We've gone over the Cowboy's offense, now it's time to look at what they do on the other side of the ball.
Simply put, this has been one of the five best defenses through the first three weeks of the season. New defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is putting players into a position where they can successful, play fast, and make plays(yes, that was a jab at the Chargers DC.)
The first thing I want to get out of the way is the strong narrative that Kiffin only runs a Tampa-2 look. I've heard it all week leading up to the game, and that's just not the case, at all. I went back and charted every pass play that the Cowboys faced on defense to see what types of coverage they were playing. Dallas has faced a pass play 146 times, seven of them were from the goal line so I didn't count those because you are limited to what you can do when the ball is 3 yards away. So, of the 139 attempts, Dallas played middle of the field coverage on 104 of those attempts. Middle of the field coverage is essentially any sort of Cover 1, Cover 3 type looks with a single high safety.
That's staggering. 75% of the time, they're basically challenging you to beat them deep, and it hasn't happened all that often to this point. So the point is, Dallas doesn't run a Cover 2 look. That's just not accurate.
What Dallas does well is disguise the 2 deep safety look pre-snap, and at the snap of the ball, one of the safeties breaks to the middle of the field to play "robber," explained in-depth here.
Here's the pre-snap look, two safeties over the top. Would be easy for the QB to read that "Tampa-2" type look.
At the snap, or right before, the safety breaks to the middle of the field. They've done this, or broke to the slot WR that they're covering. They've been very good at hiding what they do pre-snap, making it awful tough for the QB to get the proper pre-snap read.
I'll get into the pressure that the defensive line can create later, but Dallas has a pair of linebackers in Sean Lee and Bruce Carter that can rush the passer, and do it well. Both are superior athletes at the position, and they don't come off the field. Both will rush a handful of times throughout the game, and when they do this has been the result.
Similiar to what Pagano does, both line up in the A-gap, or they come on a delayed blitz when they stunt.
The difference? They both are winning their 1-on-1 opportunities, unlike the combination of Butler/Walker/Bird. Here, Carter runs right by Charles for a sack. This might be another game that features Ronnie Brown more than Mathews again. For hurry up and pass protection purposes.
With all these pre-snap looks, eventually, the Cowboys are in some sort of man coverage or a coverage with man responsibilities. This might be the one area that the Chargers have an advantage, in my opinion, attacking the middle of the field. While Carter & Lee have been good at getting after the passer, the same cannot be said when they've been in coverage.
The safety who comes down into the box, is a rookie going into his 2nd start. J.J. Wilcox played pretty well from what I saw, but with all do respect to the Rams, this will be a better group of players Wilcox will be asked to cover. So this will be a steeper test.
The irony is that the athletic linebackers struggle with athletic "space" type players. This bodes well for the Chargers offense, as the strength of the team isn't it's actual "receivers" but it's their receiving options. Particularly Antonio Gates, Ladarius Green, and Danny Woodhead. All three are walking mismatches and nightmare covers for anyone 1-on-1.
I expect the Chargers to incorporate Green more and more into the offense. Last week, of his 20 snaps, he only ran six routes. While that's smart to avoid tipping your hand, eventually you need to realize he's one of your top receiving threats, especially with your best receiver, Malcom Floyd, out for an extended period of time.
What doesn't bode well for San Diego, is the other 3 members of the Cowboys secondary. Brandon Carr has routinely been one of the better corners in the league and is often overlooked for his play. I don't think Rivers will be looking his way very often come Sunday.
2nd year cornerback Morris Claiborne is very aggressive; he's been flagged for two pass interference calls in back-to-back weeks now. He can do that because he's generally faster than the receivers he's covering, so he doesn't fear he'll be beaten deep, and that'll be the case again this week. I think the best way to attack Claiborne is double moves; use his aggressiveness against him.
Free safety Barry Church has been a pleasant surprise this year and is playing his tail off right now. He's been good in the run game when asked to be, and covering up everything deep so far. It's hard to tell how good he's been without getting a good look at the All-22 look. That being said, I don't think he's been tested enough. I'd attack him before I'd go after their corners.
The reason I say that this doesn't bode well for the Chargers, is because the receivers have struggled to get separation. As I mentioned above, Dallas playing predominant coverage with man-to-man responsibilities, I just haven't seen where they can win outside. Vincent Brown, the training camp all-star, isn't what he was pre-injury, and it's quite clear.
This has put even more pressure on Phillip Rivers to deliver the ball in tight spaces and make all the right reads. Luckily, he's done that, and then some. He'll have to have another great performance to keep the team in the game Sunday.
Fact. DeMarcus Ware is really good. Fact. Jason Hatcher is the most underrated defensive lineman on the team. This is a problem, a major one. They primarily play on the same side, and wreak havoc. I was more impressed with Hatcher's ability to get pressure, actually. The reason this is a problem? Well, the Chargers will miss starting left guard Chad Rinehart to a turf toe injury. They may also miss King Dunlap, who no one ever wants to give credit to, but has played well to start the season.
Enter Mike Harris.
No, he's not the same guy who graded out as Pro Football Focus's worst left tackle in 5 years, but he's not a guy that you want to start, either. Expect help early and often on the left side. With Rich Ohrnberger, who was problematic in pass protection last week, expected to start at guard, this just isn't an ideal situation against any team, let alone a pass rushing duo like the Cowboys defense features.
There's a ripple effect here. This now leaves D.J. Fluker alone in pass protection. Fluker has been a pleasant surprise in that regard. I think this will be the first game the Chargers will be able to establish their running game to the right. Fluker should be able to over power Dallas' Georgie Selvie, who's more of a speed rusher.
Nick Hayden rounds out the Cowboys defensive line, he has good size, but hasn't shown much to be a pass rusher, and might finally be a good match up for Jeromey Clary.
What the Cowboys do up front is what allows this defense to play so well. They run different types of stunts with the lineman, and get pressure with their front four. It'll be imperative for center Nick Hardwick to recognize these and know exactly when to pass off rushers. He's been good so far, but the guards have not.
Dallas gets in this "Wide-9" look at times, where they isolate Ware 1-on-1, which is an impossible task for any tackle in the league.
What happens in 1-on-1 matchups with Ware?
This happens. That's Jake Long, no slouch, on roller skates. Ware gets the sack here.
What it comes down to
This is where the new offense comes into play. Where you get the ball out quick, and take what the defense gives you. If the receivers can't win early, and the line is asked to block for an additional amount of time, then the pressure will get to Rivers. So far this season, the offensive line has allowed Rivers the 3rd least amount of time in the NFL before he's sacked, at 3.3 seconds. Rivers has just done a remarkable job at getting the ball out of his hands.
It really comes down to Rivers. He's passe the test so far, and will have to continue his excellent play. He'll need to check to the right plays, check out of the wrong plays, and keep trusting his teammates.
What do you think the Chargers have to do offensively to win this game?