Dallas Cowboys: Facing a blitz-happy, Steve Spagnuolo defense


While it is more common for football fans to discuss the match-ups they will see on the field each week, the chess game that is professional football begins in the coach’s office days before kickoff. This week, the Dallas Cowboys will face a familiar foe in the New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. And the key to success will be how Dallas handles his blitz-happy scheme.

First, let’s look at how Spagnuolo runs his defense. In 2008, the final season of his first stint as the Giants’ defensive coordinator blitzed more than any coordinator in the NFL.

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According to the Wall Street Journal, “In 2008, the Spagnuolo-led Giants defense sent six or more pass rushers on 15.9% of all snaps, the second-highest rate in the league, per Football Outsiders. Last year, under defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, the Giants rushed six or more defenders on only 7.9% of plays, the league’s 11th-highest rate, according to Football Outsiders.”

As an assistant coach for nine years with the Philadelphia Eagles, Spagnuolo was tutored by revered defensive mastermind Jim Johnson. Johnson was famous for his blitz packages that seemed to give the Cowboys fits.

Now Spagnuolo is again in charge of the Giants’ defense and it appears he will remain aggressive.

"“I think we all can agree in here that if you are going to be good on defense, it needs to be aggressive” Spagnuolo recently said. Link"

The Giants’ defense is expected to be one of the worst units in the NFC. Gone are the days when New York had a dominant defensive line that could pressure the quarterback with players such as Michael Strahan, Jason Pierre Paul (who is still a member of the Giants but will miss Sunday night’s game due to injury), Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and other dominant players.

Now, the Giants are starting an undrafted second-year player, Kerry Wynn, at one defensive end spot and the rest of the defensive line is unproven and unheralded.

The defensive backfield is also a question mark. While the two starting corners, Prince Amukamara and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, are solid they both are trying to recover from injury-plagued seasons in 2014.

Where the Cowboys can really attack the Giants is at the safety spot. Rookie Landon Collins from Alabama and third-year veteran Cooper Taylor (who has four career tackles) are listed as the starting safeties on the Giants’ depth chart.

But is using exotic blitzes a way to improve a defense that is talent depleted? According to the Wall Street Journal, the answer is no.

"“Quick-reacting quarterbacks can embarrass blitzing teams by quickly hitting receivers who run into the gaps left open by the all-out pass rush. According to Football Outsiders, the Spagnuolo-led Saints defense in 2012 blitzed on 11.9% of plays, the NFL’s fifth-highest rate, and finished the season ranked 25th in sacks and dead last in yards yielded per game.” Link"

And that is what Cowboy’s quarterback Tony Romo has done to beat the Spagnuolo blitz. In four career games against teams for which Spagnuolo was either the defensive coordinator or the head coach, Romo and the Cowboys have averaged 28.8 points per game.

But the blitz will put pressure on Cowboys other than Romo. With the running back situation in flux, the Spagnuolo system will test each Dallas back’s ability to step up and keep Romo clean by taking on blitzing defenders in the hole.

This may necessitate more playing time from the bigger of the two featured Dallas running backs Darren McFadden. Though McFadden has a significant injury history, he is well regarded for his ability to be a blocker in passing situations and he is ten pounds heavier than fellow running back Joseph Randle.

It is also worth keeping in mind that Randle has not been asked to pass protect very often in his time as a backup. On the majority of plays Randle has seen, he has carried the ball or been sent out of the backfield as a pass receiver.

Ultimately, no scheme is going to be effective without the talent to execute it. The Giants are a team sorely lacking in defensive talent and if Dallas is able to handle the Spagnuolo blitz the offense should be in for a big night.

Next: Cowboys vs. Giants Final Injury Report: Cruz, Beason Out