Not Just Dak—Cowboys Struggled in Run Defense Too

Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Leonard Fournette
Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Leonard Fournette
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 2 - The Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicked off their 2022 season with a convincing win over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football. Tampa Bay seemingly controlled the game from the opening kick, and the only reason the final score was ever in doubt was the fact that they had to settle for five field goals. Still, their defense was dominant, and even though the score was 19-3 it felt like it could have been a lot worse for Dallas.

The thing that jumped out to me watching live was how well Tampa Bay was able to run the ball. Leonard Fournette carved Dallas up with 127 yards on 21 attempts. Right from the start, it seemed Fournette was able to find creases and get into the Cowboys secondary for nice gains. When I rewatched the game back, that's where I wanted to focus.

The Bucs showed a lot of this overload look to the Cowboys and had good success with it throughout the night. Tampa Bay has three tight ends aligned to the left side of the formation, and that creates a lot of gaps for Dallas to defend. I'm really surprised the Cowboys didn't shift their defensive alignment pre-snap—the Mike linebacker (Leighton Vander Esch, 55) is the only player that seems to adjust to the strong side at all—and as a result they just get outmanned and out-angled at the point of attack. Especially with Tampa Bay pulling the back-side guard (Shaq Mason, 69).

A lot of the reason this play is successful is because the offense has just flat-out out-leveraged the defense, but you still have to block some guys no matter how good it looks pre-snap. Tight end Ko Kieft (41) has the toughest job as he's all by himself blocking a head-up defensive end. He's helped out by the fact that the defensive end immediately declares for the inside gap, where Kieft was trying to seal him anyway. Regardless, this is a very effective block.

From there, the other key block is the combo block from the left guard (Luke Goedeke, 67) and left tackle (Donovan Smith, 76). Taking care of the down lineman here is expected, but climbing to that plussed-over Mike is really great work. Smith does a great job of knocking the 3-technique totally onto Goedeke and then boogying up to the Mike. When he gets there, look at how strong he is with his outside hand to turn the Mike and force him to try a half-assed spin move before finishing the play and knocking him to the ground. That is a great block.

The best part, though, is that the offense had the defense so outmanned that even if Smith had been late to the linebacker, the Bucs had another guy for that Mike. Look at Cameron Brate (84). He's tracking the middle linebacker too, but once he sees Smith has him, he can climb up to the safety. With Mason pulling and taking the corner, the Bucs have every defender to the play side accounted for, even in the secondary. That's rare. If backside linebacker Micah Parsons (11) wasn't faster than Fournette, this might have been a touchdown.

This is another run that isn't particularly well defended by Dallas. Their run fits had some serious issues all night, and if you can tell me what gap Donovan Wilson (6) is responsible for, I will give you a cookie. But the play is also blocked well. The person I really want to focus on though is Cowboys defensive end Sam Williams (54) for the defense .

That's someone that's having a tough go at it. He's aligned in a head-up 5-technique over right tackle Tristan Wirfs. He steps inside and immediately gets double teamed by Wirfs and Mason. He pokes his head outside and immediately runs into a tight end, so he's still getting double teamed. And by the end of the play he's 10 yards straight back from the line of scrimmage and is getting triple teamed. The crazy thing is that because of how Wilson and Vander Esch (55) play this, there's no need for any of the three guys that block Williams to ever do anything else except march him straight down the field towards the end zone.

I'm not sure what Dallas' plan was, but I have to imagine it wasn't "funnel everything right to Anthony Brown (3) and hope he stuffs Fournette in the open field for a short gain." They're lucky this wasn't a touchdown.

This was the first play of the third quarter and the Cowboys made some halftime adjustments so I can at least tell how they're trying to fit this for the most part. Still, even when you know where to go, you have to execute the plan and actually get there.

The Bucs are running a counter to the weak side of the formation so they're bringing a pulling guard (Mason, 69) to kick out the defensive end (Dorance Armstrong, 92) and the upback (Kieft, 41) is wrapping around to lead through the hole. But Armstrong is closing down off the left tackle's (Josh Wells, 72) downblock to try to spill the play outside. What Mason does here as a puller is much harder than it looks. When you're pulling across the line to kick someone out, it's really hard to slam on the brakes and wheel around to seal the defender inside. Great balance and agility by the offseason acquisition.

Once Armstrong crashes down and forces the run outside, one of two things has to happen for Dallas. Either Vander Esch (55) has to wrong-arm the lead back (rip through the block with his outside shoulder) to get inside, or the safety (Malik Hooker, 28) has to be coming downhill to fill this gap. Hooker and Vander Esch can't both be trying to force it back inside; someone has to plug that gap. This was really the story of the night on the ground. Good execution from Tampa Bay, sloppy run fits from Dallas.

The run game was the definite standout for Tampa Bay's offense last week. Their passing game looked alright, but it felt like they left some yards on the field. The pass protection for the most part was just OK. It's a little tough to grade them because Tom Brady does such a good job of getting the ball out quickly. I will say I thought Goedeke struggled at times, and Parsons gave both Smith and his injury replacement Wells some issues as well.

This was Parsons' (11) first sack of the night. Let me start by saying that this is Smith's sack. He's the one who has to block Parsons here; he engages first and he has no reason to ever leave him. That being said, Goedeke is really bad here too.

For Smith, the big thing is he's turning his shoulders towards the sideline too much. Parsons isn't wide enough to start angling that soon. Because Smith doesn't stay square to the line of scrimmage, when Parsons spins inside, Smith can't redirect inside immediately. Instead, he has to swing his inside foot back open so he can try to close down, and by that time Parsons is to his inside hip and gone.

For Goedeke, this is either awful or just suboptimal depending on the call. If it's half slide protection where the zone slide is to the left, then it's an awful football play. He needs to have his eyes to the defensive end (Parsons) to protect against an inside move from the snap. If it's man protection where he and the center are working on the defensive tackle (Osa Odighizuwa, 97) and Vander Esch (55) then it's still pretty bad. It's obvious immediately that Vander Esch is dropping, and Odighizuwa is rushing in the A-gap where the center is. At that point, get your eyes outside and see if the tackle needs help against a leading contender for Defensive Player of the Year.

This is Parsons' second sack, and this time he beats Wells, who replaced Smith, who left with an elbow injury. I actually like Wells' footwork here, but at some point you have to play with enough violence to knock the defender off his course. Here, Parsons runs right through Wells' outside shoulder and straight to the quarterback. Wells never lands with his hands hard enough to knock him off that track at all.

Goedeke also gets beat again. When the defensive tackle (Odighizuwa, 97) makes the inside move, the left guard drops his left foot back and swings open rather than redirecting back inside and square with the line of scrimmage. Unlike Smith in the previous GIF, Goedeke is actually in position to come back inside square; his shoulders aren't turned upfield. But for whatever reason, he doesn't, and he gives up pressure up the middle, which prevents Brady from being able to step up in the pocket and possibly avoid Parsons.


8 comments, Last at 16 Sep 2022, 7:45pm

#1 by Lost Ti-Cats Fan // Sep 16, 2022 - 11:22am

Great stuff!  I've been watching football for 50 years and I still learn a bit more about the game every time I read one of Ben's articles.

Points: 0

#7 by rpwong // Sep 16, 2022 - 2:16pm

Ditto. There's so much nuance to blocking, both individually and as a unit.

Points: 0

#2 by dmb // Sep 16, 2022 - 11:50am

As much as Collinsworth & co. were praising Fournette, it sure looked to me like the vast majority of the work was being done upfront. I didn't see anything here to disabuse me of that impression: on all of the plays featured, it looks like Fournette gained all the yardage that was blocked for, but nothing more.

Points: 0

#4 by Pat // Sep 16, 2022 - 12:47pm

Fournette's never exactly been a speed demon, he's definitely on the slower side. He's not quick enough to take full advantage of that blocking, that's for sure, but he's still a solid RB because he doesn't really miss holes or make bad decisions.

Dallas's run defense was bad enough that they definitely could've used someone burstier, but that won't always be the case.

Also Micah Parsons is fast. Dear lord.

Points: 0

#5 by dmb // Sep 16, 2022 - 12:59pm

That's true, some players will certainly gain fewer yards than what's blocked on account of poor vision, and it doesn't look like Fournette can be accused of that here!

However, pure speed isn't the only way for a ballcarrier to beat a defender one-on-one. For example, in the second play, Fournette had plenty of opportunity to use power or agility to get past an off-balance Anthony Brown (3); Fournette managed neither.

I suppose Fournette also deserves a modicum of credit for his cut to avoid Malik Hooker (28) on the third play that's shown, though that "broken" tackle seems to be more a product of Hooker's overpursuit than anything done by Fournette.

Agreed that Parsons really jumps out!

Points: 0

#3 by Aaron Brooks G… // Sep 16, 2022 - 11:56am

How much do you credit the rush success to Tampa's o-line kicking their ass and how much was Dallas's rush defense being clownshoes?

Because if the offense can afford to triple-team one guy despite starting at a man disadvantage (due to the QB), they were winning 7 on 11. Which isn't good.

Points: 0

#6 by Raiderfan // Sep 16, 2022 - 1:17pm

Always love your stuff.

Points: 0

#8 by theslothook // Sep 16, 2022 - 7:45pm

Beautiful stuff Ben.

Points: 0

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