In answering your X's and O's questions about the Cowboys and their strategies, sometimes I find that we can knock out several that all pertain to the same concept. Such is the case today as we look at a small strategy development which is growing bigger and bigger and should not be marginalized as we head to 2011.
It is the screen pass. Something that the Cowboys almost completely ripped out of the playbook for many years, as the rest of the NFL found it to be one of the great counter punches to complex blitz packages. Yes, the Cowboys would employ it from time to time, but it was really used mostly as a concession on 3rd and long rather than a point of attack option.
That has really changed in 2010 and the the players involved when it really got clicking were Jon Kitna and Felix Jones.
First, a few emails on the topic:
I'd like to see a break down regarding the Cowboys offense inability to run a traditional screen play. We see other teams flawlessly execute the tackle and guard blocking for a running back that has caught a ball in the flat, but our team resorts to quick passes to WR's and throws to RB's who are out in space with few, if any, blockers in front.
My presumption is that the Cowboys offensive line is not fast enough or athletic enough to get into position; however, with Free and Smith playing tackle (left or right), the Cowboys should have an injection of athleticism and youth along the o-line.
The guards will likely be unchanged.
And then this one is another on the development of the screen pass:
I really like the screen pass to Felix. It helps slow down the other team's rush, plus it gets Felix out in space, where he is best, and gives him a chance to make a big play.
For this project, I have pulled 5 of the best screen plays in 2011. They started running these almost from the start of 2010, but for whatever reason - and Kyle Kosier's health may be a big reason - they did not get good at doing them until October. There was one particular screen called in Houston that was going to be a major gain until it was called back for an unnecessary penalty down field to Miles Austin.
In Minnesota, a few weeks later, the Cowboys actually called about 17 passes that could be termed either screen passes or quick outs or swing passes.
In fact, Jared Allen even talked about it after the Vikings win: "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."
Now, there is a real distinction we should draw between the Vikings game-plan and the point of this exercise. The difference is that the Cowboys called those screens that day because they knew they were not able to pass protect straight up against the Vikings after that playoff demolition and the beating the Titans put on their OL the week before. They called screens to keep Tony Romo upright (which lasted only 1 more week before he was gone for the year). The OL was beyond putrid in September and October last season ** and only when things started normalizing in November could the Cowboys run much of an offense. Even then, it was with 1 hand tied behind their back (injured QB and less than a proper OL) and this is why Tyron Smith and a Free Agent Guard were heavily recommended in this offseason. You can have all of the skill players and fantasy football stars you want, but if you can't call half of your playbook for fear of getting your QB killed, then the rest of that doesn't matter.
** =I highly recommend you spend $40 at NFL.com and get the NFL Game Rewind. This allows you to watch in High Definition every play of every game in the league if your heart desires. You can scout Michael Huff or Eric Weddle, or you can review some of the Cowboys action last year. If you are the least bit fuzzy about the performance level of the OL at the end of the Wade Phillips era, you owe it to yourself to refresh that memory...And it helps you beat the lockout with games that you have never seen to fill your NFL void.
But, as 2010 developed, we saw Jason Garrett figure some things out offensively. He seemed to really speak out about the OL's need for more physical play. He would regularly discuss the desire that they pick up the pace and get more physical and basically challenged them publicly to do their job. Also, Garrett was messing with ways to get Felix Jones more involved. That seemed to lead right to the premise of working the screen into more and more spots in the game plan - not just the 3rd and long concession play (which can be interchanged with the draw as two plays that on 3rd and 12 are obviously there to get a few more yards for your punter and get off the field in one piece).
Rather, if the screen could be used as an offensive weapon and a play that you couldn't wait to spring on an opponent who is trying to put to many players between the tackles, now you have something to work with. It is a wonderful counter to the blitz and to pass pressure because obviously you have open space to combine with a player like Felix. It works best (and sometimes only) against man-to-man coverage in the secondary. In zone, the defenders are facing the QB and the play, so they are always there to read and react to a screen pass. What works best in the screen against the Giants in Week 9 was that the Giants were in man coverage and so when Felix broke through the initial defenders, the DBs had no idea what was happening because they had their backs turned.
And, we should assume that this is the type of play DeMarco Murray was drafted for. He is best known for his absurd pass reception totals at Oklahoma, and it seems rather clear that the Cowboys wish to put more pressure on your LBs and DBs by getting their runners into the open field whenever possible. And what does this help? Pass protection. Because the more your defense is worried about plays like these, the less you can send the house at Tony Romo.
Keep in mind the anatomy of a screen play. It involves your tackles doing what they always do in pass protection, but your interior men (LG-C-RG) starting the play as if it is pass, but then releasing the rushers to the QB and getting down into position ahead of the receiver (Jones). Usually, the LG will go and pick off the man assigned to Felix Jones, and the Center and Right Guard now form a convoy to pick up what emerges in the path of the play. A beautiful screen is awesome to behold. A poorly run screen can be demoralizing.
Let's look at these 5 screens. I have included my descriptions from the Decoding Garrett series from last fall on each play:
The Play:3Q - 3/10/29 - "S11" - Screen to Felix +71 TD
What Happened: Here is one of the "S11" snaps from the game in a 3rd and long situation. On 3rd and 10, the Giants are looking at all of the Cowboys targets and are going to play with a safety over each pair with their Dime Personnel. That means 3 DBs on the side of Miles and Witten (up top), and 3 DBs on the top of Miles and Dez. That leaves 5 defenders to get to Kitna and account for Felix. Oh, yes, Felix. Forgot about Felix. The Cowboys set this up wonderfully by selling a screen to the right side and then the screen to the left. Watch the middle of the OL release the pass rushers to Kitna and then get to the left flat to form a convoy. By the time the Giants see what happened, Felix has put it in overdrive. I am pretty sure that the Giants wanted their safety 26-Rolle to help in coverage and watch Felix, but that is asking too much. Troy Aikman thinks maybe Tuck should have Felix, but that seems like a rather unlikely matchup to me. Regardless, Felix does still appear to have his burst.
The Play:4Q - 2/17/27 - "21" - Sceen to Jones +25
What Happened:"21" personnel on 2nd and 17 and the Cowboys want a screen left for Felix again. This one doesn't go for 71 yards, but it does get you another 1st Down as you now are trying to kill the game in a 4 minute drill setting. How close is Kyle Kosier to a penalty here with a block in the block on Louis Delmas? Very close. Leonard Davis moving forward on a rail is still a powerful man, and the play works because everyone gets a piece of someone. This shows the margin for error in this league. Delmas is an inch from blowing the play up, but he doesn't, so the Cowboys get a huge play here on a screen pass that is becoming a rather common big play now for the Cowboys with Felix in space. What a concept, right?
The Play: 2Q - 2/10/40 - "S11" - Screen to Jones +28
What Happened: What are we seeing more and more of as the season progresses? Felix Jones screen plays. They can be run best with "11" personnel in and then the Cowboys make you make a tough decision as a defense. This time, they line Witten and 2 WRs to the right. The Saints are manning up on their defense, so when all 3 of those targets get off the line of scrimmage and into their routes, we see a clear-out of that side of the field. Once the screen is executed quickly, now Felix is in space and his speed does the rest for a quick +28 yards. This is great design and a reason we are hopeful that Garrett has creative ideas to utilize Felix more. Obviously, he isn't a traditional back, and so you must figure out how to use his strengths more and more. The screens seem to be the answer.
The Play:3Q - 1/10/37 - "21" - Screen Pass to Jones +35
What Happened: Now, a weekly staple of this feature, we look at the Felix Jones screen pass project. It seems that twice a half, the Cowboys are attempting to run this play where Felix gets in space. Obviously, a change-up works best when you are locating your fastball, right? Well, screens work best when your running game is keeping everyone honest. Otherwise, they sit on the screen pass over and over and make this play difficult to pull off. But, after trying it 3 other times, they spring this one nicely as Kosier gets his man, and then Felix is off to the races. He is very good at this, but the defenses are starting to see that this is his best play in the entire offense, so they are spending all week to figure out how to keep the Felix screen from happening. Great job by everyone getting in the lanes here, but I do think it is a fascinating cat-and-mouse game between the two coaches to get this just right. For Felix to be a complete player, he needs a fastball, so that his changeup becomes more effective.
The Play:1Q - 2/10/W35 - "21" - Screen to Felix +15
What Happened: Regular personnel for the Cowboys - which is "21" - and here we see our weekly feature known as "Felix Jones Screen Plays". Another clear attribute of the 2nd half of 2010 is when the Cowboys finally figured out how to execute a screen pass. It is not easy, because the more you do it, the more the defense sits on it and doesn't believe you are really going to do anything else. So, the LBs key on Felix and the second he tries to sneak out to a flank, the LBs are in hot pursuit. And that is when you know you are getting good. Watch the Redskins sit on this play by cheating out to Felix, but the Cowboys get this blocked to a decent level, and then it is Felix in space using his ability to make guys miss. He doesn't hit on all of these, but he hits on at least 1 a game and it is becoming a real weapon.
After looking at all of these plays again, here are a couple observations.
1) - It is clear that you must have a RB with a burst. There are very small windows to run through and they close very fast. Felix Jones and maybe DeMarco Murray will be able to find openings where Marion Barber would not have the burst to do so. This play has to have perfect timing, and for whatever reason, after years in hibernation, the Cowboys with Kitna and Jones showed they could run this week after week.
2) - Kyle Kosier is a key player in many of these plays. The more I review 2010, the more I want to re-sign Kosier. He is exceptional in space and is capable of leading this play where Leonard Davis cannot get out there fast enough for the first block. Sometimes, Davis can get in front of the play, but that first block - usually needed behind the line of scrimmage out on the edge at the precise moment that Felix catches and cuts - is a block only Kosier can pull off it seems. There is no question that his health issues (the 3 week absence that seems like a regular happening every season) are disconcerting, but when he plays, he plays very well.
3) - The Cowboys seem to run this screen to the weakside more (away from the TE and away from the majority of the WRs) and to the left more (Kosier factor). Although, we do see it working to the right on occasion and into the strength of the formation as well.
Again, this is not the meat and potatoes of any offense. Of 65 plays, you would only use this twice. But, as we look ahead and as we try to understand why the Cowboys felt Murray was a worthy use of pick #71, we do see that Jason Garrett sees this as a valuable tool moving forward.