The Cowboys will turn to backup quarterback Brandon Weeden against an Atlanta Falcons team that's off to a 2-0 start. As is often the case in the NFL, name association carries with it a certain amount of baggage that may or may not be relevant to the current situation.
Weeden had a perfect performance a week ago in relief of Tony Romo, who will miss about two months with a broken clavicle. One thing is for certain: When Weeden takes the field against Atlanta on Sunday he won't be doing it with the Cleveland Browns roster that contributed to a lukewarm reputation outside of Big D.
Still, he won't have his team's best offensive weapon in wide receiver Dez Bryant, who is out with a foot injury. It's also still up in the air if he'll have star tight end Jason Witten, who's dealing with a cornucopia of ailments and should be questionable up until game time.
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What should lend realistic hope to Cowboys fans that Weeden can keep the ship moving in the right direction is that although the current sample of play is small, it's positive - and much different than the kind of QB he was asked to be when he was in the Browns organization.
TRUST IN WEEDEN
My former coach and current Falcons head coach Dan Quinn will be pondering a couple basic things as he builds his defensive plan:
1. What will be the most likely approach that the Cowboys adopt with Weeden under center?
2. What's the Falcons best approach in response to how the Cowboys are likely to use him?
It should come as no surprise to any football fan above ground, leaning first on the power running game should be the Cowboys' lead offensive pillar. Despite the short quarter-and-a-half that Weeden played a week ago against the Eagles, there's plenty of film and the Falcons will be try to take away the run.
The multi-back plan by the Cowboys has gotten endless ink and airtime this year, but when the Weeden change happened a week ago, Dallas went primarily to RB Darren McFadden, the true downhill, hit-it-in-a-hurry back on the Cowboys roster.
And it worked.
At one point in last weekend's game, the Cowboys went to McFadden four consecutive runs without any formation or personnel packaging tricks (below). Expect the Cowboys to force the Falcons to stop this kind attack before going to any other page of the playbook - even when everyone on earth knows what's coming.
The question of "how to stop it" will be the next thing on the Atlanta plate. A week ago in Philly, the Cowboys saw pre-snap, two-deep safety looks against power running sets when it was Romo at quarterback - a concession that field-stretching plays were still a consideration.
The below screenshot shows an unusual two-safety look where both are relatively close to one another - different than the wider half-safeties you see post-snap for Cover-2 teams. This is a strong indication that one of the two safeties is going to roll down into run support post-snap, you just don't know which one (or to which side).
It accomplished the goal of getting the safeties involved in the run front, but it came late enough that even when the down-safety makes the play, it was a 4-yard gain. Expect Dan Quinn won't feel the need to show the two-safeties high in pre-snap this week until Brandon Weeden forces him to more heavily guard the deep part of the field.
You may see a very similar defensive scheme against the Cowboys this week, but without the pre-snap disguise, allowing the down safety to potentially clog those running lanes closer to the line of scrimmage.
GET CREATIVE WITH FORMATIONS
The best tool the Cowboys can use to loosen any attempts at an eight-man front by the Falcons is to sprinkle in a fair amount of empty sets to keep the Eagles honest. In other words, the Cowboys may have to create the space they need artificially through formations, something they had success with a week ago against the Eagles.
The screen shot below shows the Cowboys moving to an empty-backfield spread look where the Eagles countered with no deep field safeties -- a gamble Weeden burned the Eagles on, and something Atlanta most likely won't try to duplicate. To compensate for the lack of deep help, the Eagles played off-coverage, which creates short-space catch-and-run opportunities like the double-slant play that resulted in a 42-yard touchdown by Terrance Williams (below).
While I don't expect over-the-top downfield throws as the recipe for the Cowboys offense on Sunday, that doesn't mean they won't need to find chunk plays. The best opportunity to find these big plays are through the catch-and-run run strengths of players on their roster like Williams, receiver Cole Beasley and shifty running back Lance Dunbar. The best way to accomplish this is to lure the Falcons into heavier-personnel groups and then shift to these spread formations and find the space mismatch. It might not be enough, but it's worth a shot.
AVOIDING ATLANTA'S PASS RUSH
The biggest question of the week is who will be the safety valve for Weeden if the Falcons choose to pressure, something that helped cause several of his mistakes in a start against the Arizona Cardinals last season. Under normal circumstances, this would likely be Witten, someone Weeden immediately formed a relationship with a week ago. If Witten is playing, working off any additional inside-coverage attention Jason gets is something Weeden pounced on a week ago (below).
Moving inside linebackers with his eyes towards Witten, Weeden was able to create space for the return routes that came behind the clear-out. If the extra attention doesn't come, fitting the ball into tight spaces to Witten (or whoever plays the tight end or inside receiver spot) to move the sticks will be a must.
What has gotten Weeden into the most trouble in the past is the downfield passing game, staring down receivers and throwing interceptions under pressure. There's reasonable expectation the success of the running game and superior pass protection he'll get behind the Cowboys line should keep those kinds of play calls to a minimum to help him stay the efficient chain-mover he was a week ago.
If the Cowboys running game is stunted, and they find themselves in lots of long second-and-third-down situations, then the Cowboys lose control of any play-call preferences. The key for Dallas is to stay ahead in the count and stick to the kinds of plays Weeden does well. The key for Atlanta is to not let that happen.
How will Weeden play Sunday? Rambling off a bunch of stats from stuff he did in another place with an entirely different system and personnel is just the usual tiresome talk-fodder, but it won't have anything to do with this weekend's game. There's a short formula that shows what he could be. Pulling it off again as Cowboy offensive weapons keep falling by the wayside is the real trick.
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