Ravens facing in-your-face foe in Cowboys' secondary
BALTIMORE — Ravens coach John Harbaugh noticed one thing in particular as he watched film of a revamped Dallas Cowboys secondary using a variety of coverages to blanket offenses.
“They get up in your face when they play quarters. They get up in your face when they play halves. And when they play (Cover 3), they're in your face,” he said. “It's just the style they play.”
On Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, the Cowboys will use an aggressive approach similar to the one the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles used to slow the Ravens' eighth-ranked passing attack this season. Struggles against physical press coverage were as much of a factor in those two sluggish showings as inaccurate throws, protection breakdowns or lopsided play-calling.
For Baltimore to move the ball through the air against top-ranked Dallas pass defense, Ravens wide receivers must shake free of physical Cowboys cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, who excel at bumping receivers out of their routes at the line of scrimmage.
But the burden of beating press coverage is not just on the wide receivers. In last Sunday's 9-6 win in Kansas City, quarterback Joe Flacco completed just 13 of his 27 attempts for 187 yards and one interception. The Ravens' 298 total yards were a season low, and it was Flacco's first game without a TD pass since Week 13 of last season.
“If we get out there and run crisp routes and get the ball out of my hand and protect, that's how you beat it,” Flacco said. “But if you get a little sloppy and you aren't as precise with the ball, that's when you can let some of that tight underneath coverage get to you.”
Harbaugh's staff and the players talked at length about the need to make adjustments. Wide receivers coach Jim Hostler and veteran receiver Anquan Boldin have tutored the young receivers on boxing out cornerbacks and chopping their hands away to escape the 5-yard area in which defenders are allowed to make contact.
After the Cowboys were victimized by long pass plays late in games last season, they were determined to upgrade their secondary. They signed Carr (6-0, 210) away from the Chiefs with a five-year, $50 million deal. Then they traded up eight spots to the sixth overall pick to draft Claiborne (5-11, 185) out of LSU.
“It's become such a passing league,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “I think any defensive coach, and really any offensive coach, would tell you that if you have real good corners and real good cover guys on the back end, it gives you much more freedom to play what you want to play on defense.”