Wednesday, November 02, 2011
Our mission on Wednesday is to pick a vital moment or moments from the game and discuss the strategy and execution of a given play from the standpoint of both teams. Of course, in a blowout of this magnitude, it would be stretching the truth to call any one scenario "vital", but for the Eagles demolition from this past Sunday, let's take a hard look at the play that made the Cowboys' run defense look silly.
For lack of a better term, we will call it the Philadelphia Counter Trap. We will call it that because it is both a counter and a trap. And the Cowboys defense fell for it on pretty much every occasion it was used. In fact, LeSean McCoy now has 2 of the 3 biggest runs against the Cowboys this season, both on the same night, both on the same exact play. The Cowboys will see this play in their sleep.
The entire idea of the play is to test the anchor of the Cowboys defensive ends and to test the patience of the outside line backers. Again, as we saw on DeMarco Murray's 91-yard Touchdown run last week, so much of running the football is not blocking 11 players. Rather, it is blocking a handful and letting the rest take themselves out of the play with over-pursuit or simply getting caught up in traffic. When it works as well as it did for Philadelphia, the defense is offering little to no resistance. And that is what will really disappoint Dallas after seeing this play run several times. I counted 3 different occasions, with the sum total of 65 yards. 21.7 yards per carry is a rather successful average, right?
So, look at the concept on the chalk board. The offensive line tries to move the defensive front to the right with slant blocks. The key will be the left tackle (71-Peters) and his attempts to run the right defensive end for the Cowboys (97-Hatcher) out of the rushing lane. Then, 94-Ware is unaccounted for - or so he believes - until the Tight End (87-Celek) comes all the way across the formation to put a trap block on Ware. If he gets the block, the play is sprung into the secondary. If he misses it, Ware has a wide open shot at the ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage.
One point of context that might help here is to remind people what we know from data on Rob Ryan in his previous stops. Ryan loves to blitz, but he does not love to blitz when the book says to blitz. He has never been a big 3rd and long blitz guy. Percentages say that his defenses blitz as much as almost anyone (except maybe his brother), but while the entire NFL will blitz you on 3rd and 12, he likes to rush 3 or 4 and drop into coverage. Conversely, when the rest of the NFL enjoys playing straight defense on 1st and 2nd downs, Rob loves to send the blitz in hopes of destroying your early down call. But, this is widely known amongst NFL coaches (as they study way more tape than we do) and sometimes they try to kill Rob with his own poison.
This play in the 1st Quarter is the perfect storm. It is 1st and 10 at the Cowboys 36. The Eagles have "11" personnel in the game, so with 3 WRs, the Cowboys counter with a run-nickel defense (5 DBs). This means that the front of the Cowboys is a run front (because it is 1st Down), but they have 1 less MLB in the game and are running a (3-3). Ryan has countless variations and on pass downs will usually roll with a (2-4) where he has two defensive linemen and 4 linebackers as Ware and Spencer can serve as hybrids or jokers (players that can either be rushing or dropping and the QB has to guess at the snap).
Ryan dials up a big blitz. He is sending just about everyone. Elam is blitzing. Brooking is blitzing from the middle. Scandrick is blitzing. It is a classic "send the kitchen sink" blitz from Ryan. In many scenarios, he will get either a sack or a play behind the line of scrimmage because there are so many bodies flying at the line. But, if the Eagles are able to find a hole, there is nobody behind the line to sweep up the mess. And that is exactly what happens here.
When you watch the video here focus in on the left edge of the Eagles' line. Here, we see Jason Peters push Jason Hatcher all over the field. Hatcher's rap at this point of his career is that he cannot play against the run. The last coaching staff seldom let him prove why he has that rap, but Rob Ryan is trusting him to prove his critics wrong. Well, here we see why Hatcher is likey a run-down "5" technique. He cannot hold his anchor and despite starting the play as the right-most DL, he ends the play furthest on the left. That is never good. He has to stand his ground better. A caved in defensive end combined with the blitz means that any play to that side is going to go for a long gain.
Next, we have to focus on Ware vs Celek. DeMarcus Ware is one of the best in the business, but on this play, he has to do better. Elam is on the blitz and has outside contain, so that means when the trap block comes from Celek, Ware has to win to the inside and fill that gaping hole. It is debatable what happens if he gets there, but if he doesn't get to that gap, McCoy is going to run untouched down the middle of the field. Ware cannot let Celek get the seal. But he did. 34 yard gain for the Eagles.
Look at the hole McCoy gets. Any reader would have gained at least 10 here.
In the 3rd Quarter, the Eagles came back to the play again. The Eagles are going with a "12" personnel look (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) and will stack both tight ends outside Peters at Left Tackle.
The down and distance (2nd and 18) puts the Cowboys in their "pass nickel" with 2 DL (Ratliff and Spears) and 4 LBs (Ware, James, Brooking, and Spencer). Keep in mind, that this play that you can see here, is the exact same concept but flipped to the other side.
Now we need to focus on the Eagles RT, 79-Herremans and watch his work. We also see 26-Elam lined up in pre-snap like he is ready to gobble this play up, but he bails at the last second into the "Cover 2" that the Cowboys ran all night with both safeties really deep in the center to prevent big passes over the top - as Philadelphia loves to do.
Herremans, unlike Peters in the 1st Quarter, has no DE to cave in, so when he slants left with the rest of his line, he goes to the 2nd level and gets Bradie James. If you watch the replay a few times, you will see that Keith Brooking does not get blocked. The Eagles have him unaccounted for, but he is too far to his right (as he is respecting the double TEs formation and sitting on a run left; then the entire OL slants left and he is sure that he is right). And that is the genius of a counter play. Everyone takes a step to the wrong side and a player with the quickness of McCoy is gone to daylight.
Again, the block that makes the play is the trap from the TE coming across the formation. This time, 82-Harbour is going to go get 93-Spencer and cut him out of the play. I believe the Cowboys will be disappointed in Spencer not winning that block to the inside again, but beyond that, you see a rather lethargic group of pursuers who clearly want to get out of town down 27-0 to their bitter rivals.
Two snaps later, the Eagles run a variation of the counter trap a 3rd time for 9 more yards.
As we said when we started this piece, this will be talked about at Valley Ranch by Ryan and his staff, but as the NFL works, when opposing coaches see the ease that the Eagles ran the ball down the Cowboys throat, they will design their own plays that both catch the Cowboys in early down blitzes and also test the over-pursuit of the Cowboys' edge rushers like Ware and Spencer. You can believe the Cowboys will see more of this play.