo, he will also have the ability to get stuff completed underneath Minnesota's Cover- and Tamps-2 defensive concepts. The Cowboys have a big, bruising offensive line -- not really designed for nimble pass-blocking, but certainly not the liability that Minnesota's line has become.
While Favre has played at an incredible level this season, Romo might be the hotter quarterback now. He's got a great rapport with Witten and receiver Miles Austin(notes), and he's greatly improved his decision-making and feel in the pocket. That might just be the difference in a win that would take the Cowboys to their first NFC Championship game since 1995.
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