Monday, October 18, 2010

The Morning After: Vikings 24, Cowboys 21

17. If you guessed 17 of the 32 pass plays the Cowboys ran on Sunday would be screen plays, you win. Because on a team with legitimate downfield threats against a secondary that has some major health issues, the Cowboys decided to run 17 screen and swing plays during their loss on Sunday.

4 in the first Quarter. 6 in the 2nd Quarter. 2 in the 3rd Quarter. And 5 more in the 4th. In fact, the final play of the game which began 74 yards from the goal-line was another screen play to Felix Jones. By then, the Vikings were pretty sure they had picked up on the trend. The Cowboys did not believe they could pass block, so they tried to use misdirection over and over to move the football.

Interviews are a pretty useful way to get answers about the thought process behind decisions from various figures in sports. But, in football, the offensive coordinator does not need to do interviews sometimes. Sometimes, he makes his statement by the plays he orders to be run. 17 screen passes speaks all of the volumes you need.

In fact, add in several other dump off passes that were thrown in a hurry less than 5 yards down the field, and Romo threw 24 of his 32 passes within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. That is 75% of his throws.

Remember, this is a team with Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and the newly resurgent Roy Williams. Combined those 3 play-making possibilities were thrown 10 passes all day (accounting for all 3 Touchdowns) - exactly the number of screens run to Felix Jones alone. You wanted Felix? You got way too much of that. Now, add in 3 more passes to Barber, 2 to Gronkowski, and a few TE screens to Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett and you realize the Cowboys ran more of a horizontal passing game than a vertical passing game on Sunday.

So, why did this happen?

Because the Cowboys know that as presently constituted, they can not win straight-up battles at the line of scrimmage. They must resort to smoke, mirrors, and magic tricks.

The evidence is on the tape. Actions speak louder than words. So, we don't need to wait until the Cowboys coaches assure us again that their offensive line is "Pro Bowl" worthy and that they believe in them.

They obviously do not. The Cowboys gave up 0 sacks on Sunday, so, the casual fan might check the boxscore and feel pretty good about the performance of the Dallas OL as they faced down a Vikings pass rush that dominated them for 6 sacks in January.

But, you watched the game. You know why they did not lose in a shoot-out with the Minnesota Vikings defensive front? Because they conceded that match-up in the 1st Quarter.

Romo was hit a few times. Jared Allen had instances of brilliance that may cause some of us to tap the breaks on Doug Free's contract extension talks. The most glaring, of course, was the interception late in the 1st Quarter when Free is still in his stance as Romo runs with terror in his eyes from Allen and ends up throwing the ball into the helmet of Kevin Williams and the ball is picked off on a deflection.

The interior linemen were being beaten handily by another quick defensive front. Tennessee showed that quickness is the kryptonite of the Cowboys OL and every time a Cowboys lineman tried to pull, the gap he left was assaulted and the play was sabotaged - be it a run play or a pass protection scheme.

So, when it happened - was it the game plan of the week or was it a late-1st Quarter adjustment? - we don't know. But, we do know that the Cowboys offense miraculously scored 3 Touchdowns on Sunday without hardly ever challenging the Vikings secondary or running the ball with any effectiveness.

When they did try a pass downfield, it was only out of absolute necessity. The Touchdown pass to Dez Bryant was a 3rd and 11 play where they were forced to risk Romo taking a hit to make a play. And he was given time and threw a wonderful throw into the hands of Bryant who was able to fight off Lito Sheppard to make a magnificent catch. And according to my notes, that was the one moment in the 2nd half when Romo was able to challenge an injured Vikings secondary with a vertical throw. The other throws that could somewhat be defined as "down-field" would be Romo's interception in the 4th on a quick hitter to Witten that EJ Henderson dropped into, Dez Bryant's bail-out on the 3rd Down slant, and the throw to Roy Williams with :06 left in the game.

The approach was not lost on the aforementioned Jared Allen, who told the Minneapolis Star Tribune : "We knew that we could get to the quarterback," Allen said. "Even though we didn't get any sacks, he was getting rid of the ball. You saw them change their game plan literally in the first series after we hit him about three or four times. All of a sudden it was screens, outlet passes, swing passes."

We can surmise 2 things from this Cowboys approach:

1) - The Cowboys are telling us with their actions on a week-to-week basis that their offensive line is mediocre. We have seen these guys perform well, but in 2010, as a collective unit, they are not where they need to be. The best way to limit a team with tons of play-making weapons is to beat up their QB and take away his time to find them. The Cowboys cannot run block well enough to move the ball consistently and they can not pass protect long enough to give Romo time. At least we don't think so. Because Jason Garrett has appeared to concede this battle and tried to inventively scheme another way to beat his opponent. But the fact that in Washington and in Minnesota, the Cowboys went into the game with half the play book left in Dallas tells us all we need to know. Garrett knows his OL cannot hold up and therefore they are running safe, low-risk/low-reward plays to protect the health of their QB.

When you consider all of the former Cowboys OL reserves who are now playing elsewhere in the NFL, and realize that Doug Free is already on the field, you can see how "up a creek without a paddle" this roster appears to be without reasonable replacement ideas for those spots on the line that apparently are no longer capable of being able to execute a standard NFL game plan. The cutting of Robert Brewster this week (3rd Round Pick - 2009) further shows that they are stuck with what they have - and what they have does not have enough trust to allow Romo to throw down the field more than rarely in a place like the Metrodome.

2) - Somehow, given all of this madness on the offense, the unit produced 21 points in a rather difficult scenario against a defense that seldom concedes 20+ points. In fact, they played well enough with their screens, 2.5 yards per carry from their RBs, and the occasional Romo scramble to win for most of the day. The interception in the 4th Quarter doomed their efforts, but for about 59 of the 60 plays on Sunday, the Cowboys were in position to do what they thought this game plan would allow on the flight up there - win a 24-21 game. So, on one hand we are pondering a game plan that is disconcerting at best, and on the other hand, it almost worked. How they did it, I am not sure, but that simple and basic game plan almost worked until a kick return and EJ Henderson made the necessary plays to win the game.

And I suppose that is where we are with this 1-4 team. Trying to use smoke and mirrors to run its offense because they know on performance and merit alone, they are outmatched against a dominant front like the Vikings. That is a most ominous sign given the dominant front of the New York Giants in next on the schedule.


rncantu said...

And again...

This sounds like Garrett doesn't trust his line or Romo that much to go down the field. But it shouldn't be that surprising. The Cowboys haven't drafted a O-lineman in the first or second round since Jacob Rogers in 2004. He was a bust but you still have to try.

I just don't think Jerry the GM can bite the bullet and draft an O-lineman that early. That doesn't sell tickets.

asimmehmood said...

Hey STurm,

Love your stuff...

Why all the smoke's and mirros? Why not just solid smash-mouth football, with a heavy-dose of play-action? Our YPC average in running is pretty good.

While our OL has weaknesses, I hardly believe that they are weak in every single area. Maybe what Garrett wants to do is just not suited to our OL's strength. Isn't it a catch-22? We run so much shot-gun, but it seems to create situations where our OL can get beat more easily in space. This seems to contribute to the penalty problem as well, because our lineman seem to always be trying to get a jump on the quick rushers.

Also, why not more Choice, who tends to run better in-between the tackles than Barber...

Gary said...

Was I just dreaming or was their first possession actually three consecutive runs for a first down? Then they went to two consecutive passes (both failed) leaving them 3rd and 10 where they tried a run??? If the run works three times in a row and you get yards why not keep pounding it down their throats???