Dallas Cowboys: David Harris

Detailing Dez Bryant: Week 1

September, 14, 2011
9/14/11
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Dez Bryant’s development will be one of the more interesting, important storylines for the Cowboys this season, so we will track it on a throw-by-throw basis the Wednesday after each game.

42-YARD GAIN: On second-and-6 from the Dallas 41, Bryant lined up as the second of three receivers split to the right of the formation and got mismatched with inside linebacker David Harris. He got wide open on a slant, catching the ball near the sticks and turning a short throw into a big play. Bryant ran away from strong safety Eric Smith and juked free safety Jim Leonhard in the middle of the field as he sprinted to the left side. He spun off a downfield tackle attempt by cornerback Antonio Cromartie before Smith finally tackled him in the red zone.

3-YARD TOUCHDOWN: On third-and-goal from the New York 3, Bryant lined up wide left and ran a fade route. He made a spectacular, acrobatic catch over Cromartie on a ball that Tony Romo intentionally threw high and behind Bryant. It was a textbook back-shoulder fade for a touchdown, a perfect way to take advantage of Bryant’s strength and leaping ability.

26-YARD GAIN: On third-and-8 from the Dallas 48, he lined up wide right against Darrelle Revis and ran a streak route up the sideline after beating the jam. Romo recognized safety help coming over the top and threw to Bryant’s back shoulder. Bryant made a leaping catch near the sideline, the only play he made against the All-Pro cornerback.

INCOMPLETION: On third-and-10 from the New York 16, Bryant lined up wide right with Cromartie giving him an 8-yard cushion. With the blitz coming, Bryant took a couple of steps and cut inside. Romo’s quick throw sailed high with Cromartie closing on Bryant.

INCOMPLETION: On third-and-7 from the Dallas 47, Bryant lined up wide right against Revis, who blitzed. Bryant responded by running what was probably the sloppiest route run in the NFL all week. He turned toward Romo after two yards and started backpedaling diagonally and toward the first-down marker. Romo’s throw was behind Bryant, but he got his hands on the ball and failed to make the catch with cornerback Donald Strickland closing. Romo gave Bryant instructions immediately after the play.

INCOMPLETION: On third-and-22 from the Dallas 41, he lined up wide left against Revis and limped through a slant/corner route. Bryant, who was bothered by cramps and a bruised quad, never got any separation. Romo tried to force the downfield throw anyway. Bryant batted it down to prevent the pick.

INTERCEPTION: On first-and-10 from the Dallas 41, he lined up wide right and jogged upfield with Revis in trail position and a safety over the top. Bryant said he ran this route as instructed – and Romo backed the statement – but Bryant never made a cut or any play on the ball. It was an ill-advised pass that was easily intercepted by Revis to set up the game-winning field goal.

INCOMPLETION: On first-and-10 from the Dallas 34, Romo threw the ball out of bounds after recovering a shotgun snap that surprised him and bounced off his chest. It was officially recorded as a target for Bryant because he was the closest receiver.

Scout's Eye: Cowboys-Jets review

September, 13, 2011
9/13/11
10:12
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My thoughts from the Cowboys’ loss to the Jets:

Scout's Eye

Defense


Coordinator Rob Ryan had his defense ready to play, and he did an outstanding job of mixing his coverages and fronts. When Ryan took this job, the one thing he told us that he was going to find ways to put his players in positions to make plays. He did just that against the Jets.

Ryan used slot and linebacker blitzes. He used three-man lines. He played safeties on the outside in coverage. He brought pressure from the edge and used “gut” blitzes to put pressure in Mark Sanchez’s face.

It was the first time where it appeared that the timing and the execution of the blitzes were in sync, whereas in the pre season, the linebackers looked confused when to rush and from what angle they were to attack.

Ryan did a great job of attacking the Jets’ pocket. He never allowed Jets QB Mark Sanchez to feel comfortable with his reads or getting rid of the ball. There were no easy throws for Sanchez to make.

The communication in the secondary was outstanding as well. There was only one time where it appeared that there were some problems. Gerald Sensabaugh was trying to get Bryan McCann to move from his corner spot to the free safety at pre-snap, but in the direction, Sensabaugh lost track of Santonio Holmes in coverage and Sanchez was able to hit him on the move for a big play.

The Jets are not a pass-heavy team but for some reason their offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer felt that he needed to try to allow Sanchez to make plays with the ball in his hand. To Ryan’s credit, he was able to still function as a defense with a banged-up secondary and the level of play did not drop off that badly.

It appeared that Ryan and his staff made the most head way from the preseason in how the front seven played in the running game. There were too many times against the Broncos, Chargers or Vikings where there was a struggle to get off blocks and make plays in the running game. In this two-gap scheme, it is about playing with your hands and shedding blockers.

The Jets have run the ball well in the past, but in studying them, I really wasn’t that impressed with how they did it scheme wise. I was expecting an offensive line that came off the ball and really hammered you. That was not the case at all in this game. The front seven for the Cowboys did an outstanding job of playing on the Jets side of the line.
Jason Hatcher, Marcus Spears, Kenyon Coleman, Josh Brent and Jay Ratliff didn’t struggle to get off blocks.

Sean Lee has always been mobile and at times even too aggressive, but he was able to read quickly and move to fill the gaps. Lee looked like a different player than what I saw in the preseason. He played with confidence, awareness and with a physical tempo.

The key for Lee going forward is to build on this type of game like he had against the Jets. He can’t have a great game one week then miss tackles or play out of position the next. We have seen this before with Lee in that he appeared to turn the corner against the Colts last season only to struggle in other games.

Has the fact that he has been named the starter helped him relax and focus on the job ahead, making him think less and just go out and play? Against the Jets, Lee looked like a player that just cut it loose and the result was one of the best games of his young career.

Offense


There were plenty of questions how the Cowboys’ offensive line would hold up against this Jets defense on the road. I knew it was going to be difficult for them to run the ball because the Jets have a physical group inside at nose and three-technique tackle.

I thought the Cowboys would have some success if they were able to get the ball to the outside and to the edge. Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas were outside linebackers that I thought might give up the edge against the run. Thomas was much better in the game against Jason Witten and John Phillips which hurt the Cowboys in the running game.

The Cowboys had success in the pre season running the ball in this scheme by securing the down guys then working linemen to the second level and handling the linebackers, giving Felix Jones the ability to press the hole then makes cuts from there.

Against the Jets, linebackers David Harris and Bart Scott were able to make plays at the point because they went unblocked. Harris and Scott were able to make plays running through because of the way that their defensive line was able to tie up blockers.

When the Cowboys tried to stretch, they had problems handling Mike DeVito, Sione Pouha, Muhammad Wilkerson and Ropati Pitoitua. These Jets defensive linemen are powerful players and to be honest, the Cowboys do not have power players.

The offensive lineman that struggled the worst for the Cowboys was Bill Nagy. I didn’t see a mental struggle for Nagy but more of a physical one, mainly in the running game. Nagy just doesn’t have the power to move his man off the spot. He can run with his man and work the edges, but to move his man will be a struggle for him. In pass protection, Nagy was able to work in front of his man, but there were times where he was rocked back. Remember that the guards are responsible for the depth of the pocket, so Nagy needs to be careful in how he sets and not getting pushed back into Tony Romo’s lap.

Special Teams


There are many that point to Romo’s fumble as the real turning point of the game, but the Cowboys were able to get the ball back the very next series without giving up any points to the Jets. I understand that Romo’s fumble did cost the Cowboys an opportunity to make it a two-score game, but to me, the blocked punt was the real turning point of this game because it allowed the Jets to get points without running an offensive play.

The Cowboys’ defense had been outstanding to that point and there was little doubt in my mind that if the Jets were going to have to drive the football on the Cowboys and score a touchdown, it was going to be difficult for them. The blocked punt gave them life and it was a horrible mistake by the Cowboys special teams.

Let me try to break down what happened on the play. It was fourth-and-22 on the Cowboys 40. With the team on their own side of the 50, it was a green light for Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff to go for the block. If the ball was on the other side of the 50, then he would have most likely opted for the return.

The Jets were in an alignment that the Cowboys had seen in the previous punt and were able to block with some success, so it wasn’t like Westhoff came up with something that the Cowboys had not seen. The Cowboys were in their protect right scheme with five blockers to the right of deep snapper L.P. Ladouceur. The Jets had six rushers to the Cowboys’ right side. On the back side of the protection, Victor Butler and Martin Rucker were left to handle the two Jets rushers to that side.

In this look, Ladouceur, Phillips and Jesse Holley were responsible for the three inside guys and Barry Church, Sean Lee and Alex Albright had the outside guys. At the snap, Church, Lee and Albright all worked to their right. Holley worked to his right as well, which left no one in the middle of the formation. Phillips took a step to his left to try to help Ladouceur. Again Albright was already moving right, thus creating a hole inside and a free run at Mat McBriar and the block.

This whole block is confusing because the Cowboys punt team had blocked the look correctly before, but this time a mental lapse at a key point in time of the game cost them six points.

Scout's Eye: Cowboys-Jets preview

September, 9, 2011
9/09/11
3:00
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It’s never easy to open on the road in the NFL, and the league did the Cowboys no favors by sending them to New York to face a squad that has played in the AFC Championship game the last two seasons.

There is no doubt that the Jets are a talented team on both sides of the ball. Here are some things to watch this weekend:

Scout's Eye
*A big pressure point for the Cowboys offense this week against the Jets will be how guards Bill Nagy and Kyle Kosier along with center Phil Costa handle nose man Sione Pouha and tackle Mike DeVito. I know that Pouha and Devito are not household names, but when you study the games of both of these defensive linemen, you come away with a respect for what they mean to this defense.

Pouha is an active load in the middle at 325 pounds. He is a big man that plays very light on his feet. Pouha has tremendous upper body strength and can be difficult to move at the point of attack. It is surprising to watch a man of that size move down the line controlling offensive linemen, shedding blocks and making tackles.

DeVito lines up as a three technique on the outside shoulder of the guards and he can be disruptive in the way that he attacks his gap. Pouha is more about holding the point; Devito tries to create problems in the offense’s blocking scheme through penetration.

If Pouha and Devito have a weakness, it is that they don’t show outstanding technique as pass rushers. But the Cowboys have to be careful handling the push in the front of the pocket that the Jets’ interior duo can get.

Of the inside players for the Cowboys, Costa is more of a leverage player than Nagy, who will at times struggle with players that try to walk him straight back. With Kosier, there is less strength, but more smarts and technique than pure power.

In the running game, it will be the responsibility of Costa, Nagy and Kosier to secure the down guys first, then work up to the second level to handle linebackers David Harris and Bart Scott.

If there was a positive area about the Cowboys in the preseason, it was the club’s ability to run the football with Felix Jones in this scheme. The Cowboys should have a chance to run the ball in this game if they do not allow Pouha, DeVito and first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson to control the front because linebackers Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas on the edge will get tied up on blocks and don’t always hold up strength wise like they need to.

If the Cowboys can manage to control the middle of this Jets defense, the offensive game plan has a better chance to succeed both run and pass.

*Going into to this game against the Jets, Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and his staff will need to find a game plan that will limit the Jets in their ability to run the football.

During the preseason, the Cowboys did a poor job of handling the run and the way that the Jets are set up, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer likes to run the ball to set up other opportunities for easy throws in the passing game on boots and waggles. If the Cowboys can find a way to play ahead of the chains and force the Jets into passing the ball, it will play right into Ryan’s hands, allowing him to focus on bringing pressure.

If the Jets have to pass often, I look for Ryan to try and put a great deal of pressure on quarterback Mark Sanchez to see if he can force him into some mistakes or more importantly create some turnovers in this game. When watching Sanchez play, the first thing you notice is that he will throw the ball into coverage regardless of whether the receiver is open. Sanchez is going to make that throw because he has the faith that his receivers will come down with the ball.

Something I also noticed about Sanchez’s game is that he isn’t always accurate with his passes. I was surprised by the number of times his receivers were open but he made them work for the ball. These receivers do a great job of adjusting to the ball and bailing him out when the pass is not perfect or off target.

In studying Sanchez, I am sure that Ryan was preaching to his front seven to get their hands up when rushing because Sanchez has a tendency to get his passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage. It was shocking to see the number of passes that were knocked down or tipped at the line.

Sanchez also doesn’t throw the ball down the field much. There are quarterbacks in this league that you study that are always trying to work the ball down the field. Sanchez isn’t one of those guys. I went back to check his numbers from last season and his yards per attempt were at 6.5, which was low for a team that made the playffs.

An area that I was impressed with of Sanchez as a quarterback was his ability to move in the pocket and avoid the rush. There were times where tackles D’Brickashaw Ferguson or Wayne Hunter would get beat to the edge and he would find a way to duck or dodge the rush and get rid of the ball.

If the Cowboys are going to have success defensively against the Jets, it’s going to have to be controlling the Jets running the football. If they are able to do that, it will set up opportunities for pressure in the passing game and force Sanchez into situations where he has had his struggles.

*One of the adjustments for the way in which the Jets play their defensive scheme is to take cornerback Darrelle Revis and put him on the opponent’s best receiver. The question in Cowboys staff meetings was who will Revis take in coverage, Miles Austin or Dez Bryant?

It will take the Cowboys a series or two to figure out what direction the Jets might go with Revis. The Jets love to play press man coverage, so look for the Cowboys to try and get them out of that coverage as quickly as possible.

One way to do this is to get into a bunch formation with three wide receivers and scatter at the snap, getting into their routes as quickly as possible. If the Jets try to play man coverage out of this look, it will cause them to potentially get confused or lose their men in coverage, creating an opportunity for a successful play.

The Cowboys know they can’t line up in regular formations and feel like they can throw the ball against this secondary. The Jets have three corners that can cover in man, so look for Jason Garrett to try and dictate when and how often they play it.

Power Rankings: Top 10 NFL linebackers

April, 12, 2011
4/12/11
12:20
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Power Rankings Linebackers ESPN.com IllustrationSan Francisco's Patrick Willis ran away from the field in our voting for the NFL's best linebacker.
ESPN.com’s NFL writers rank the top 10 linebackers in the league today. Next week: Top 10 cornerbacks.

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis beat out a strong and diverse field for top billing in ESPN.com's latest positional power rankings.

All eight panelists ranked Willis among their top three, elevating the 26-year-old perennial Pro Bowler above James Harrison and DeMarcus Ware as our No. 1 linebacker in the NFL.

Even 12-time Pro Bowler Ray Lewis, the dominant linebacker of his era, pointed to Willis as a worthy successor to his undisputed reign. Not that Lewis is finished just yet. He placed fifth in the rankings behind Willis, Harrison, Ware and the Green Bay Packers' Clay Matthews. But there was no more complete linebacker than Willis.

"Nobody in the NFL plays their position better than Patrick Willis, and that is saying a lot," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc., whose insights helped shape my ballot. "He is as good a linebacker as Peyton Manning is a quarterback, as Andre Johnson is a receiver, as Adrian Peterson is a running back. He has no weaknesses."

Willis, a three-time Associated Press All-Pro first-team selection, is the first 49ers player since Ronnie Lott to earn Pro Bowl honors in each of his first four seasons. Joe Thomas and Peterson are the only other 2007 draft choices with four Pro Bowls.

Apples and oranges: Comparing linebackers from 3-4 schemes to their 4-3 counterparts proved problematic for some panelists. AFC East blogger Tim Graham ranked Ware first among pass-rushers three weeks ago, but only ninth among linebackers.

"Patrick Willis, Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis would be great linebackers in a 3-4 or a 4-3," Graham explained. "DeMarcus Ware and Cameron Wake might not even be linebackers if they played in Indianapolis, Tennessee or Minnesota. At some point, I had to value elite pass-rushing abilities on my list even though those players aren't universal-type linebackers."

There was room for differing views. ESPN.com's John Clayton and AFC North blogger James Walker ranked Ware first among linebackers and first among pass-rushers. AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky ranked Ware first among linebackers and second among pass-rushers.

"Separating Ware, Willis and Harrison is like splitting hairs, because it really depends on what you want in a linebacker," said Walker, who went with Ware, Willis and Harrison atop his ballot. "Ware is a slightly better pass-rusher than Harrison, and Willis is a future Hall of Famer in his prime. Age also has to be a consideration if you’re building a defense, and Harrison will be 33 in May. But they're all great."

First things first: Graham and NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert joined me in ranking Willis first. AFC West blogger Bill Williamson had Willis second only to Harrison.

"When I think of linebacker play in the current day, James Harrison pops out," Bill Williamson said. "I think he’s the gold standard of complete linebacker play. Look at his signature play in the Super Bowl against Arizona. That play will forever be part of NFL lore. Patrick Willis, who is also a great player, doesn’t have that play on his résumé. Plus, Harrison is an ornery cuss on the field. The man was born to be a 'backer."

Willis can't match Harrison in Super Bowl memories -- he could use a quarterback, for starters -- but he's not hurting for signature plays:
Lewis pointed to Willis when ESPN's Dana Jacobson recently asked him which young linebacker reminded Lewis of himself.

"I just love the way he plays the game," Lewis said. "He plays the game with a fire. He reminds me of myself -- a lot, a lot, a lot."

Unanimous decisions: The top five finishers received votes from all eight panelists. The gaps between highest and lowest votes fell between four and seven places for all but Willis, who ranked no lower than third.

Seifert ranked Lewis third. I had Lewis 10th and feared I might be measuring him against himself. No list of top linebackers would be complete without him, I thought, but a younger generation is taking over.

Hugs for Suggs: Lewis' teammate, Terrell Suggs, finished just out of our top 10 despite getting a No. 5 ranking from Kuharsky.

[+] EnlargePatrick Willis
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswirePatrick Willis has averaged nearly 149 tackles per season since joining the league in 2007.
"I unabashedly love Suggs, and frankly would have placed him higher if I thought there was any way he needed help to crack the top 10," Kuharsky said. "To me, there is a great deal of subjectivity in ranking this position when mixing guys from 4-3s and 3-4s, so I did a lot of know-them-when-I-see-them ranking. Suggs is absolutely a top-10 guy to me."

Clayton, Seifert, Graham and I did not list Suggs on our ballots while searching for the right mix of 3-4 and 4-3 talent.

Fit to be tied: The players tied for ninth on our list illustrate the varied criteria for the position. Kansas City's Tamba Hali is a pure pass-rusher in the Chiefs' 3-4 defense. Carolina's Jon Beason is a traditional 4-3 linebacker with the versatility to play multiple spots. He changed positions twice in 2010.

Beason peaked at No. 5 on my ballot. NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas had Beason sixth and considered ranking him higher.

"There was a time when I would have ranked Beason in the same echelon as Willis," Yasinskas said. "I think he has a chance to re-emerge if Carolina can put a better team on the field, particularly by getting better at defensive tackle and keeping blockers off Beason. If that happens, I think Beason can be as good as any linebacker in the league."

Youth on his side: New England's Jerod Mayo appeared on six of eight ballots, ranking sixth overall between Lewis and Urlacher. At 25, Mayo was one of two linebackers younger than Willis to earn a spot among the top 10. Matthews, 24, was the other. Graham ranked Mayo third.

"Nose tackle Vince Wilfork might be the anchor of the Patriots' defense, but Mayo is the one who ties their defense together," Graham said. "Mayo is a tackling machine who compensates for shortcomings at outside linebacker and injuries along the defensive line. He would be a star in any system."

On an island: Four linebackers received a single vote. That list featured Brian Orakpo (Clayton), Lance Briggs (Seifert), London Fletcher (Walker) and Wake (Graham).

Best doesn't mean most valuable: Matt Williamson called linebacker the toughest position to evaluate. I'll close by passing along a few of his thoughts:

  • "Willis is so exceptional it would be a coin flip with Ware. Willis has no weaknesses, but if I were a general manager, I would take Ware because pass-rushers are so hard to find. You can get away with a C-level middle linebacker and still have a good defense. You can have a two-down run-stopper and pull him out in nickel."
  • "Ray Lewis would not be in my top five at this point. For his age, he is still exceptional and a borderline Pro Bowler, but he doesn't run like he did. I remember when I was with the Browns, I looked at every report the team had written since 1999 and Lewis had the highest grade ever given out. He was nearly perfect."
  • "Hali is a one-trick pony, a pass-rusher, but he is great at it -- as good as any pass-rusher in the league."
  • "Beason is like Patrick Willis, but he is 95 percent of him. He can play outside, inside, he's smart -- but there is so little around him that people don't realize how good he is."
  • "Pass rushing is Clay Matthews' greatest gift, but he is the prototypical outside linebacker. He's a great technician and way more explosive and athletic than people realize. He's good in coverage, not great, but they line him up all over."
  • "London Fletcher is underrated, but not in this conversation. How Beason is to Willis, Fletcher is to Lewis. He is smaller and slower than Lewis, good among older guys."
  • "Brian Urlacher is still a really good player, but the top 10 might be a stretch. I would take him ahead of Lewis, behind Beason and Willis among 'Mike' 'backers. He is good in coverage. People forget that he was a safety at New Mexico. He doesn't run like he used to and is just not as dynamic as he was in the day."
  • "The Steelers have the best linebackers in the league. LaMarr Woodley is very strong and in that conversation too. Definitely top 15. Harrison is great against the run, extremely strong and one of the few linebackers in the league that is a difference-maker from an attitude standpoint. He brings attitude to the table like a Jack Lambert or a Dick Butkus or a Ray Lewis type. He is feared. He is one of the best leverage players in the league, great in pursuit, tenacious as hell. The other guy to know about is Lawrence Timmons. He will be spectacular."

Franchise tags for Cowboys are doubtful

February, 15, 2011
2/15/11
2:15
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The period to franchise players ends Feb. 25 and a few teams have already placed tags on several players.

Vincent Jackson, Michael Vick, David Akers, Logan Mankins and David Harris have been franchised.

The Cowboys have one player who could be franchised in left tackle Doug Free, but indications from team officials say he won't be. For that matter, at least for now, the Cowboys won't do it to any of their 13 free agents.

Free, who finished his fourth season in 2010, could make as much at $10 million if he were franchised by the Cowboys. It's doubtful the team would do this for a player, who was considered their best offensive linemen in 2010, who became a full-time starter at left tackle for the first time in his career. However, if Free is a restricted free agent, and that won't be determined until the new collective bargaining agreement is completed, the Cowboys would place a first-and-third round tender on him.

It was something they did with wide receiver Miles Austin before working out a long-term deal with him. Austin missed the first few days of offseason workouts last spring and didn't sign his tender until just before the deadline hoping a new contract would be worked out.

Free's agent, Jimmy Sexton, hasn't heard from the Cowboys on what might happen down the line.

The Cowboys, like most teams, would like to know the financial landscape in the NFL before making any significant moves. We all know the Cowboys want Free to be their left tackle for years, but the price they have to pay hasn't been determined.

What also complicates matters is the union and the league have opposing views on the franchise tag. The league says teams can do it, and they are, but the union says that's not possible without a new CBA.

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