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MHR Chalk Talk - 2008 Pre-Season Game #2 - Cowboys @ Broncos

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Cowboys_icon_big_medium        @        Broncos_icon_big_medium

  Dallas Cowboys      @          Denver Broncos

August 16th, 2008 - 7:00pm MST
Invesco Field @ Mile High
Denver, CO

Bloggingtheboys_m_medium   To Follow The Week From The Cowboy's Perpective, Check Out Blogging The BoysBloggingtheboys_m_medium


Welcome to an exhibition version of MHR Game Prep! How does this work? Simple. I'll be providing the game preps for you this year, but the pre-season will be a little different.

In the pre-season, it is hard to gauge what will happen. Neither team plays for the win, but instead calls in plays and substitutions designed to test out potential starters. Because the game is competitive on an individual level (but not so much at the team level), it is very difficult to provide a match up for the game. There's no telling who will play and for how long, nor what kind of program will be run under coaches wanting to call "vanilla" plays.

So what we will do is provide a game prep based on the concept that the game counts, is a part of the regular season, and that the starters are playing four quarters. Call it a preseason practice for the "game prep" author to get up to speed if you will. By reading the articles in the preseason as if they were regular games, the predictive value is worthless, but the value in gauging the strengths and weaknesses of our players and system should provide some good insight on what to expect this year.

The big treat (I hope) is that students of the reloading season series "MHR University" will be able to recognize the terms and concepts in the game preps, and watch the game of football with a trained and discerning eye. If you missed the series, no worries mate! Just click the links in the story to read up on the terms.

Read on...



Denver Offensive SystemZone Block (one cut variation) / West Coast Offense


Dallas Defensive SystemPhillips 3-4 System


  • All things being equal (players), the Denver system has a major advantage on the inside run, while the Dallas defense has the advantage stopping outside runs. 


The Phillips 3-4 is a one gap version of the 3-4 defense, and is named for Bum Phillips, father of current Dallas coach Wade Phillips.  Denver sees the system at least twice a year against SD.  The zone block scheme is designed to rip apart one gap defenders, particularly on slants.  Because the 3-4 features outside linebackers that are set out wider than in a 4-3 defense, sweep runs to the edges are hard for most offenses.  But the Denver offense uses the one cut running scheme in concert with the zone blocking offensive line, and will be running to the inside (after the running back makes his cut).  Denver should hit the gut with power runs and one cuts, but avoid too many wide runs unless the Dallas OLBs start cheating to the inside.


  • All things being equal (players), the Denver pass attack and Dallas pass defense are balanced.


The West Coast Offense is heavy on misdirection to support the run game.  Bootlegs will be difficult plays because Dallas can assign OLBs zones or containment assignments to keep Cutler from rolling out effectively.  This also helps to blunt the option play that Denver plays around with from time to time.


WCO is also heavy on short, high percentage passes.  Dallas is likely to use the linebacking corps to zone the midfield, while at least one LB joins the pass rush every (passing down) play.


Denver might choose to use several two TE sets to account for blitzes from the edge by the Dallas OLBs.


In short, if Denver can establish the run game, the adjustments made by Dallas to compensate should tip the passing balance to Denver.  If Dallas can take an early lead to force Denver to pass, Dallas takes away the Denver advantage in rushing.


Personnel – Dallas Defense / Denver Offense (deception versus finesse)


Denver should have a high powered offense going into this game.  At TE, Scheffler has the size / speed combination to cause problems for any OLB, and Dallas might have to adjust by putting strong safety Roy Williams on him.  Graham might have the potential to break out this year as a passer, but in a game with blitzes coming from any of four line backers, expect him to be used heavily as the elite blocker that he is.


Marshall should be on the advantage catching mid to short range passes and powering ahead for yards after catches.  In longer passes, he may run into some danger.  Each of the Cowboys’ cornerbacks is a solid player, but deeper in the field is a powerful combination of safeties, Williams and Hamlin.


On the other side, Denver has the choice of stretching the field with speedy newcomer Royal (who would tear safeties away from Marshall), or using D. Jackson in his favorite role hitting seams.  Dallas is deep at CB (Henry and Jones are competing to start opposite Newman), so the addition of a third receiver (Stokley) wouldn’t hurt Dallas as much as it would most teams in the NFL.


Cutler is consistently improving, and is already head and shoulders above the rest of his draft class of QBs.  He should have a harder time throwing against the 3-4 (because of the mid range zones they will use), but should thrive whenever more receivers are added.  Note that Jones is a “Dre Bly” type player (a gambler), but has better deep zone protection with his safeties than Bly does in Denver.


Denver may or may not stop the blitzes from the Phillips 3-4 (they will blitz often, but usually only one LB at a time).  The line has a lot of youth (Clady and possibly Harris), and some injury concerns (Nalen).  The return of Holland from “over”weight training should help.  (Denver gave up zero sacks last week against Hou).


Each of the Denver RBs should do well in the system match-up, but the Broncos will miss Torain, who would have been a perfect power back to exploit the weak (by design) first level of the 3-4.


Dallas Offensive System – Vertical pass / Man Block - 2 Back


Denver Defensive System(man) Show Blitz


  • All things being equal (players), the Dallas running game should have a moderate advantage over the Denver system.


Dallas uses a standard blocking scheme, but with much more emphasis on power.  While technique and quickness is more in line with Denver’s offensive line, and other teams favor more individuality and strength, the Dallas scheme places much more emphasis than normal on making contact and using brute force after the contact is made.


Here is a quick read, excerpted from Sports Illustrated (Ross Tucker - Thursday May 22, 2008 4:28PM; Updated: Friday May 23, 2008 11:18AM) that talks about different offensive line traits, as well as the Dallas emphasis.  In the piece, Tucker discusses four  key qualities in OLmen: Reach, Football IQ, quickness, and size/power.


Two excerpts:


As one would expect, not every offensive line coach trumpets the same characteristics when determining the likelihood of success for a given player. The Indianapolis Colts Howard Mudd looks primarily for quickness and arm length because of the way he teaches his offensive linemen to jump set in pass protection. Alex Gibbs, now of the Houston Texans, has had success for years by finding lean athletes with great lateral speed to run his one-cut zone blocking scheme. Others, like the New England Patriots Dante Scarnecchia, emphasize mental and physical toughness, believing those players will come through in the clutch.


And he uses Dallas as a prime example of power:

The two characteristics that one thinks of when talking about offensive linemen -- outstanding size and power -- are more a luxury than a necessity. Without a high level of the first three qualities I've already listed, a player with great size or power will always be a step slow or a second late. Raw power really only comes into play once a defender is engaged.

That being said, it is certainly a nice thing to have and there are coaches out there like the Cowboys' Hudson Houck and the Redskins' Joe Bugel who place a premium on a player's ability to generate power. The luxury of being an above-average player in terms of size or power is that you can be more patient with many of your movements knowing your size will help protect you.

In pass protection, for example, an extremely powerful player can sit back, relax, and wait for his defender to come to him, knowing full well that he doesn't have to worry about the bull rush. This patience allows players like the Ravens' Jonathan Ogden or the Eagles' Shawn Andrews to see things unfold up front and react to them, rather than getting out of position as a result of being overaggressive.

The 2 back scheme used by Dallas will feature a power runner (Marion Barber, pro bowler) and a speedster (Felix Jones).

Denver’s Show Blitz system is a predominantly one gap approach used to generate pass rushes.  You can’t have everything in a defense, and Denver puts more emphasis on wrecking the opponent’s passing game.  While Denver can fill every gap and still have players left to catch whatever gets through, Denver is still gambling that speed and multiple tacklers will trump any advantage an opponent tries to generate in the run game.

Denver will also use penetration to attempt to disrupt running plays in the backfield before they get started, but this can be difficult against the Dallas system.

  • All things being equal (players), Denver’s Pass defense should have a moderate advantage over the Dallas passing attack.

Denver’s system will blitz heavily at times, and “show” blitzes that back off into man coverage the rest of the time.  The intent is to maximize stress and confusion for both the OL and the QB.  This approach can generate turnovers both in turns of fumbles and interceptions.  Denver hopes to capitalize on turnovers with a system that provides speed to the loose ball.

The pressure on the QB should prevent the vertical pass attack from developing on most plays.  However, Dallas will gamble that their running attack will force Denver to adjust for the run game, whereupon Dallas will strike deep with long pass, big plays.

Personnel – Denver Defense / Dallas Offense (speed vs. power)

The two names that stand out on the Dallas offense to most outsiders are Owens (WR) and M. Barber (RB).  Both are clearly Pro Bowl players, and elite at what they do.  What some folks might not realize is that Dallas is deep at WR.

Looking at Denver, anyone might notice legendary Champ Bailey (CB).  They might not notice Pro Bowl talent Dre Bly(CB), and up and coming star Foxworth(CB).  Both teams have the talent to match-up great receivers and corner backs, but the strength that Dallas has at safety is missing in Denver.  Not that Denver is terrible at the SAF position, but is instead a question mark.  Josh Barrett may be a dark horse, and Abdullah may be improved over last year.  McCree leaves SD to try his fortune in DEN, having being ousted by a younger star there.  Denver misses Lynch, a hard hitting and intelligent player at strong safety.

And while Dallas has justifiable pride in their offensive line and RBs, Denver is recovering from last year’s failed experiment with the Run-Contain system, which did nothing to stop the run at all.  Denver’s only major addition to the DT corps is D. Robinson (not counting rookie Powell on IR), and Denver will have three LBs playing in LB positions new to the this year (Williams back to WILL, Webster or Niko to MIKE, and whomever takes over for injured Boss Bailey at SAM).


If this were a regular season game (the way I broke down the match-ups), I would expect both teams to establish the running game early. 

I would expect Dallas to march down the field by punching the ball up the gut of the Broncos, and making the big plays in the air.  I would expect Denver to win the turnover battle, and to also march the ball down the field.  Denver’s big plays would be runs that break into the open, and turnovers.  Despite Denver’s multiple aerial threats at TE and WR, Dallas has the secondary to contain passes to mid range.

Keys to the game:


  1. Prevent turnovers
  2. Get an early lead
  3. Control the clock


  1. Protect Cutler
  2. Run the ball effectively
  3. Stop the run


Again, grant that this isn't a regular season game.  The teams won't use several of the above named players for more than a few plays (if at all).  They will also tailor the game plan to maximize tryouts and practice, not to win.

In the spirit of learning, I hope the above prep will not only give you an appreciation for what we have learned over the reloading season, but gets you into an analytical frame of mind for the upcoming season.

Here's to an injury free pre-season game for both teams, luck to the rookies, and hopes for a good season.

Your defensive coordinator in residence,