Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Every week, I want to take some looks at the X's and O's of a crucial sequence in the past Cowboys game. By now, everybody knows what happened, but let's visit about WHY it happened.
Today, I want to take a look at the portion of the game that decided the game but is being largely ignored beneath the spotlight of Garrett/Romo/playcalling talk in Dallas. The final New England drive is our focus and I will attempt to dissect it from a standpoint of how the Cowboys approached each play and if we can find out if they could have attempted anything different or how they might have forced a better outcome.
Click on the picture above to see the video of the final drive.
1/10/20 New England in S12, Dallas in nickel
On 1st Down, Brady is in shotgun and releases the ball in 1.7 seconds. The Cowboys blitz 5 – with Lee and Brooking coming, and Spencer falling into coverage - but are unable to get there in that short amount of time and Brady has options open in each flat. On the left, he has Wes Welker wide open at the 23 yard line as Deion Branch has freed Welker with a bit of a pick play and Orlando Scandrick is a full 5 yards off of him. Instead, Brady elects to go to Aaron Hernandez who is being played “off and soft” man coverage by Terence Newman. Hernandez catches the ball at the 25, but by the time Newman is able to get him to the ground, he has run for a 16 yard gain. It seems to appear Spencer should have been in the passing lane and he seems a bit confused at first about where he is supposed to be. 16 yard gain in just a few short seconds.
The 2nd play in hurry-up keeps all the personnel identical. This time, Rob Ryan sends 4 players at Brady, but all are attacking single-team matchups from left tackle to right guard. In fact, Ryan tries a rush where DeMarcus Ware is against LT Matt Light and Spencer takes on LG Logan Mankins. Spencer beats Mankins with no problem whatsoever. But, again, Brady gets rid of the ball as Spencer reaches him at 1.8 seconds, and he fires an easy (for him) completion. This time he finds his other Tight End, Rob Gronkowski, matched up in shallow coverage by Sean Lee. Lee has had a tremendous year, but this is his toughest assignment – coverage with tight ends in space. A simple 5 yards square out pattern turns into an 11-yard gain as Gronkowski runs a precise route and is hit with a perfect throw under duress. Yet another 1st down and the clock stops at 2:02.
This extra play right before the 2-minute warning is another exercise in taking advantage of soft corners. Brady sees the Cowboys in a zone and gets the ball quickly to Welker on the left edge. Frank Walker and Mike Jenkins close quickly, but an easy 5 yard gain on 1st down takes the Patriots to the 2 minute warning. On this play, Abram Elam is going to come on a safety blitz to try and get pressure. However, Brady gets rid of the ball in 0.5 seconds and there is no pressure scheme in the world that has a chance in that scenario.
On the 1st play out of the 2-min warning, Dallas is able to change personnel and get reorganized. They are facing the same 11 from the Patriots with Branch, Welker, Woodhead (at RB), Hernandez, and Gronkowski. This time the Cowboys attempt a fire-zone blitz approach where they still send 4, but Ware drops into coverage on the TE in the left flat and Butler, Spencer, Lee, and Ratliff try to get to Brady. Again, that seems to be an exercise in futility. Brady does hold the ball for 2.0 seconds, but in that time, he finds his man – Wes Welker – who has wiggled open from the right slot. Scandrick is in tight press coverage with Sensabaugh helping over the top, but the precision of the throw and route again make this a rather simple conversion for New England. Welker is pushed out of bounds on the right sideline at the 38 and Scandrick looks annoyed at Sensabaugh. It is difficult to speculate what he is mad about because safety help would generally not apply to a simple 5-yard out pattern. However, the touchdown play later shows Sensabaugh closing on the out so it seems plausible that Scandrick is right. 1st Down again, and with 1:52 left, the Patriots actually realize they are driving too quickly.
For the 3rd time in 5 plays, Ryan sends a blitz. This is one of his more exotic types and if there is a play in this sequence that will trouble the Cowboys in the film room, I imagine it is this one. The Cowboys blitz both DBs from Brady’s right (Scandrick and Elam) along with Ware, Ratliff, and Lee. However, on this play, Lee even bails once he occupies his lineman for a second and takes Brian Waters attention. Waters does a great job of finding Scandrick after Lee bails out and picks up the blitzer that was about to nail Brady. That was a potential game-saving play by the new Patriots Right Guard because Scandrick had a chance to blindside Brady and perhaps free the ball. Instead, Waters gets Scandrick, and Brady, after holding the ball for 3.3 seconds, wiggles free to find Whitehead in the flat for 8 yards. A very frustrating play for the Cowboys because it was a great design and it did confuse the Patriots. They were just quick enough to sort through it. I do wonder if Lee keeps occupying Waters if Scandrick gets there, but Ryan wanted sound coverage underneath so he had Lee back out to the shallow middle to hopefully defend a dump off. It just didn’t work.
The Cowboys play this 2nd and short completely straight up. They rush the 4 and have the corners in press coverage. Brady knows that when this happens he is looking to his slot for Welker, and Welker is putting an inside move on Scandrick who is up on him. Brady throws it at 1.6 seconds and tries to lead Welker. Scandrick is sitting on it and does a nice job of breaking up the pass. With his right arm He is flirting with a flag with his left arm and Welker definitely wants one, but the play falls to incomplete and sets up a 3rd Down and short.
Here, Brady has an automatic with his center where they will attempt to spread the Cowboys out with their look and then if Brady feels he can get there, it will simply be a QB sneak for the 1st Down. Ratliff tried to shoot the A-gap and stop the play, but was unable to get enough of Brady. 1st Down for the Patriots. Matt Light looked like he hurt himself, and somehow Brady’s sneak is credited for 3 yards to the 27.
This play shows how the Patriots can drive you nuts. Danny Woodhead is 5’8, 195 pounds. His blitz pick-up ability is very minimal, and yet he lines up next to Tom Brady in a place where you normally are thinking in the 2-minute offense that his job is to clean up protection issues and occasionally leak out of the backfield as a target. In New England, they have so much confidence in their ability to get rid of the ball before you can get to the QB, that Woodhead seldom seems to hit anything. But, when you forget about him, he finds a spot and makes you pay. Also, what LB is going to be able to bring him down in space with 5 yards between them? Not very many. Brady hits him at 2.2 seconds, and Woodhead simply runs down the middle fo the field to the 14 before Lee and Scandrick wrestle him down. That play works even better if they catch the Cowboys in a blitz, but Dallas sent just 4. And it still sliced them for 13 important yards. Brady has 5 options and he uses them all.
Now, the Cowboys are chasing their tail and the Patriots smell blood. The clock is running down and Ryan backs off and drops 8 while rushing just 3. No problems here as Brady hits Welker inside down to the 8 against Scandrick in a play that was the same route that Scandrick broke up 3 plays ago. 2.2 seconds for Brady to release the ball again. Timeout New England. The announcers invoke terms like “Vintage Brady” and “Joe Montana-like”.
And now, the kill shot. Ryan tries something that has worked for him in the past against Brady and Drew Brees. Rush 2, drop 9. Require a perfect throw against heavy coverage to concede a Touchdown. Ryan is thinking he just needs to get 2 stops and he can at least force overtime. Well, Brady puts 2 TEs to the left and 2 WRs to the right. The Cowboys drop 9 in a zone underneath where the idea is to get Bradie James, Jay Ratliff, and Anthony Spencer in passing lanes. Brady throws the ball at 2.8 seconds with all kinds of time. Ratliff leaps to try to knock down the ball, but misses as Brady threads the needle and puts the ball in a perfect spot to Aaron Hernandez in the back of the end zone. The coverage by Mike Jenkins was solid and it sure looked like he had a chance to knock the ball down. Another look at the play shows that Brady wanted Gronkowski as the primary in another 5 yard out against Sean Lee. But, Sensabaugh was double teaming that route, so Brady simply reads the safety and threw the other direction. Hernandez was not open, but a big-time throw made that fact irrelevant. 0:22 left and the Patriots took the lead and the win.
10 plays, 80 yards, 2:09.
A masterpiece where you see the strength of New England on full display. In the end, the Cowboys had a chance at a sack twice that they barely missed, but otherwise, when Brady is that pinpoint, the only thing you can do is not put him in that position.