Let's begin with the opening play from scrimmage, to show why an end with rush skills could boost the defensive production. On this play, the Saints open in a balanced spread formation -- two receivers to each side of the formation with Drew Brees in the shotgun. Dallas deploys in its base 3-4, and rushes four at Brees:
In this case, Dallas brings Anthony Spencer off the right slot. New Orleans has Reggie Bush looking left to help LT Jermon Bushrod in the event Demarcus Ware rushed. Ware, however, is dropping into coverage, meaning that Dallas will have man-to-man matchups against the Saints' center, right guard and right tackle. Note how none of the rushers get much push:
When you play a 3-4 and rush four, most of the time you're bringing your three linemen and one of your outside linebackers. The DEs, depending on which OLB shoots, will either rush as a 3-technique, one-on-one against a guard, as Stephen Bowen is on this play, or you rush as a 5-technique against an offensive tackle. If you have rush skills, you can make a big difference, either rushing between Jay Ratliff and an OLB or as a substitute edge rusher in place of a Ware or Spencer.
None of the Cowboys DEs, Marcus Spears, Igor Olshansky, Stephen Bowen or Jason Hatcher have demonstrated any rush mojo. Hence, when Ware or Ratliff are not bringing the heat, the rush does not happen. That's tough, because as we know, the Cowboys safeties have lots of trouble in coverage. Four plays later, Sean Payton sets up FS Alan Ball, running a two-man route from a tight set:
New Orleans runs from a straight I left, with both receivers in a slot tight on the right. Drew Brees runs a play-action fake behind max protection, with the tight end and one of the backs releasing late into the flats after chipping their men. The fake holds the corner and strong safety and gives Devery Henderson a free release up the right seam at Alan Ball. Dallas rushes four, but again, not how the play action fake and the extra blockers -- and Dallas weak four-man rush -- keep Brees clean:
Nobody gets close to the quarterback, who can double clutch and lob a deep bomb. Henderson sees the ball, but Ball loses it and runs into Henderson as the receiver is slowing for the grab. Ball commits the interference call, yet does not prevent Henderson from making the catch:
Dallas isn't going to blitz crazy under Paul Pasqualoni as it did under Wade Phillips. It's going to rely on four men to get the job done. Here are P's splits against the Saints:
3-man rushes: 1 play
4-man rushes: 29 plays
5-man rushes: 10 plays
6-man rushes: 2 plays
Four man rushes are now the default. Pasqualoni will run more games to get his rushers free. More loops, more stunts. Both Dallas sacks came on Ware games with an end, where Ware shot inside while the DE looped wide behind him. Ware made one sack cleanly, and on the other flushed Brees into Jay Ratliff's arms:
In the four-man scenarios, two men can be counted on to beat blocks with some consistency, Ware and Ratliff. Bowen was a menace last year, but he's gone quiet this year. He's been disappointing as a rusher since he took over as a starter for the injured Spears. Hatcher got a sack against Detroit but has been invisible the rest of the way, despite playing in a contract year. Olshansky is a run-stuffer, and bull rushes exclusively.
Pressure will help. So would a free safety who can not only track the ball but catch it when he finds it:
More coverage help would help. So would some leads. What the Saints game revealed is yet another chapter in a sad, sad 2010 novel. The pass rush isn't sudden enough. The safety play isn't consistent enough and the coverage has dropped a notch, thought Orlando Scandrick has made up some ground since Pasqualoni took over.
The holes are obvious, and I don't see any dramatic changes in store this last month, unless one of Hatcher or Bowen decide to regain their 2009 spark.