Atlanta Falcons at Dallas Cowboys: Brandon Weeden can win without Tony Romo, Dez Bryant

Dallas CowboysThe Cowboys will turn to backup quarterback Brandon Weeden against an Atlanta Falcons team that’s off to a 2-0 start.  As is often the case in the NFL, name association carries with it a certain amount of baggage that may or may not be relevant to the current situation.

Weeden had a perfect performance a week ago in relief of Tony Romo, who will miss about two months with a broken clavicle. One thing is for certain: When Weeden takes the field against Atlanta on Sunday he won’t be doing it with the Cleveland Browns roster that contributed to a lukewarm reputation outside of Big D.

Still, he won’t have his team’s best offensive weapon in wide receiver Dez Bryant, who is out with a foot injury. It’s also still up in the air if he’ll have star tight end Jason Witten, who’s dealing with a cornucopia of ailments and should be questionable up until game time.

What should lend realistic hope to Cowboys fans that Weeden can keep the ship moving in the right direction is that although the current sample of play is small, it’s positive – and much different than the kind of QB he was asked to be when he was in the Browns organization.


My former coach and current Falcons head coach Dan Quinn will be pondering a couple basic things as he builds his defensive plan:

1. What will be the most likely approach that the Cowboys adopt with Weeden under center?

2. What’s the Falcons best approach in response to how the Cowboys are likely to use him?

It should come as no surprise to any football fan above ground, leaning first on the power running game should be the Cowboys’ lead offensive pillar. Despite the short quarter-and-a-half that Weeden played a week ago against the Eagles, there’s plenty of film and the Falcons will be try to take away the run.

The multi-back plan by the Cowboys has gotten endless ink and airtime this year, but when the Weeden change happened a week ago, Dallas went primarily to RB Darren McFadden, the true downhill, hit-it-in-a-hurry back on the Cowboys roster.

And it worked.

At one point in last weekend’s game, the Cowboys went to McFadden four consecutive runs without any formation or personnel packaging tricks. Expect the Cowboys to force the Falcons to stop this kind attack before going to any other page of the playbook – even when everyone on earth knows what’s coming.

The question of “how to stop it” will be the next thing on the Atlanta plate.  A week ago in Philly, the Cowboys saw pre-snap, two-deep safety looks against power running sets when it was Romo at quarterback – a concession that field-stretching plays were still a consideration.

The below screenshot shows an unusual two-safety look where both are relatively close to one another – different than the wider half-safeties you see post-snap for Cover-2 teams.  This is a strong indication that one of the two safeties is going to roll down into run support post-snap, you just don’t know which one (or to which side).

It accomplished the goal of getting the safeties involved in the run front, but it came late enough that even when the down-safety makes the play, it was a 4-yard gain. Expect Dan Quinn won’t feel the need to show the two-safeties high in pre-snap this week until Brandon Weeden forces him to more heavily guard the deep part of the field.

You may see a very similar defensive scheme against the Cowboys this week, but without the pre-snap disguise, allowing the down safety to potentially clog those running lanes closer to the line of scrimmage.


The best tool the Cowboys can use to loosen any attempts at an eight-man front by the Falcons is to sprinkle in a fair amount of empty sets to keep the Eagles honest. In other words, the Cowboys may have to create the space they need artificially through formations, something they had success with a week ago against the Eagles.

The screen shot below shows the Cowboys moving to an empty-backfield spread look where the Eagles countered with no deep field safeties — a gamble Weeden burned the Eagles on, and something Atlanta most likely won’t try to duplicate.  To compensate for the lack of deep help, the Eagles played off-coverage, which creates short-space catch-and-run opportunities like the double-slant play that resulted in a 42-yard touchdown by Terrance Williams (below).

While I don’t expect over-the-top downfield throws as the recipe for the Cowboys offense on Sunday, that doesn’t mean they won’t need to find chunk plays. The best opportunity to find these big plays are through the catch-and-run run strengths of players on their roster like Williams, receiver Cole Beasley and shifty running back Lance Dunbar. The best way to accomplish this is to lure the Falcons into heavier-personnel groups and then shift to these spread formations and find the space mismatch. It might not be enough, but it’s worth a shot.


The biggest question of the week is who will be the safety valve for Weeden if the Falcons choose to pressure, something that helped cause several of his mistakes in a start against the Arizona Cardinals last season. Under normal circumstances, this would likely be Witten, someone Weeden immediately formed a relationship with a week ago.  If Witten is playing, working off any additional inside-coverage attention Jason gets is something Weeden pounced on a week ago (below).

Moving inside linebackers with his eyes towards Witten, Weeden was able to create space for the return routes that came behind the clear-out.  If the extra attention doesn’t come, fitting the ball into tight spaces to Witten (or whoever plays the tight end or inside receiver spot) to move the sticks will be a must.

What has gotten Weeden into the most trouble in the past is the downfield passing game, staring down receivers and throwing interceptions under pressure. There’s reasonable expectation the success of the running game and superior pass protection he’ll get behind the Cowboys line should keep those kinds of play calls to a minimum to help him stay the efficient chain-mover he was a week ago.

If the Cowboys running game is stunted, and they find themselves in lots of long second-and-third-down situations, then the Cowboys lose control of any play-call preferences.  The key for Dallas is to stay ahead in the count and stick to the kinds of plays Weeden does well.  The key for Atlanta is to not let that happen.

How will Weeden play Sunday? Rambling off a bunch of stats from stuff he did in another place with an entirely different system and personnel is just the usual tiresome talk-fodder, but it won’t have anything to do with this weekend’s game. There’s a short formula that shows what he could be.  Pulling it off again as Cowboy offensive weapons keep falling by the wayside is the real trick.

Should the Dallas Cowboys remain the favorites in the NFC East?

Dallas CowboysInjuries to Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant along with an 0-2 start for the Philadelphia Eagles have shaken up the NFC East.

On Thursday, our NFL Nation reporters from around the division answer the question: How have the first two weeks of the season affected your original prediction for the NFC East? 

Todd Archer, Dallas Cowboys: In the first two weeks, the Cowboys have lost Dez Bryant and Tony Romo, two of their most important players. The challenges without Bryant and Romo are obvious, but the Cowboys’ 2-0 start in the division with wins over the Giants and Eagles gives them a leg up and some margin for error. The rest of the division, meanwhile, looks woeful. The Giants seem to have the same issues they had last year, especially defensively. The Eagles have never looked this bad under Chip Kelly. The Redskins always seem like they are on the edge of despair. If the Cowboys can hold it together without Romo and be above .500 when he returns, they should be able to win the division again. Brandon Weeden has a lot of pressure, but the Cowboys have to rely on their offensive line and defense to win games. It’s hard to imagine another team getting on a roll to keep the Cowboys out of the race.

Dan Graziano, New York Giants: The serious injuries to Romo and Bryant have diminished my confidence in picking Dallas to win the division, but their 2-0 record and the likelihood that both players will return at some point this season mitigates that somewhat. Also mitigating it is that the Eagles look like they’ll need time to get on track and the Giants look as flawed and vulnerable as I expected they would. Washington seems to be in the best shape, especially if it beats the undermanned Giants on Thursday night, but I still think Dallas has enough on defense to weather the storm; a team featuring an offensive line as dominant as theirs can win with its backup quarterback. It’s not going to be easy, and I doubt they repeat last year’s 12-4 finish, but I think the Cowboys still slug it out and end up on top.

Phil Sheridan, Philadelphia Eagles: We all picked the Dallas Cowboys to win the division back in August. After their 2-0 start, that looks pretty good. But we couldn’t have foreseen the injuries to Romo and Bryant that make the Cowboys vulnerable. The question is, Can anyone take advantage? The Eagles seemed like the most likely team, given the potential upside of Chip Kelly’s moves. But all we’ve seen through two weeks is the downside. The Giants are 0-2. Washington showed signs of life. Ultimately, I would say the Eagles’ chances of righting the ship and sneaking to the top of the division are pretty reasonable. If they can win the East with a 9-7 record, though, there won’t be any NFC East wild-card team.

John Keim, Washington Redskins: Heck yes I’m re-thinking my divisional picks. Considering I picked the Cowboys and they’re already down Romo and Bryant? Tough to stand by them, even if they are 2-0. As great as their run game was last season, the Cowboys were dangerous because of their passing attack. Do they have the other parts to manage even a 3-5 record minus Romo for eight games, if that’s even all it is? If they can, then they’ll be right in the mix. But good luck with that. And the Eagles are a mess, but at least they’re healthy and there are 14 games left. So they have that going for them. Still, the tough part about the NFC East: Who should replace Dallas as the pick? The Giants should be 2-0, but they’re not and have plenty of issues; the Redskins have shown promising signs, but it would still be a big leap for them after two games to put them at the top. They beat the St. Louis Rams, not the New England Patriots. They have a few ifs: If they stay healthy, if Kirk Cousins plays well… then they can be in the mix. The mindset and attitude are good, however. But that’s the problem with the NFC East: It’s easier to find reasons why teams won’t win the division than why they might.

Dustin Vaughan’s Dream Is Over

Dallas CowboysVaughan, Showers Among Notable Cuts As Cowboys Meet 53-Man Roster Limit.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about the Cowboys’ final roster cuts on Saturday was the lack of surprise. We had high hopes for Dustin Vaughan, being a high school product of Calallen High School, where my daughter goes to high school, but that just wasn’t in the cards this year.

His lack luster performance during the prisons games was the culprit that would keep the Cowboys from keeping a third QB on this years roster.

Dallas cut its 2015 roster down to the league-mandated 53 men by Saturday’s 3 p.m. deadline, letting go of 20 players in the process. As usual, it’s incredibly likely things will change as the Cowboys examine the waiver wire – not to mention the possibility of trades. Continue reading