Games to watch during the Cowboys-Chargers, including major battles in the trenches
The Cowboys exceeded expectations in their Week 1 loss to the Buccaneers, behaving like a team ready to compete with anyone in the NFC. Despite recent injuries, the bar is now reset to a much higher level. Anything less than a Week 2 win over the Chargers would be a disappointment. Here are some things to watch out for on Sunday:
DAL attack vs LAC defense
Schematically, the Chargers’ new defense under head coach Brandon Staley in Week 1 looked a lot like the 2020 Rams defense, for whom Staley was the defensive coordinator last season.
Staley’s defense operates primarily from dual safety shell appearances. He prefers to play mainly quarter cover variation (area). Yes, the Chargers staff are different from what they had with the Rams, but the principles are the same.
The good news for the Cowboys is that the means of breaking that defense is a good match for what they love to do and can do, depending on their skill and attacking plan.
The Packers’ approach in last year’s NFC Divisional Round game against the Rams offers a good model. To keep things simple, quarterback coverage requires four deep defenders, four linemen, and only three intermediate players at the second level. This second level is one of the main weak points of the neighborhoods. The Packers attacked this relentlessly last January by using the back two set movement to create 3×1 formations that expand the second tier.
The game below was a great example. Notice the two running backs lined up in the backfield to start. One of the backs went outside before the snap to create a 3×1. This widened the defense, which had to honor the side of the three receivers.
Then they ran him inside against a lighter forehead.
The Packers did this a few times in the first downs, when Staley’s defense was lined up with a five-man front, as you can see above. That meant even fewer defenders at the second level.
It’s not hard to see the Cowboys do the same with Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. If Dallas chooses to throw the ball more this week, that’s one way to do it successfully.
One of the most successful teams in the air against Staley’s plan a year ago were the Bills. The game below offers another great example of how to break your defense.
Here, the Rams were playing quarter-quarter-half coverage, i.e. Cover-4 on one side (top of screen) and Cover-2 on the other (bottom of screen). The Bills lay them out with an empty formation. On the side of the two receivers, they occupied the defender below so that he could not be a factor in the direction of the play.
On the side of the three receivers, they got to work targeting the middle linebacker. They brought it into conflict with a whip route that broke short and outward and a square that broke deeper and inward.
Look at all this open space to operate in the middle of the field.
It’s not hard to imagine Dallas dismissing the Chargers and taking a similar approach based on how they attacked the Tampa defense in Week 1.
Short hand O line (again)
The biggest obstacle for the Cowboys offense will be the loss of La’el Collins on the right tackle. Terence Steele appears to be in the running to replace Collins, and his reward will be facing Joey Bosa, one of the NFL’s top passer.
Bosa saw a lot of time on the right tackle against Washington. I expect the Chargers to maximize their snaps against Steele this week.
If the approach to Week 1 against the Buccaneers is any indicator, we’ll likely see Dallas continue to spread it and neutralize the pass rush without reducing offense, at least to begin with. They can always bring tight ends to help or use running backs to steal if Bosa gets too much of a headache.
DAL defense against LAC attack
The Cowboys felt comfortable playing good men’s coverage against the Buccaneers receivers, so I guess there won’t be a lot of reservations to do with the same this week against the Chargers. However, they will probably want to mix different looks, because the Chargers showed their ability to successfully manage the men’s cover against Washington last week, particularly in third place.
New LA offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is from New Orleans. What I saw last week was similar in style to some of the things New Orleans loves to do. Specifically, Lombardi used a lot of divisions, stacks and tight clusters.
Each of these elements makes covering the playing man more difficult. Defenders must either play the releases of the receivers (often resulting in confusion and exploded covers) or fight through the traffic of multiple players to cover their receivers. The Chargers were able to deploy this approach brilliantly against Washington in Week 1.
Here’s an example from the first quarter, with wide receiver Keenan Allen waving backfield to line up in what was effectively a field formation in the 3rd and 5th.
It was the first try in the fourth quarter. It was the same game, just dressed differently with Allen on the line of scrimmage rather than in the backfield.
These looks allowed Allen, the Chargers’ top road racer, to have room to run uninterrupted. They also quickly created open receivers, allowing Justin Herbert to get the ball out of his hands and neutralize the football team’s pass rush.
How Dan Quinn chooses to compare himself to Keenan Allen will be one of the main storylines in this game. Allen lines up all over the lineup, but he sees plenty of time in the slot. Will Quinn choose to keep Trevon Diggs and Anthony Brown on the outside and allow Jourdan Lewis to run the slot again?
At 6-2, Allen isn’t your traditional slot machine receiver. He’s 4 inches on Lewis, who also battled the Buccaneers in Week 1. It could be a clash Quinn wants to avoid, meaning 6-2 Trevon Diggs might be a better option. Would Quinn have his best corner to follow Allen all over the field? It would make it difficult for the Cowboys to deploy a lot of disguise. And that would then leave 6-4 Mike Williams alone to operate on the outside against 5-11 Anthony Brown.
Maybe this week we’ll see more of Quinn’s area to account for these clashes and to be able to handle LA’s use of these formations designed to break human cover.
Getting to Herbert
I’ll probably point that out in every preview post this season, but the Cowboys absolutely need to make it to the quarterback. They didn’t reach Tom Brady in Week 1 which allowed for some big game-changing games.
This mission will not be easier this week with their two starting defensive ends out of the roster. The Cowboys lost DeMarcus Lawrence to a broken ankle in Wednesday practice. And Randy Gregory’s status is still uncertain after he was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list on Monday.
Not to mention that the Chargers have focused on protection during the offseason. They rebuilt their offensive line, and it paid immediate dividends in Week 1. First-round left tackle Rashawn Slater got off to an incredible start, allowing no pressure on 49 drop backs with Chase Young lined up on him on the majority of these shots.
Here he was against Young in one of the biggest games of the game, a 3rd and 16-year-old that the Chargers converted in the 4th quarter:
Similar to LA, the right tackle is the area Dallas would like to target in defense. Chargers right tackle Bryan Bulaga came out of last week’s game with a low back injury and his replacement, Storm Norton, allowed a sack. It doesn’t matter who starts this week, it’s a sticky situation for the Chargers.
I would expect Dan Quinn to use lineups that force whoever starts on the right tackle to be as lonely on an island as possible. As we mentioned last week, don’t be surprised to see linebacker Micah Parsons lined up on the inside during transmissions to help provide some of these looks:
The Cowboys can perform stunts like the one you saw above from this look, or force an advantageous 1v1 on the edge with Parsons occupying the right guard.
However, the pressure alone won’t derail Justin Herbert. He’s as physically gifted as any quarterback in the league, and his ability to pull down throws with defenders in his face was one of the attributes that made his rookie season so impressive:
Getting closer will not be enough. The Cowboys need to take Herbert down and force negative plays.
As was the case last week, Dallas faces a very talented opponent. They won’t stand a chance of securing a victory against this Chargers team.
Find more Dallas Morning News Cowboys coverage here.