We all know the Cowboys’ offense needs to improve their efficiency if the team has any shot at making the postseason, but outstanding play from the defense could continue to make up for it in the meantime. Against the Browns, the name of the game for Rob Ryan’s unit should be forcing Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden to continually make good decisions and accurate throws.
Play a low-variance defensive strategy.
Ryan has an interesting decision on his hands this week. On one hand, he’ll be facing a rookie quarterback who has struggled mightily against the blitz, recording only 5.4 YPA and a 56.4 passer rating when facing a rush of at least five defenders. On the other hand, the Cowboys are the clear favorites in this game, and favorites generally benefit from “playing it safe.” How many times do you hear “If Team X can just get a big turnover or quick score, they’ll have a shot?” Well the Cowboys aren’t that team; they want to limit the potential for “easy” Cleveland scores, and blitzing tends to be a high-variance strategy, i.e. high risk and high reward.
Avoid true man coverage.
So how can Dallas put on the pressure without sending too many defenders after the quarterback? Ultimately, I think you’ll see lots of zone blitzes from Dallas. Ryan has increased his zone blitz usage dramatically in 2012, and it has paid off. By rushing unconventional defenders, such as Orlando Scandrick, and dropping typical pass-rushers into coverage, the Cowboys can potentially confuse Brandon Weeden without becoming exceedingly vulnerable in the back end, even if it means playing soft underneath.
Play over top of Josh Gordon.
If the Cowboys’ primary goal on defense is to limit the big play, they need to look no further than wide receiver Josh Gordon. I listed Gordon and cornerback Morris Claiborne as one of my key matchups because the rookie receiver and his 21.9 YPC pose a greater threat to Dallas than anyone else on Cleveland’s offense, including Trent Richardson. The ‘Boys obviously need to maintain a fluid game plan in the event that the Browns are able to get something going on the ground, but even if Ryan puts eight in the box and plays Cover 1 in an effort to stop Richardson, look for Gerald Sensabaugh to shade Gordon’s side.
Look out for playaction.
The Browns will try to get Richardson rolling and then capitalize off of potential efficiency with playaction looks. The Browns have used run-action on 22.7 percent of their dropbacks this season—ninth-most in the NFL. In watching the Browns’ offense, I noticed they particularly like to take shots downfield following playaction—hence Weeden’s low 49.3 percent completion rate but improved efficiency (+0.7 YPA) as compared to straight dropbacks. Thus, the Cowboys need to be particularly cautious of flying up to pounce on Richardson, even if the Browns have reeled off a few successful runs.