Welcome to Divisional Weekend of the 2018 NFL season. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
The second divisional round game of the 2018 NFL playoffs will take place in Los Angeles as the Rams will face the Dallas Cowboys. Here’s what to watch for:
DALLAS DEFENSE BUILT OFF SIMPLICITY
Former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard, who has joined forces with Rod Marinelli in Dallas, has had excellent results in Big D. While the Cowboys are so-so against the pass, they finished the regular season fifth in the NFL against the run.
Given that Dallas rarely blitzes, their defensive line – led by defensive ends Demarcus Lawrence and second-year man Taco Charlton – relies on slants, stunts and twists at the line of scrimmage to get to the quarterback. They also use them against the run, which helps shut down multiple gaps at once. Helping out the defensive line are linebackers Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith and rookie Leighton Vander Esch, who are all intelligent, fast and extremely good in run support and in pass coverage. Vander Esch is a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The Cowboys are led in their secondary by former first round pick Byron Jones, who has been solid at cornerback.
COWBOYS’ OFFENSE REJUVENATED
Dallas’ offense, which is based off of the Air Coryell system that has been the foundation of their passing attack for the better part of three decades, faced a crisis coming into the 2018 season. With longtime veterans Jason Witten and Dez Bryant having left in the spring, beyond Cole Beasley the Cowboys had no proven threat at wide receiver.
Until the trade for Amari Cooper. Since coming over from the Oakland Raiders, Cooper posted 53 catches, 725 yards and six touchdowns in nine regular season games with the Cowboys, rejuvenating a passing attack that had relied on Ezekiel Elliott’s abilities in the screen game (which he’s very good at).
Elliott, an explosive, powerful runner, operates behind perhaps the best offensive line in the game. Anchored by all-world tackle Tyron Smith and perennial All-Pro guard Zack Martin, this unit hasn’t missed a beat without injured center Travis Frederick.
Dak Prescott, while not yet a great anticipatory passer, does have a few traits that help out the Cowboys’ running game. His mobility helps Dallas remain dangerous on play-action, bootlegs, rollouts, zone-reads and RPOs – all plays that are built off of the run.
Watch for the Rams to try and account for Prescott in the running game by keeping linebacker Mark Barron on him as a “spy” – especially in the red zone, where the Cowboys like to use zone-read concepts.
RAMS’ DEFENSE, WHILE TALENTED, IS INCONSISTENT
While Wade Phillips, one of the greatest defensive minds the game has ever known, favors a 3-4 defense that asks his front seven to control one gap and play matchup-zone coverage behind it, his unit this season has been mediocre. The Rams’ defense in 2018 ranked 19th overall, 14th against the pass, 23rd against the run.
A few statistics stand out in regards to Los Angeles. Finishing middle of the pack in quarterback takedowns (15th in sacks) is an indicator of their lack of depth with their pass rushers. Even though they employ the league’s best defensive tackle in Aaron Donald, former All-Pro Ndamukong Suh and the underrated Michael Brockers on their defensive line, the linebacker position is a barren wasteland beyond former safety Mark Barron.
The Rams were also third in interceptions and 26th in passing touchdowns allowed. This speaks to the gambling nature of cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. While they both excel in man and zone coverage along with nickel cornerbacks Sam Shields and Nickell Robey-Coleman, they – along with safety Lamarcus Joyner – love to take risks and go for interceptions. Sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t, as being consistently aggressive can sometimes come back to hurt you.
Phillips’ defenses are usually schematically excellent, but his coverages can be sometimes predictable against two-receiver formations. Looks for the Cowboys to try and exploit this trend.
GREATEST SHOW ON TURF, PART TWO
Ever since Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Orlando Pace, Torry Holt and Issac Bruce roamed the Rams’ sidelines nearly 20 years ago, the team didn’t have anything remotely close to fielding a good offense for a long time. That has changed ever since Sean McVay took over last year, and he has created an offensive juggernaut in the City of Angels.
Prior to being hired by the Rams, McVay spent time working with Mike and Kyle Shanahan in Washington, and also was on the staffs of both Jon and Jay Gruden. The Shanahans were the most influential when it comes to McVay’s preference in the running game.
The McVay-Shanahan system relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally on outside zone stretch plays, while leaving cutback lanes for running backs. It has long been a staple of those coaches, and countless tailbacks have had success in it – including the Rams’ Todd Gurley, who is also dangerous in the screen game and on routes to the flats. In front of Gurley are offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth, Rodger Saffold, John Sullivan, Austin Blythe and Rob Havenstein.
Passing-wise, the Rams are aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams horizontally rather than vertically, this version of the system features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket, especially on bootlegs, rollouts and play-action. It also will have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages, and also aligns wide receivers close to the offensive line in order to give them more space to operate. Their passing game also makes excellent use of intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts and crossing patterns.
Jared Goff, the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, is very good when it comes to the timing and rhythm portion of the passing game. He gets the ball out on time, has good synchronicity with his receivers, is accurate and intelligent. However, when under pressure Goff’s footwork can get a bit sloppy and isn’t always at ease when bodies are flying around him.
The weapons that Goff has at his disposal are wideouts Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, and tight end Tyler Higbee. Cooks is one of the NFL’s best deep threats, Woods has emerged as a very good possession receiver since leaving the Buffalo Bills and Higbee has been relied upon more following the season-ending knee injury to slot extraordinaire Cooper Kupp.
THIS AND THAT
- Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan was the Rams’ head coach from 2006-08. He also worked with Jason Garrett in Miami in 2005.
- Phillips preceded Garrett as head coach in Dallas from 2007-10, while Garrett served as offensive coordinator.
- Rams running backs coach Skip Peete held the same position in Dallas from 2007-10 while working with Phillips and Garrett, and also worked with Rams offensive line coach Aaron Kromer in Chicago from 2013-14 and in Oakland from 2001-04.
- Linehan and Cowboys quarterbacks coach Kellen Moore were both in Detroit from 2012-14 while Moore was an active player and Moore later followed him to Dallas.
- Cowboys defensive tackles coach Leon Lett was teammates with Garrett from 1992-1999 and won three Super Bowls together.
- Mike Woicik, the Cowboys’ strength and conditioning coach, was also with Garrett from 1992-96 and won three Super Bowls with him. He also worked with Rams passing coordinator Shane Waldron in 2009 while the both of them were employed by the New England Patriots.
- Chris Shula, the Rams’ assistant linebackers coach, is the grandson of Hall of Famer Don Shula and the son of former Cowboys assistant and Cincinnati Bengals head coach David Shula.
- Rams wide receivers coach Eric Yarber was the wide receivers coach in Tampa Bay from 2010-11.
- Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor – one of the finalists for the Cincinnati Bengals’ head coaching job – spent the summer of 2007 in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ training camp while linebackers coach Joe Barry was on Jon Gruden’s coaching staff.
- Barry and Marinelli won Super Bowl XXXVII together with Tampa Bay against Peete and Kromer, who were with the Oakland Raiders in 2002. Barry was also Marinelli’s defensive coordinator in Detroit from 2007-08, and Garrett was a quarterback for the Bucs in 2004 while both were on staff.
- Kromer also coached with Barry and Marinelli with the Bucs in 2005.
- Barry was Jay Gruden’s defensive coordinator in Washington from 2015-16 and worked with McVay there during that same time period.
- Cowboys offensive line coach Marc Colombo played for Garrett and Phillips from 2007-2010.
- Dallas running backs coach Gary Brown and safeties coach Greg Jackson played together in San Diego in 1997.
- Rams special teams coach John Fassel, the son of longtime NFL coach Jim Fassel, was on the same staff as Cowboys wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal in Oakland from 2008-11.
- Phillips, Kromer and Lal all worked in Buffalo at various points in their careers.
- Richard and Rams senior offensive assistant Jedd Fisch were on the same staff in Seattle in 2010. Fisch and Fassel also worked together in Baltimore from 2005-07.
- Garrett backed up Kerry Collins with the Giants from 2000-03 while Fassel’s father Jim was head coach.
- Cowboys consultant Hudson Houck was the Rams’ offensive line coach from 1983-91 and coach Dallas’ offensive line from 1993-2001 and 2008-11 while overlapping with Garrett and Lett’s playing and coaching careers. He also worked with Garrett and Linehan in Miami from 2005-06.
- McVay also worked for Jon Gruden in 2008 and was an assistant for Mike Shanahan from 2010-13. Fisch served as an assistant to Shanahan in 2008 while Rams senior personnel executive Brian Xanders was the Denver Broncos’ assistant general manager
- Richard and Lal were together in Oakland in 2007 – Richard as a player, Lal on Lane Kiffin’s coaching staff. Richard’s playing career also took him to Miami in 2005, where he overlapped with Garrett, Houck and Linehan.