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02 Jan 2007

Any Given Sunday: Lions over Cowboys

by Ned Macey

The Detroit Lions had lost every road game by at least a touchdown and were one loss away from earning the number one overall pick in this year's draft. The Dallas Cowboys needed a win to have a shot at the division crown and a first-round home game in the playoffs. Everything was set up for the Cowboys to crush the Lions. Instead, the Cowboys showed that they have completely fallen apart defensively and have little chance of making any noise in the playoffs.

The first inkling that Sunday may have been Detroit's day came early. The Cowboys intercepted Jon Kitna's first pass and returned it for a touchdown. The play was nullified by a penalty. The Lions proceeded to score a field goal on their way to building a 13-0 lead.

The Cowboys can point at Terrence Newman, guilty of the penalty and a later muffed punt, as the culprit for the loss. But doing so ignores not only Newman's punt return touchdown but also the more important fact that one loss was not the biggest problem for Dallas. The Eagles likely would have made this result extraneous later in the day. The real problems for Dallas are the ever-increasing holes in the Dallas secondary and a turnover-prone quarterback.

A week ago the Cowboys were in this very same space. I pointed out recent instances where they had struggled defending passes to running backs and tight ends. Add wide receivers to that list. Roy Williams and Mike Furrey abused the Dallas secondary, combining for 17 catches and 206 yards. Furrey generally runs underneath routes, exploiting holes in zones similar to a tight end or slot receiver. The one time Kitna tried to go deep to Furrey was the play resulting in the nullified interception.

The Cowboys pass defense has officially reached crisis mode. They struggled against a team with no threat of a running game. The Lions efforts to run were futile, 3.4 yards per carry and four first downs in 25 attempts. Their pass offense had slowed considerably from a quick early-season start once opponents had enough tape to game plan for the Mike Martz system.

Perhaps, with a playoff berth already clinched, the Cowboys spent little time in preparation for Detroit. Nonetheless, the problems are too widespread and too repeated to be explained away by the circumstances. The numbers are rather stark. After beating the Buccaneers 38-10 in Week 12, Dallas was 7-4 and had given up 20 or more points four times. Since then they have given up 20 points in all five of their games.

The advanced numbers are even worse. Through Week 12, Dallas was the fourth-best defense according to DVOA. Since that time, they have been the worst defense in the NFL, largely because of a pass defense DVOA of 52.4%. Effectively, Dallas makes their opponents more proficient through the air than the Indianapolis Colts.

Reasons for the change are harder to target. They did lose Greg Ellis mid-season, but the loss was several games before the recent slide. Another possibility is that New Orleans laid a blueprint in their 42-17 whitewashing. But in some ways a blueprint was laid in their first loss to Philadelphia. The common thread from both was the ability to strike for big plays in the passing game.

Those previous games make Sunday's result even more troubling. The Lions were able to beat them by completing a high percentage of passes for medium-length gains. The longest completion covered 24 yards, and Furrey's 11 catches averaged less than 10 yards per reception. Perhaps the Cowboys overcompensated for their propensity to give up big plays. If so, this solution is not ideal, particularly before facing the West Coast Offense featured in Seattle.

The Cowboys have a diverse defense capable of 3-4 and 4-3 looks. The defense gets solid pressure from DeMarcus Ware out of the 4-3. The problem is that their secondary has trouble covering. The safeties are vulnerable, and they lack cornerback depth. Newman and Henry both play solid man-to-man coverage, but that is a high risk strategy if a team cannot trust its safeties.

The Cowboys' problems are not exclusively defensive. Tony Romo continues to turn the ball over at an alarming rate. The bad habits are readily apparent, and Romo's early success is coming back to hurt the Cowboys at the worst possible time.

Romo-mania began when he was playing at a very high level, but that success was primarily against inferior competition. The only top 10 pass defense (according to DVOA) that he has faced is Philadelphia, which abused him. He has played Washington, Arizona, Tampa Bay, and Detroit, among the ten worst pass defenses.

Sunday's major problem was ball security. Romo was sacked four times, and on three he fumbled the ball away. Again, the first play proved an omen when Romo fumbled after a sack. The Cowboys recovered that fumble and another one where Romo lost the ball in his own end zone. The end zone fumble was carelessness, not Lions' pressure. The Cowboys were not fortunate enough to pick up his fumble in the red zone or a late fourth-quarter fumble that set up a field goal. As a bonus, Romo added an interception that set the Lions up with excellent field position for a touchdown.

The sacks themselves are equally a sign of poor fundamentals. Sacks are often the fault of the offensive line, but in most instances they can be avoided by the quarterback. In Romo's case, he is holding the ball too long in an effort to make big plays. Call it the Drew Bledsoe Syndrome.

The Seahawks are not a particularly strong defense, but they are able to pressure the quarterback. If Romo continues to hold the ball -- at least until the sack knocks it out -- he will be sacked repeatedly in Seattle.

The sacks were the first good showing by the Detroit defensive line in a long time, and like the victory as a whole, it should not be taken as a sign that new head coach Rod Marinelli's system is working. The Lions are a very bad team riddled with holes on both offense and defense. One game should not obscure that simple truth.

The good news is that the Lions' plethora of holes makes their failure to earn the top overall pick a potential blessing in disguise. Brady Quinn, the presumptive first overall pick, is not such a can't-miss prospect as to cost the Lions sleep. They have needs at almost every position on the field, and they can comfortably fill them at the second spot for less money. Wisconsin tackle Joe Thomas would fill an equal, if not larger, need than Quinn.

The one predictable component of this game was that the Lions pass offense would have success against Dallas. Mike Martz can always pick up yards in the passing game, and the Lions have responded with an average passing offense. Average, mind you, is quite an improvement where the Lions are involved.

The key to the passing game is two receivers who are excellent stories for very different reasons. Roy Williams is quietly one of the top receivers in football. He is the sole top-flight weapon on the offense and constantly commands double teams. Nonetheless, he has amassed excellent numbers this year and arguably should have made the Pro Bowl. Matt Millen has made any number of mistakes, but drafting Williams was his one unimpeachable move.

Furrey came with none of the high expectations of a first-round pick. He was the Rams' sixth receiver a season ago, so he converted to safety. He came to Detroit to play for his old coach, Martz, with hopes of competing for a roster spot at wide receiver. After the early failings of Corey Bradford, Furrey has emerged as a reliable possession receiver. He averages only 11.1 yards per catch. He plays as a more productive version of Az Hakim or Antwaan Randle El.

Despite the big numbers put up by these two, the overall offense is in the bottom third of the league. The main culprit is an inept running game. An injury to Kevin Jones does not help, but the Lions could not run the ball even when he was healthy. The offensive line has limited talent and has been riddled with injuries all season.

One other possible culprit for the offensive struggles is Martz himself. The offensive mastermind is as talented as anyone at drawing up individual pass plays. The overall construction of his offense may need work. Martz has not overseen a top 10 offense since 2001. His running game has been consistently ineffective the last several years. It should be noted that the Rams, after his departure, have returned to their status as a top 10 offense. Steven Jackson is headed to the Pro Bowl.

Martz's impact on Kitna shows the coach's strengths and weaknesses. The veteran passed the 4,000-yard marker on Sunday. In a sad comment on the quality of Detroit quarterbacking, he joins the immortal Scott Mitchell as the only player to achieve that distinction. Kitna amassed those numbers by buying into Martz's aggressive system. But the mistake-prone quarterback has maybe gone a step too far in that direction. He leads the league in turnovers. As noted above, he was lucky to escape a turnover on the first play, and he added a pick later in the game.

For all Kitna's faults, he is not the biggest problem on a team that lacks talent. They have no set offensive linemen. They lack a reliable third receiver. Even bigger problems exist on defense, a unit again negatively affected by injuries. The best player on the defense, Shaun Rogers, has missed a large portion of the season due to suspension and a lingering knee issue. The Lions have no established second cornerback, with Dre Bly as their only solid option. First-round pick Ernie Sims looks like a keeper, but he is surrounded by inconsistent performers at linebacker.

The Lions are not the worst or second-worst team in football. They do, however, comfortably rank in the bottom 10 of DVOA for the fifth time in the six years of the Millen era. Hopefully, Millen will not be able to use this surprising win as evidence of what is to come. The talent level is depleted across the board, and a change has to come from the top. Until that point, all Lions fans can hope for is the occasional offensive explosion like Sunday with Williams and Furrey making big plays.

Dallas is not supposed to be in a rebuilding phase, but it turns out the team has serious holes. A quick look at their schedule reveals only one win over a team with a winning record, Indianapolis. That win came when the Colts were undefeated but looks much less impressive now. Their other "signature" win was over a Carolina team that also proved to be terribly flawed.

The Cowboys do have some hope because the Seahawks are an equally flawed team. The winner of that game should be easy fodder for either the Bears or Saints. If Seattle does win, remember that it is probably the Cowboys defense, not some sudden rebirth of Matt Hasselbeck. When the season finally does end, the Cowboys will have many questions to ponder about the direction of the team. If they decide not to rebuild, their priorities should rest on replacing the people covering wide receivers, not the receiver who drops too many balls.

Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.

Posted by: Ned Macey on 02 Jan 2007

22 comments, Last at 05 Jan 2007, 3:03pm by Tim Wilson

Comments

1
by hector (not verified) :: Tue, 01/02/2007 - 2:51pm

A week ago the Cowboys were in this very same space. I pointed out recent instances where they had struggled defending passes to running backs and tight ends.

Nice call.

And a few weeks ago on this very same site, we were all called on the carpet, essentially, for ignoring the wonderful story of the Dallas Cowboy defense. Oops. (Okay, maybe the general media was the intended target.)

Was Henry that solid Sunday? Everytime I looked up he was being undressed but I haven't reviewed the short cut yet (and that's limited in what I can learn anyway). Newman has allowed just two TDs the last two seasons if Pasquarelli is right on that; why not have him on Williams when possible? Ah, I guess Furrey just beats you anyway.

2
by Adam H (not verified) :: Tue, 01/02/2007 - 3:03pm

Henry is about a year or two away from a team trying him out at safety. He will likely do well there.

3
by Newman (not verified) :: Tue, 01/02/2007 - 3:22pm

Newman may have allowerd just 2 TDs the past 2 seasons, but Sunday he got beat by none other than Mike Williams for a TD. Ouch. Not to mention his penalty that cost the Cowboys a TD and his terrible muffed punt.

If only Jon McGraw knew how to tackle, Newman wouldn't even have been able to somewhat redeem himself on the punt return.

And all this after trying to rally his teammates..probably the worst game of his season, or even career.

4
by Mike W (not verified) :: Tue, 01/02/2007 - 3:22pm

'In a sad comment on the quality of Detroit quarterbacking, [Kitna] joins the immortal Scott Mitchell as the only player to achieve that distinction.' It’s things like that that remind me to be grateful for being able to pencil in “Favre� for the last 15 years.

If Detroit doesn’t take Joe Thomas, Millen should be drawn, quartered, tarred, feathered, and hung, in whatever order causes the most pain. I watched Thomas a lot in the Arkansas game, and while he probably will need to learn to physically engage outside pass rushers more, instead of just pushing them beyond the pocket (though his man did nothing in the game), his feet are very good, and he looks effortlessly strong.

5
by BlueStarDude (not verified) :: Tue, 01/02/2007 - 3:31pm

Mike Furrey talked about the Dallas D in a news report. I don't have the link, but basically he said that what has become evident since the New Orleans game is that Dallas doesn't vary their coverage scheme. They never throw in a wrinkle, and everything the offense reads pre-snap will be just as it was on film. It's amazing the lack of adjustments Dallas has made. After the first Giants loss I posted on here that I couldn't support Parcells as the coach anymore. Last week Parcells hits a new low when he puts in TO with 8 seconds left in the first half thinking the Eagles would throw a hail mary. This Lions debacle has to be the last straw. It's nice that he has been the best coach here since Jimmy left. Too bad that's not saying anything.

6
by jdb (not verified) :: Tue, 01/02/2007 - 3:47pm

re: 4

amen to that. As Bears fan I feel kind of bad watching the Lions kind of paw feebly every year. Of course, we'll probably be joining them in futility next year when the wheels somehow fall off the defense and Rex Grossman puts an end to the confusion by just sucking full-time. I'll bet you ten bucks that Millen has a seizure and slobbers all over Calvin Johnson come draft day though.

7
by Geronimo (not verified) :: Tue, 01/02/2007 - 4:04pm

I love it. A poorly coached and poorly prepared Parcells team gets beaten by the Lions.

I wonder if everyone will still think Parcells is a genius.

8
by Tim Wilson (not verified) :: Tue, 01/02/2007 - 4:46pm

I agree that there are major problems on defense in Big D, but your claim of a massively flawed team with substantial holes seems to be overstating it.

First, there is a gaping hole at Free Safety. The Cowboys cannot play defense in center field, and the corners are being left on islands because of it. Anthony Henry is playing hurt (why no mention of this in your column?), but has been decent all year, despite being attacked every game. Terence Newman is a top-flight corner, in the tier under Champ Bailey, but certainly a better pure cover man than players like Lito Shepard, Ken Lucas, etc. Aaron Glenn is a decent nickel, if undersized and without great speed at this point in his career.

The reason that this decent-but-not-great secondary is getting exposed so frequently (aside from the hole at FS, which is a significant problem) is that the Cowboys have not been mustering a consistent pass rush from anyone other than Demarcus Ware. Chris Canty and Marcus Spears have failed to progress as pass-rushers in their second year, and Jay Raitliff, Kenyon Coleman, and other back-ups who are being rotated in are getting no push whatsoever. In the Eagles game two weeks back, Garica had TONS of time to throw-- even his INT came after he sat in the pocket for 4+ seconds.

The Cowboys have two major holes. One is at Free Safety-- they need a Darren Woodson-type player, a safety skilled at coverage. The other is at DE or OLB, and it is the role that Greg Ellis filled earlier in the year-- they need a consistent pass rusher to bookend Demarcus Ware. Fix those two holes (not easily done, but certainly possible in one offseason), and the defense jumps dramatically up the rankings.

9
by Gordon (not verified) :: Tue, 01/02/2007 - 4:47pm

Furrey has emerged as a reliable possession receiver.

Wait- Mike Furrey is white?

10
by JJcruiser (not verified) :: Tue, 01/02/2007 - 4:56pm

Great lines in this piece:

"Effectively, Dallas makes their opponents more proficient through the air than the Indianapolis Colts."

And I also liked this one:

"If Romo continues to hold the ball — at least until the sack knocks it out — he will be sacked repeatedly in Seattle."

But it's not like Seattle is a powerhouse of late. That game could go either way.

11
by Raj (not verified) :: Tue, 01/02/2007 - 5:00pm

MM retained for another year. Check out the link for formal anouncement. My condolensces to MDS and other detroit fans.

12
by Miles (not verified) :: Tue, 01/02/2007 - 5:56pm

"A quick look at their schedule reveals only one win over a team with a winning record, Indianapolis."
A longer look at their schedule reveals only 3 games against teams with winning record. An even longer look shows they beat three of the four 8-8 teams they faced (which would have had winning 9-7 records if they beat Dallas).

13
by Miles (not verified) :: Tue, 01/02/2007 - 6:08pm

"The Cowboys intercepted Jon Kitna’s first pass and returned it for a touchdown. The play was nullified by a penalty."
Anyone understand why the personal foul nullified the interception? For those that didn't see it, the pass was to Furrey, who tipped the ball, then was immediately crushed by Newman coming the other way. Williams caught the tip, then took the ball 50ish yards for an apparent TD. Newman was called for a personal foul for hitting a defenseless WR. Regardless if the call was a good one, the penalty didn't influence the interception -- it could have changed the return's success (Furrey potentially being on the ground for longer than a normal tackle, though he did get up very quickly). I could thus understand if Dallas got the ball 15 yards back from the interception or from the hit, but don't get why the entire play was called off.

14
by zlionsfan (not verified) :: Tue, 01/02/2007 - 6:27pm

Well, a penalty prior to the interception would nullify it; a penalty after the interception should have been enforced at the spot of the foul, leaving the Cowboys with possession. My impression was that the penalty occurred after the interception, and that the penalty was not enforced correctly, but maybe they ruled that it happened prior to the pick.

Maybe there's a specific ruling with respect to this penalty? I don't know.

15
by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Tue, 01/02/2007 - 7:20pm

Re: 12

I didn't see it, but as you describe the play, Newman hit Furry while the ball was still in the air. So technically, the penalty happened before the interception and there for negates any result of the play.

16
by Broker (not verified) :: Wed, 01/03/2007 - 1:24am

RE #10: JJcruiser, I agree with your whole post-- these lines were really good. And the Seattle game should be a toss-up, but I'm not anywhere near as confident today as I was of Dallas' chances last week. Last week, I was somewhat happy of the Seattle game possibility, but this week....Hmmm.... It's amazing the turn-around in defensive performance since the Tampa game.

17
by ElTiante (not verified) :: Wed, 01/03/2007 - 1:40am

Regarding Furrey's statement that Dallas does not vary coverages. It seems that they are incapable of that.
In a game after the Saints destroyed the Dallas secondary, Dallas tried rotating the safeties into the CB position and got burned repeatedly. (I think I read that on this site.) Tough to vary coverage when your safeties can't cover anyone.
Seattle has no cornerbacks; Dallas has no safeties or pass rush. Should be interesting. The Redskins ditched both starting CBs vs. the Giants last week, played their safeties very deep, and got scorched by the Tiki torch. Can Dallas do that to the Hawks?

18
by Yakuza Rich (not verified) :: Wed, 01/03/2007 - 2:45pm

The problem with Dallas' defense, besides the lack of pass rush (which happens for various reasons) is that their main LB's in coverage (usually Bradie James and then him and Burnett in the nickel) probably can't cover me. James was an easy target all year long, but the Saints were the first to exploit it (only 6 passes Brees threw went over 9 yards in the air). The Lions threw a bit of a new wrinkle by getting Mike Furrey to run routes to get him one on one with James whereas the other teams used their FB's, TE's, and RB's on James with success. The secondary didn't play well against the Lions, but it wasn't as bad as it seemed. When the opposing team doesn't get much of a pass rush and they have easy 6-10 yard gains if they want it on the majority of the passing downs, it makes for a rough day.

18
by Yakuza Rich (not verified) :: Wed, 01/03/2007 - 2:45pm

The problem with Dallas' defense, besides the lack of pass rush (which happens for various reasons) is that their main LB's in coverage (usually Bradie James and then him and Burnett in the nickel) probably can't cover me. James was an easy target all year long, but the Saints were the first to exploit it (only 6 passes Brees threw went over 9 yards in the air). The Lions threw a bit of a new wrinkle by getting Mike Furrey to run routes to get him one on one with James whereas the other teams used their FB's, TE's, and RB's on James with success. The secondary didn't play well against the Lions, but it wasn't as bad as it seemed. When the opposing team doesn't get much of a pass rush and they have easy 6-10 yard gains if they want it on the majority of the passing downs, it makes for a rough day.

20
by elibolender (not verified) :: Wed, 01/03/2007 - 3:57pm

Re #8: I remember Darren Woodson as a SS very similar to Roy Williams in that he was better stopping the run than he was in coverage (although he was better in coverage than Williams).

21
by Staubach (not verified) :: Wed, 01/03/2007 - 7:43pm

Re: #19
Woodson was primarily a SS, but could also play FS very well. Woodson's ability to play all over the secondary as well as at the line of scrimmage at a very high level are reasons he should be considered for the Hall of Fame. The Cowboys THOUGHT they were getting another Woodson in R. Williams, but Roy can't cover very well. When both players were on the Cowboys, Zimmerman tried to use them both as hybrid SS/FS players, changing their responsibilities from play to play. This didn't work out too well when Roy was supposed to be in coverage.

22
by Tim Wilson (not verified) :: Fri, 01/05/2007 - 3:03pm

Yeah, while Darren began his career as a SS, he was versatile enough to play FS, and towards the end of his career was playing FS almost exclusively, and doing it very well. As #20 mentioned, this is a versatility that Roy Williams lacks.