2015 NFL Playoffs: Detroit at Dallas Preview

The 2015 NFL Playoffs kick off with a wild card round battle between NFC rivals as the Lions face the Cowboys. The Detroit at Dallas preview has what to look for on gameday.

The Matchup

WHO: Detroit Lions (11-5 – #6 Seed) vs. Dallas Cowboys (12-4 – #3 Seed)

WHEN: Sunday, January 4 – 4:40 p.m. EST (FOX)

WHERE: AT&T Stadium – Arlington, TX

The Dallas Cowboys enter this matchup with the second-best rushing attack in the league, led by All-Pro DeMarco Murray. However, the Detroit Lions feature the best rushing defense in the NFL and pose a stout challenge to the Cowboys’ ball-control offense. The Cowboys were dominant throughout the season in winning the NFC East, while the Lions lost in Green Bay in Week 17 to end up as the final Wild Card team. This promises to be a physical battle between two teams starving for playoff success.

When Dallas Has the Football

Dallas’s Passing Game against Detroit’s Defense

The Cowboys don’t throw the ball often, with only 476 passing attempts on the season ranking as the second-lowest mark in the NFL. However, quarterback Tony Romo played with incredible efficiency, posting the league’s highest quarterback rating (113.2) and throwing for 34 TDs against nine INTs. Romo’s yards per attempt (YPA) ranked highest in the NFL at 8.52, and his 69.9% completion percentage topped the chart as well. Romo turned in his strongest season as a pro in 2014, and his improved game management has helped stabilize what had been an inconsistent offense.

Romo adeptly takes what the defense gives him, making very strong and perceptive reads. He put these skills on display during the Cowboys’ tilt against the Eagles in Week 16:


Philadelphia shows Cover 1 with a high safety. The Cowboys set up with 11 personnel and trips to Romo’s left. The two flankers run go-routes, with TE Jason Witten running a corner into a skinny post up the seam. The slot receiver to Romo’s left runs a curl and out.

As the play develops, Romo spots Cole Beasley breaking open on his left:


Beasley beats his man and the safety (circled in red) is occupied by Witten coming up the seam. The safety eventually adjusts, but it is too late and Beasley draws a pass interference penalty.

Off a similar look, the Cowboys use a tighter alignment to get Witten open up the middle:


Witten and the slot receiver are now stacked next to the offensive line. The outside receivers both run posts, while Witten runs straight up the seam and the slot receiver runs a dig. Because of the stacking, Witten ends up open in the middle of the field:


Romo sees the play perfectly. With the safety (circled in red) nervous after having been beaten deep previously, the QB has plenty of space to drop the ball in to Witten.

The Lions were slightly above-average defending the pass this season. They yielded completions on 64.7% of passes, but made up for it with 20 interceptions, tied for third in the NFL. Glover Quin, the biggest ballhawk on the team, collected seven picks, while Darius Slay led the team with 17 passes defensed.

On the defensive line, Ndamukong Suh and Ezekiel Ansah led the Detroit pass rush, with 8.5 and 7.5 sacks, respectively. This gives the Lions the ability to rush the passer from multiple angles, potentially giving Romo trouble as he tries to get comfortable in the pocket.

Dallas’s Running Game against Detroit’s Defense

This is the big one. The full-contact chess match between the Cowboys’ rushing attack and the Lions’ physically dominant defensive line is one of the prime reasons to watch this game. There is nothing flashy about how Dallas runs the ball. It is power, backed with power, fortified by more power. Did I mention power?

Against the Eagles, Dallas opened the game with this run to the right side:


The sequence shows a classic power run to the right, where every lineman and tight end blocks in that direction, with Tyler Clutts (#44) leading the way off-tackle for Murray (#29). The Cowboys pick up four solid yards, and this approach comprises their game plan most of the way downfield. They will try to wear out the Lions on the ground and when an opposing defense pushes back, the Cowboys counter by simply bringing in more blockers.

Now near the Eagles’ end zone, the Cowboys go to a three-tight-end look, bringing in Gavin Escobar (#89) and James Hanna (#84) to complement Witten:


Dallas simply double-teams the three interior linemen for the Eagles, giving Murray enough room to pick up five yards. There is nothing discreet about the Cowboys’ running game. They show exactly what they plan to do and challenge an opposing defense to stop them.

The Lions’ defense, the best in the league at stopping the run, gives up only 69.3 yards per game and 3.2 yards per carry. They are the immovable object to Dallas’s unstoppable force. Suh and Ansah anchor the line, while DeAndre Levy has 151 tackles at linebacker. Detroit plays a physical game and presents the toughest opponent Dallas has seen this season against their rushing attack. They will look to clog the middle of the line while relying on their aggressive secondary to defend Romo through the air.

When Detroit Has the Football

Detroit’s Passing Game against Dallas’s Defense

For years, Detroit’s passing game centered around the magical connection of Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson. This season, with Johnson missing several games because of injury, Stafford was forced to adjust. The QB found rapport with Golden Tate, brought in during the off-season. Stafford finished the year with 4,257 yards, a 60.3% completion percentage with 22 TDs and 12 INTs. Tate led the Lions receiving corps, hauling in 99 catches for 1,331 yards and four touchdowns. Johnson still served as the primary red zone target, catching 71 balls and eight touchdowns.

Detroit uses clever play calling to disguise its intentions on offense. A great example of this occurred during their game with the Minnesota Vikings earlier this season:


Detroit sets up in i-formation with running back Joique Bell (#35) and fullback Jed Collins (#45) in the backfield. Stafford initially fakes a handoff to Bell toward the left side of the line. But, just after the snap, the look of the play changes dramatically:


Collins breaks for the right side of the screen, drawing two Minnesota linebackers and a safety to him. It appears that the misdirection has not fooled the Vikings, as they are tracking Collins well. Bell, however, has snuck into the flat on the left side of the screen, now ignored by the defense:


Stafford turns back to his left and finds Bell in the flat. The result is plenty of green turf in front of him:


This type of play is common for Detroit. But even without misdirection, the Lions can be patient and take what the defense gives them. Later against Minnesota, Stafford sees what initially appears to be a two-deep shell for the Vikings:


However, at the snap, one of the safeties crashes down on the line and Tate ends up with a linebacker covering him as he crosses the field:


Stafford spots the mismatch and hits Tate for a gain in the right flat. These are the types of throws Stafford will need to make against Dallas to be successful.

Dallas gives up tons of yardage, but has taken advantage of its ability to create turnovers this year. While surrendering the sixth-highest number of yards through the air (4,031), the Cowboys have 18 picks and rate as a middle-of-the-pack pass defense. The pass rush became an issue after losing DeMarcus Ware to the Broncos in free agency, as the Cowboys have only 28 sacks.

Safety Barry Church and linebacker Rolando McClain lead Dallas with 97 and 81 tackles, respectively. Bruce Carter, their primary threat in the secondary, has five picks including a touchdown on an interception return. Look for the Cowboys to continue their bend-but-don’t-break defense, as Stafford and the Detroit aerial attack should put up significant yardage.

Detroit’s Rushing Game against Dallas’ Defense

Unlike the Cowboys, the Lions are more of a finesse team in the running game. They frequently rush to the weak side of formations with light personnel, attempting to disguise their running game. Here’s a prime example from their game against the Vikings:


Detroit sets up with a fullback and running back in the backfield, but no tight ends to provide additional blocking. On the snap, Stafford initially fakes a throw to the left side of the field:


Collins and Reggie Bush (#21) start toward the right side of the line, then Stafford eventually spins and hands off to Bush as he heads towards the right guard:


Bush spots a gaping hole to the left of the center, cuts back, and plows through for five yards. This approach differs greatly from the power running attack of the Cowboys.

Later in the game, Detroit runs a similar play with slightly different personnel:


Set up with a tight end to the left side of the line, the play’s design provided for attacking the weak side. Stafford gives Bell the ball as Collins looks to pick up a Vikings linebacker filling the right B gap. Bell, much like Bush in the prior play, cuts back to the left A gap for a 4-yard gain.

Defensively, the Cowboys rank eighth in the league against the run, giving up 103.1 yards per game, though they tied for 16th in yards per carry with 4.2. Detroit should be able to pick up some yardage on the ground against Dallas, but it remains to be seen whether the Lions will abandon the passing game to do so. The Lions will likely focus on what they do best ‒ throwing the ball ‒ even if they may be able to pick up ground in the running game.


Dallas struggles to run the ball initially, but adjusts and controls possession and the clock for much of the game en route to victory.

Dallas 24, Detroit 17

Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.

Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, thehumanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.

All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.

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