Scout's Eye: Lions-Cowboys preview

September, 30, 2011
9/30/11
8:00
AM ET


After gutting out a difficult victory over the Redskins, the Cowboys face a new challenge of a short week to prepare to play one of the league’s most talented teams in the Detroit Lions.

Scout's Eye
The Lions will present problems on both sides of the ball. If you follow the NFL, we all know the names of Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh and Matthew Stafford, who have helped this team to get off to a fast start. But there is more to it than just those three players.

Detroit defense

The Lions play a true 4-3 front, which will be the first time this season that the Cowboys faced this kind of look. Suh will mainly line up over right guard Kyle Kosier and will work across from Tyron Smith when the Lions go to a three-man line.

There will be times where Suh will move to the right side, but usually that spot is manned by Corey Williams or Sammie Hill. The problem for the Cowboys in that look is that Bill Nagy, who struggles with power players now, has to deal with two players that go 320-plus pounds. Nagy’s primary weakness is his technique against the down linemen that have size and power.

Kosier will have another set of problems in dealing with Suh, who plays with power and quickness. Suh has outstanding technique as a pass rusher with a wide variety of moves. Kosier has had to deal with power players before in his career, but the way that Suh uses swims, slaps and rips makes him hard to handle because he is playing with this technique as he is working his way to the quarterback.

Most teams like to sub their two down players inside, but the Lions keep their big bodies in the game and will push the front of the pocket then squeeze from the outside with Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril.

The last two weeks Doug Free hasn’t played some of his better football. I have talked before that I felt that it was more technique problems than any other area. When Free gets in trouble, it’s when he is playing over the top of his left foot and he gets overextended. When Free gets overextended, his feet stop and rushers are able to get pressure.

In the Redskins game, it looked like Free was worried about Brian Orakpo taking him on the inside rush. This week, Free will line up over Vanden Bosch, who plays in a wide 9 technique and doesn’t quit on a play. He is relentless, run or pass.

Free will need to beware of not finishing his blocks against Vanden Bosch, because there will be times where Vanden Bosch looks like he is out of the play but will fight his way back into the picture. Vanden Bosch likes to fight wide and slap the tackles hands down, then work for the corner. Vanden Bosch, like Suh, is able to do this without slowing down or stopping his rush.

Tony Romo spoke of his receivers having to find a way to win on routes. Guys like Miles Austin and Jason Witten can win, but it is a little tougher is guys like Dez Bryant and Kevin Ogletree. They will match up against corners Chris Houston and Aaron Berry, who like to play press man and be physical at the line of scrimmage.

The Lions played more man coverage against the Bucs than they did against the Vikings. I believe that they will line up and force these Cowboys receivers to beat them off the line. If Romo has to hold the ball against this Lions defense, it will be a struggle for his line. This group can get four-man pressure and it’s more intense than what they faced against the 49ers and Redskins.

Where the Vikings and Bucs had some success was running receivers down the field on vertical routes when the Lions did play zone. There also were two nice opportunities for tight ends to make plays against Cover 2 working between the safeties down the field.

The game plan for Garrett against the Lions running the football will be similar to what he had against Washington. He will need to take advantage of how aggressive this front seven will be.

The Vikings had success running the ball against the Lions by getting the ball on the edge but using down or angle blocks to handle the power and quickness of the Lions. Look for the Cowboys to try to shield the Lions from the ball more than trying go toe to toe with them. The Vikings were able to make plays on the edge with Adrian Peterson by taking advantage of the way that the Lions chase the ball.

Detroit offense

The challenge for Rob Ryan and his defensive staff in this game will be trying to dial up pressure against Matthew Stafford when he gets in the shotgun. The Lions have had their share of blocking problems, but the answer for those issues has been Stafford’s ability to get rid of the football quickly.

Stafford has major weapons with Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew, and the Lions also have a nice screen package with running back Jahvid Best, who catches the ball well out of the backfield.

Stafford is an impressive quarterback to study because he never looks like he doesn’t know where to go with the ball. He is mobile to a point and can buy time with his ability to move. The trait that is the most impressive about Stafford is his ability to be an accurate passer. Rarely do you see his receivers have to work for the ball. Has touch with the ability to lead his receivers down the field.

Stafford has a real understanding of the strengths of his skill players. Can make all the throws and puts the ball in position that they can go get it.

If there is a knock on Stafford, it has been his ability to stay healthy. When he does not play, the Lions are a very ordinary team on offense even with all the talented players.

If the Cowboys are going to win this game, it won’t be about stopping the run but more how they will be able to limit the number of big plays that the Lions can make. Johnson will make his share of plays because he always does no matter how outstanding the coverage is. Stafford knows that he can throw the ball down the field and Johnson will find a way to go get it. If Johnson gets separation, he is going to make the play.

Last week, Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins played well against the Redskins. They will need a similar effort against Johnson and Nate Burleson.

Safeties Gerald Sensabaugh and Abram Elam will also be a factor in this game, not only because of their responsibilities of helping carry Johnson deep in coverage, but also having to deal with tight end Pettigrew. This is the fourth game where this defense has had to deal with an athletic tight end that can get down the field. Fred Davis and Chris Cooley did not kill the Cowboys last week.

The Cowboys have to be careful is putting so much attention to Johnson and allowing Pettigrew or even Burleson to make plays.

If the Lions have a real weakness, it is with this offensive line. Despite their 3-0 record, the Lions have issues at offensive tackle. Longtime veteran left tackle Jeff Backus is on his last legs as a pass protector and a run blocker. There is nothing that he really does well anymore. It’s not as bad as watching Marc Colombo playing last season, but there are some similar traits that you are now seeing.

At right tackle, Gosder Cherilus was replaced in the Minnesota game by Corey Hilliard because he couldn’t even get out of his stance to handle the edge. Cherlius once again will be in the starting lineup and it is a road game for the Lions, so keep an eye on him to see if he struggles again.

Through the first three weeks of the season, Ryan has done a nice job with his scheme, in finding those offensive players that will struggle against his pressure players. Look for Ryan to continue to move DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer around to attempt to make Stafford uncomfortable in the pocket.

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