With the Pittsburgh Steelers sitting at 7-6 and in desperation mode just like the Cowboys, Sunday’s matchup isn’t going to be an easy one for Dallas. Let’s take a look at how Jason Garrett should attack the dominating Pittsburgh defense.
Go to Dez Bryant immediately.
If Bryant plays on Sunday, the Cowboys need to establish that he’s not simply going to be standing out there as a decoy to draw double-coverage, even if that’s actually the case. By tossing a screen or slant Bryant’s way early, Dallas can establish their plans to use Bryant as normal to set up the rest of the offense.
Get Jason Witten on linebackers.
Earlier this week, I mentioned that the Cowboys should keep tight end Jason Witten in pass protection more often to help the offensive line and so that defenses can’t key him as effectively to diagnose the play. Well, those plans should be put off a week. The biggest advantage the Cowboys’ offense will have over Pittsburgh is over the middle of the field, for two reasons.
First, inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote simply can’t hang with Witten. Timmons has actually played well in coverage this year, but the Cowboys will take that matchup all day. Secondly, the Steelers rush their inside linebackers more than any team in the NFL, by far. Timmons and Foote have combined to rush on 251 snaps this year, which is remarkable. Foote alone has rushed the quarterback on 17.5 percent of his snaps; in comparison, Sean Lee checked in at 10.9 percent and Bruce Carter at 5.3 percent.
The Cowboys’ goal should be targeting Witten whenever he’s covered by a linebacker, forcing the Steelers to place safety Troy Polamalu on the tight end. With Polamalu’s attention shifted, it should open things up for everyone else.
Use three-receiver sets.
The Cowboys have been most efficient from three-receiver “11” personnel groupings all year, especially in the running game. Instead of packing everyone into a small area that simply forces the offense to make more blocks, spreading the field naturally opens holes in the running game. We saw the ‘Boys use “11” personnel to rush the ball effectively on the final drive in Cincinnati, but on the season Jason Garrett has called only 77 runs with three receivers on the field—only 25.6 percent of all rushes. The ‘Boys have gained 4.04 YPC on spread runs, compared to just 3.25 YPC on all other runs.
In addition, using “11” personnel will get Steelers nickel cornerback Curtis Brown on the field. With starting cornerback Ike Taylor down, Brown is really the team’s fourth player at the position. While fellow cornerbacks Cortez Allen and Keenan Lewis have played well, Brown has yielded 9.67 YPA in his limited 2012 action. He’s played all but three of his coverage snaps in the slot this year, but he’ll be no match for Miles Austin on the inside.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.