Resting starters, Titans still present Cowboys good warmup with Malik Willis

If there’s one problem the Cowboys have yet to even remotely solve, it’s how to stop a running quarterback. From Daniel Jones to Jalen Hurts, to Justin Fields, dual-threat quarterbacks have had their way with the Dallas defense.

With a possible postseason showdown with the run-happy Hurts looming on the not-too-distant horizon, the time to figure it out is dwindling and Malik Willis and the Tennessee Titans may just be the perfect opponent to learn from.

Stopping a two-way quarterback is clearly easier said than done. Whether it’s a called run, a run option, or simply an improvised scramble, QB runs have the ability to tip the balance of a game.

Elite postseason teams like the Bills with Josh Allen, Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes, and Eagles with Hurts all feature a QB running component in their attack, so if the Cowboys hope to enjoy the ultimate postseason success this season, it’s imperative they get a handle on mobile quarterbacks.

Cowboys vs Titans

The Cowboys clash with the Titans won’t be getting any Game of the Week acclaim but that doesn’t mean it’s inconsequential. Tennessee is still trying to fend off the surging Jaguars while Dallas still have visions of a NFC East crown dancing in their heads.

Willis, making just the fourth start of his young career, isn’t going to be mistaken for any of the aforementioned stars any time soon. The rookie from Liberty needs truckloads of development as a passer and has yet to reach even 100 yards passing this season.  His running ability is a completely different story. . .

In his three starts, Willis averages over six carries per game and while he has yet to light up the rushing stat sheets, it’s by far the most developed part of his game. As such, Willis and the Titans should provide the perfect warm-up/test for Dallas as the postseason nears.

 

Dan Quinn and the controlling the edge

Stopping a zone read and versions of the run-pass-option (RPO) often comes down to edge play. In a zone read, the QB has the option of handing the ball off to the running back inside, or keeping it himself and taking it outside. His decision is based on the play of the EDGE.

Throughout the season we’ve seen Micah Parsons, Dorance Armstrong, and even DeMarcus Lawrence struggle against the zone-read. In fact, Dallas has seen teams specifically target these three players on the edge this season.

Certain RPOs have the same attack. At face value an RPO involves either a hand-off to the running back or a pass downfield. Recently, we’ve seen it become a triple option (in Philadelphia) where it’s hand-off/keeper/pass option. This goes beyond the typical conflict defender and involves defensive backs getting involved as well.

Dan Quinn will need to get a handle on these before he can feel too confident going into the postseason and going against a developing passer like Willis should be a perfect stepping stone.

Corralling the aggression

A couple key traits of the Dallas defense are their relentless pursuit and unmatched aggressiveness. These traits which endear them so much to the fans, actually work against them against mobile quarterbacks.

Mobile passers, such as Willis and Hurts, prefer to get outside of the pocket and create. Keeping them corralled inside the pocket is paramount to a defense trying to limit them. Pass rushers can’t play with reckless abandon but rather must maintain their lanes and keep the quarterback caged inside the pocket.

Much of this responsibility falls on inside players. Defensive tackles like Osa Odighizuwa, Neville Gallimore and Carlos Watkins, must hold the front of the pocket even if it means they are producing less pressure through one-gap penetration.

Second-level defenders like box safeties and linebackers must also be mindful of improvised scrambles because if Willis breaches the pocket, they will be the ones who must click-and-close before he reaches the first-down sticks.

Conclusion

This is a match-up where style points really do matter. The Cowboys have to use this opportunity to show they can stop a mobile quarterback. They have to show their edge play can hold up against a strong QB/RB rushing combo because more could await them in the postseason.

This is one of those rare cases in which how they win is more important than by how much they win. Winning is still the top objective, but proving they can stop scrambles by maintain the pocket and stop outside runs by properly playing against the zone-read, are near-equal objectives.

The Titans are the perfect opponent for Dallas right now.

Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire