Thursday, December 29, 2011

X's and O's Breakdown - The Twist Stunt

According to NFL Statistics, the Dallas Cowboys are right about at the league average when it comes to preventing sacks. This season, the Cowboys have allowed 33 sacks on their QB, with the league average being 35 for the season. As a point of reference, Buffalo and Tennessee lead the league with just 21 sacks against, and St Louis and Arizona are the league worst, allowing their poor QBs to be sacked 52 times each. It has not been fun to be Sam Bradford.

But, there are so many reasons to ignore this statistic as a rule. I hear people all the time trying to suggest the Cowboys are a strong team in pass protection because they don't allow that many sacks. But that doesn't account for many items that cause sacks allowed to be misleading.

Such as, how many sacks is the QB saving with his mobility? How many 3 and 5 step drops are being called by offensive coordinator because he doesn't trust protection? How many RBs and TEs are staying in to help out OL because of fear of the OL's ability to be able to hold the pocket?

None of these considerations are found when we discuss sack totals, but all of them affect the number. If the object of the game is to prevent sacks, it would be easy for a coach to avoid almost all of them. But, the object of the game is to score as many points as possible, and that can usually only be done by risking your QB on occasion. Max protection can often keep your QB clean, but it dramatically reduces the chances for your receivers to cause coverage issues for the defense. Only 2 players in route? Way to easy to bracket with corners and safeties over the top. A truly difficult offense to handle has 4-5 targets out in route on most passing plays. They spread you out, invite a blitz, and then burn you quickly.

Which brings us to our breakdown from the Philadelphia game - a play that on the official game sheet reads like this, "(9:57) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass incomplete short middle to M.Austin [J.Babin]. Pass incomplete on crossing pattern; Hughes closest defender at the Philadelphia 45."

That's right. What could have been the most pivotal play of the season for the Dallas Cowboys has almost no statistical bearing whatsoever.

It reminds you of this play from 2010: "(12:20) T.Romo pass short left to M.Austin to NYG 29 for 14 yards (T.Thomas) [M.Boley]. DAL-T.Romo was injured during the play. His return is Questionable. Pass complete on comeback curl.

That, of course, was the play where Tony Romo was lost for the year due to Chris Gronkowski not reading and picking up a blitz from Michael Boley. Romo's collarbone was broken, and 2010 was completely gone down the tubes.

This demonstrates 2 important truths. 1) Sacks only cover a fraction of pass protection and 2) The Season can be rocked from its foundation on any play of the season if you get your QB hit too hard.

Click Here to see full video of this play.

Let's analyze this play from the perspective of the Philadelphia Eagles. First, they realize that Sammy Morris is in charge of blitz pickup on 3rd Downs. This is a far cry from Felix Jones or DeMarco Murray. They have been in Dallas since training camp and getting familiar with all of Dallas' protection concepts since installation. Morris was signed off the street a few weeks ago, and while most running plays are easy for him to comprehend, complex protection situations will be the last to come along.

Next, the Eagles surely have studied how Arizona sacked Tony Romo 5 times. Those sacks came off multiple attacks of Phil Costa and the interior of the Dallas OL. Not necessarily his anchor issues (which are substantial), but rather his awareness and ability to see something in pre-snap, but then adjust at the last second to an ambush blitz. Stunts and blitzes are starting to overwhelm him, and the Eagles are smart enough to see that trend and mimic it.

So, look at the picture at the top of the blog. The Eagles are showing Jason Babin-93 out wide of Tyron Smith at RT again in his "wide 9" technique. The possibilities of them taking a player this wide and stunting him all the way to the opposite "A" gap (between Costa and LG Holland) seems so remote and ridiculous that I highly doubt the Cowboys even considered it a concern.

Then, look at the safety 26-Jarrett start deep and then creep to the outside of Babin. This will be the focus of Sammy Morris on blitz pick up, and will occupy all of his attention. Thus, now the Eagles have a 3 on 3 situation. They will take 50-Matthews (MLB) and 98-Patterson (DT) and send them both away from center. Matthews will attack the RG (Kosier) and Patterson will attack the RT (Smith). This occupies them and leaves Babin to swing all the way around their backs. But, he won't dive inside Costa to his right shoulder, because Costa is already headed that way to get Matthews.

Instead, as the 2nd picture clearly reveals, Babin shows his insane athleticism and heads to the left side of Costa. Costa must hear Kosier or Smith call out this stunt and then slide over to Babin. If it is covered correctly, Costa slides to Babin, Kosier slides to Matthews, and Smith still has Patterson.

That same picture shows Kosier is falling backwards, so if Costa does leave Matthews, then Casey will get to Romo, but it won't be with as much speed or size as Babin. Costa has to leave his guy and get the unblocked sack leader. It is highly possible the blame falls to Smith for not calling out what is going on, but you can understand at the NFL game, audio alerts are certainly not fool-proof in loud stadiums.

And now, below, you see the horrible result. How Romo stays relatively healthy after this hit is truly a smile from the football gods.

And there you see the issues involved with pass protection. You tip your cap to the Eagles for finding a concept that gets a free run on Romo, and you try to make sure it doesn't happen again. Trouble is, a few plays later, with McGee in the game, a similar stunt from Trent Cole runs right by Costa and hits McGee in the mouth, too. Teams are attacking the middle with great regularity now that they see it is a tough spot for the Cowboys to defend.

And today, in a dark room, the Giants are looking at this play and taking careful notes.

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