Don’t let the 31-24 final score from Thursday night’s contest fool you. The Dallas Cowboys weren’t anywhere close to being competitive in their loss to the Chicago Bears. Outside of the opening 75-yard drive capped off by an Ezekiel Elliott touchdown, the team was grossly inferior in all three phases of the game.
One of the most distressing signals that their 2019 season has been a catastrophe, despite still possessing the division lead after 13 games, occurred in the early fourth-quarter. Dallas had just scored their second touchdown of the game to pull within 10 points and potentially mount a comeback.
On the ensuing kickoff, Brett Maher, who had already missed a 42-yard field goal attempt, knocked the ball out of bounds. This resulted in a 15-yard penalty that catapulted Chicago to their own 40-yard line.
What followed was a four-play drive highlighted by the defense’s inability through scheme and execution to defend the read-option at a critical point in the game. Thus far, Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky had run a read-option keeper three times. On those plays, the Dallas front-seven allowed gains of four, five, and minus-one yard. However, it should be noted that Trubisky could’ve had a seven-to-ten-yard gain on the first play but slid early.
On each instance of the read-option, the Cowboys used the scrape-exchange or gap-exchange technique to defend the run. This meant that the defensive end would automatically chase the running back without reading the play, and the linebacker would scrape around the edge to take on the quarterback.
Each time, Head Coach Matt Nagy’s offense responded with a blocking technique that had the potential to wreck Dallas’ defensive scheme by having their offensive tackle use the linebacker’s “scraping” motion to create a natural lane in the defensive front. This schematic weakness was illustrated in an excellent article by Zach Dunn earlier that day.
Up until that fateful 1st-and-10 from the Cowboys’ 23-yard line with 13:28 left to play in the fourth-quarter, the defense was able to limit the damage of these runs to some degree.
But the dam finally broke when Nagy’s blocking scheme fully exploited the crack in Rod Marinelli’s scrape exchange technique. This time, safety Darian Thompson was in the box in a linebacker-type role. At the snap, he veered around the edge while DeMarcus Lawrence shot inside at the running back. Unfortunately, Thompson’s path created a hole in the defense that the left tackle exploited by simply letting the safety run himself out of the play.
This is extremely well blocked and executed by the Bears. Cowboys gap exchange, Trubisky keeps as he should. @charleslenojr72 outstanding job recognizing where and what his LB is doing. Takes him out of the play pic.twitter.com/SnQsWjnQ8X— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) December 6, 2019
This schematic exposure was exacerbated by the defenders’ lack of fundamental tackling, which has been a constant and ever-present reality this year.
The Cowboys’ offense responded with a quick three-and-out the following drive.
What Could the Defense Have Done Differently?
Dunn’s article illustrated an alternative scheme to defeat the read-option called the fill and fold. Unfortunately, the Dallas defense didn’t adapt to this method during the game.
The Fill and Fold technique creates an unblocked defender to take on the runner. Instead of having the defensive end crash inside at the snap, he takes on the quarterback, forcing a hand-off. The linebacker that runs around the edge in the scrape exchange technique crashes down and fills the A-gap to force a cutback by the running back. The other linebacker, after initially flowing with the play, folds over his teammate and into the lane to meet the runner head on.
Here’s how this concept works in action:
This defensive concept isn’t new, and the Cowboys could’ve adapted to this technique to defend the read-option. But they didn’t, and they were gashed for a 23-yard touchdown run by one of the worst offenses in the league.
Blame falls on everyone’s shoulders for this loss. The defense, which actually created two takeaways, has struggled to do so for the better part of a decade. Since 2015, this defense, with Rod Marinelli at the helm, has averaged only 8.2 interceptions per year.
This defense relies upon being great at a few things with little disguise, depending on the defenders to know how most offenses will attack them and then out-executing them. However, it’s been clear for many games that these players aren’t getting the job done consistently. Yet this coaching staff seems to do little to help them. So, the players can’t execute the scheme and the coaches won’t adapt the scheme to put their players in a better position. That’s a massive failure and one of the root causes of this team’s struggles.
You can follow Allan on Twitter: @AllanUy22