Thursday, March 03, 2011

Special Teams - Big Play Files - Mariani Return

Next up in our "Big Special Teams Plays of 2010" series, here is the return conceded by the Cowboys that brought about changes to the bottom of the roster.

2. Week 5 vs Tennessee - Marc Mariani kickoff return

In our first installment, we examined Dez Bryant's punt return for a TD against the Bears, but let's not look the other way when the Cowboys' special teams have another big play happen on their watch.

The first major negative play of the 2010 season for the Special Teams likely caused them to lose the Tennessee game. Now, of course, there are some other details that should be remembered to properly put this picture in its frame.

First, Marc Colombo was called for an excessive celebration on the Touchdown moments before to Jason Witten. The Cowboys had scored with just under 5 minutes to play in the game and had the momentum. But, because the Witten/Colombo chest bump caused the big tackle to fall backwards, the Cowboys were called for a very costly penalty that put them at their own 15 yard line to kick off.

So, kicking from their 15, and doing it with only a few minutes left in the game, this was going to be one of the moments where the special teams was going to have to come up very big. And the opposite happened, setting up the decisive score for Chris Johnson and the Titans and sending the Cowboys reeling to 1-3, on their way to 1-7.

Special Teams matter.

OK, here let's take a look at who is on the field for this pivotal moment of the season:

Alan Ball (L1), Kevin Ogletree (L2), Jason Williams (L3), Victor Butler (L4), Sam Hurd (L5), David Buehler K, Danny McCray (R5), Leon Williams (R4), Sean Lee (R3), Akwasi Owusu-Ansah (R4), and Gerald Sensabaugh (R5).

Not to get ahead of ourselves, but in the Cowboys next game, the kick coverage unit will look completely different. And, they will also surrender a gigantic kick return to Percy Harvin. But, first things first.

Here is the play. Now, anytime you try to kick to one side or the other, it is vital that your weakside (the left because the ball went to the right sideline) maintains gap integrity. Every player must stay in your lane. The returner's first instinct is to go to the open space on the big side of the field, so if he is pinned to the sideline, you can believe he is planning to find space back across the field.

And this is where it breaks down. Note that 58-Williams and 57-Butler are the two key attackers on the left side. I know they are to follow the kick to the sideline, but they have to protect against the big portion of the field. I have watched this return a lot, and it is next to impossible to find either player on the return. The reason is that they took themselves out of the play by wandering too far right. Once he cuts back, there is a giant lane so large you could send the Queen Mary through there.

As you watch the play, you will also notice that 20-Ball and 85-Ogletree were unable to make a play either. If we were to play the blame game, I believe they were as much to blame when we look at the fact that both Ball and Ogletree were taken off of kick coverage the very next week. Also, Jason Williams was cut not too long later.

You must keep gap integrity in football. On defense, this is preached constantly. Don't go where you think you should go - maintain your gap. Do your job. And on this play, 58 and 57 looked to be the guys who did not keep their gap.

Then, to make matters even worse (if that's possible), David Buehler - who demonstrated some serious speed in saving a Touchdown - brought down Mariani with his face mask, putting the Titans even closer to the end zone.

A gutting loss and the season never recovered.

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