Wednesday, August 08, 2012

11 for '11 - #10: Lost in the Lights

The Following is the 10th in an 11-part weekly series throughout the summer that will focus on the eleven plays that shaped 2011 for the Dallas Cowboys. Every game, about 130 actual plays happen and over the course of a season that number can exceed 2,000. But, we have selected 11 and will pick one each week and break it down from standpoint of "X's and O's" and see what we can learn looking back. The plays are not ranked, simply presented as the season unfolded. We hope you enjoy.

All plays are certainly not created equal.

They are not the same and should not be treated as such. And, if you were to rank every play of the 2011 Dallas Cowboys season based on their level of importance to the outcome of the year, I would submit to you that the #1 play of the year is the one we are about to breakdown.

It is a play that has been discussed since it happened. In doing so, both the quarterback and the wide receiver have been blamed and accepted blame. They both know they could have done better not this particular play, but nothing that can be said can bring the moment back.

The fact is, on this 3rd down and 5 opportunity in Week 14 of the 2011 season, the entire league was altered by one throw that fell to the turf at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. The butterfly effect of this play going differently - a pass thrown a bit shorter or a receiver that spots the pass a moment sooner - then the entire 2012 NFL season has a different champion and a different NFC East representative in the playoffs.

So, despite the fact that this play has been studied in depth quite a few different times since December 12, 2011, let's look at it again from a purely Xs and Os perspective and see what we can see.

As you will recall, this was a back and forth battle between two teams playing a desperate game. Neither defense seemed particularly up for the challenge of stopping the other's offense, but in particular, Eli Manning was having his way with the Cowboys secondary all day long. This was a game where Eli Manning dropped back to pass nearly 50 times and was hardly touched all night long. It was a frustrating exercise in trying to bring pressure, but the more you brought, the more you exposed your undermanned secondary that was surely not up to the task of staying with their men.

However, as the game went to the 4th Quarter, the Cowboys started taking over. Tony Romo hit Miles Austin for a touchdown to give them a 27-22 lead. Then, Sean Lee intercepted a pass DeMarcus Ware deflected and within a few moments, Romo hit Dez Bryant for what appeared to be the dagger touchdown with 5 minutes to play, 34-22.

From that point on, the only way the Giants would be able to win is if they had 4 scenarios ALL go in their favor. They would need to score touchdowns on both possessions and the Cowboys would have to get nothing on both of their possessions. Through a series of events, that is exactly what happened, including the best player on the field, Jason Pierre-Paul capping off a night that will be long remembered by blocking a Dan Bailey 47-yard field goal attempt that made it two straight weeks where Dallas had a field goal that could have won the game end up not being converted.

The Giants scored on their first possession to cut the score to 34-29. So, with 3:14 left to play in the game, this was a perfect example of why teams practice what is known in the football community as the "4 minute drill". The 4 minute drill is nothing like the 2 minute drill in which you are trying to run a "hurry up" offense to score as quick as you can. The 4 minute drill is quite the opposite. It supposes that you have a lead and are simply trying to kill the clock. In most situations, the thought that 2 first downs will win the game is there, assuming the opposition has a full compliment of timeouts. Basically, you must run the ball when the opponent knows you are running, and you move the chains and win the game. Every team needs this ability to run a 4 minute drill a few times a year.

Here, the Giants had 2 timeouts. 3:14 to go. On 1st Down, Felix Jones found 5 yards. Clock runs down to 2:30, when on 2nd Down, the Cowboys try a zone running play to the right, but Felix attempts the backside cut to find more space. Trouble is, the backside is where Pierre-Paul awaits and only Tony Fiammetta to deal with him. That did not go very well, as Pierre-Paul tossed the fullback to the side at the same time Chris Canty overpowered Montrae Holland and the play went for no gain. The Giants called their 2nd timeout, leading us to this particular moment.

The Play: 3rd and 5, 2:25 to go. Ball is at the Cowboys 25 yard line. Dallas has "11 personnel" (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) and are in the Shotgun. This is their basic 3rd Down look in almost all situations that are not 3rd and short. The Cowboys are lined up 3x1 with 3 targets to Romo's right with Witten next to RT, Austin in the slot, and Robinson out wide. Bryant is wide on the left by himself. Felix Jones is to Romo's left, which would indicate he is ready to help on JPP if necessary.

In Picture #1, we see the routes the Cowboys have called. Double slants to both outside receivers which is rather standard on 3rd and 5. These can often be easy conversions if run properly. The tight end Witten will drag across the field in another high percentage opportunity to move the chains and get the game down to its end. The lowest percentage route is basically a "go" to Austin, but it is also the pass with the largest reward because Aaron Ross has no help over the top which we will cover in a moment.


Also, if you look up at Picture #1, you will notice the Giants pre snap posture. They are not being mysterious about their intentions. They don't buy the premise that the Cowboys will go deep on them. They know the score and the situation and realize that conservative football 101 calls for a draw play or a very high percentage pass. They want to make that more uncomfortable and Perry Fewell calls a play that will attempt to blow that idea up. The Giants are bringing the house. This will kill any running play and if they do try a quick pass, they are going to press cover everyone and make sure the windows are very tight for Romo to attempt to find.

Below, in Picture #2, you can see that when the Giants bring both safeties, there is no way for the Cowboys to block everyone. A simple truth of football is that the defense can always bring more than you can block if they so choose. And the Giants did so choose. Circled is the unblocked man, safety 26-Antrel Rolle. He will get to Romo in very short order, so the QB knows that he is facing press man and must get the ball out quickly. He has very little time altogether. Also, when looking at this picture, it is tough not to notice that both slants look like they have inside leverage and might be inviting targets at the moment Romo is looking at Austin. But, it happens so fast that Romo quite likely made his mind up before the ball was snapped.

Picture #2

This picture clearly verifies what Romo saw. He saw Austin beat Aaron Ross with amazing ease and is on his way against a "Cover 0" blitz. Cover 0 simply means there is no safety in the deep center of the field and any completion could go all the way unless the cover man is in a position to make the tackle and Ross clearly isn't. Austin is about 3 yards behind his man and you can imagine everyone up in the Cowboys coaching booth believes they just won the game and likely the division. A good throw is a touchdown. An under thrown ball is a sure pass interference as Ross has no idea where the ball is. The only thing that can't happen is an over throw.

Picture #3

Let's go back and look at the protection scheme and see that the Giants are bring everyone. That doesn't necessarily mean they are bringing 8, because the Giants don't know the intentions of Witten and Felix. But, they will bring 8 if they both stay in, 7 if one goes out, and 6 if both release into routes. Basically, their plan is to bring more than you can block.

Picture #4

In Picture #5, you can see the protection is to slide right for everyone on the OL but Free. Free stays with JPP and then Felix Jones is responsible for the inside blitz man. This is a bit counter to what is normally taught as you don't want a free man coming from the inside, but I am quite sure the Cowboys told Free to stay with #90 after the chaos he had been causing. You certainly don't want Felix to try to deal with Pierre Paul. So, Jones gets the inside, but the Giants ran 2 guys at that B-gap, and Felix tries to get the closer threat, 57-Williams. That leaves Rolle unaccounted for and Romo has to know that and adjust accordingly. This frame also shows us that Witten appears to have leverage on his man as well. Perhaps difficult to see and a huge gamble throw for Romo because if Rolle is only bluffing a blitz, then he would be sitting on Witten's route for an easy pick (like he did in Week 17 in New York on a similar play).

Picture #5

I believe Picture #6 is the indigestion shot. You see how far behind Ross that Austin is. You see how this should be one of the easiest passes to make under normal circumstances. Of course, there is nothing normal about knowing you are about to get hit by a blitz that is unblocked on a 3rd down late in a great game with all of the marbles on the line. But, that is what the job is for Tony Romo and that is why I am sure this play has stuck with him all year. We will consider Austin's poor path in a moment, but clearly, it would be extreme homerism to not suggest this ball could have been thrown with a better distance on it. He simply put too much on the throw and missed the proverbial short putt.

Picture #6

Picture #7 is just a fraction of a second after Picture #6, but it does show the odd path Austin takes. He is fading to the sideline when there is no reason to do so. Normally, the flight of the ball would determine his path, but the ball will clearly hit next to the numbers on the field while Austin is floating laterally on this play as if the ball will lead him outside. Speculation and interviews have indicated that the ball was lost in the lights and he was guessing the ball was taking an outside path, but for reasons that are unclear and fuzzy, the precision of Austin's path the ball leaves you wanting as well. The ball lands near his feet and there was really no play on the ball in terms of diving or even outstretching. The look on Romo's face and on Austin's face after the play seems to indicate that the ball was delivered in a reasonably catchable spot. Not perfect as it was overthrown, but if Austin sees it, the game is likely over.

Picture #7

And then, the moment captured on TV, where Austin, as he is running off the field, studies the roof of the $1.2 billion dollar stadium that had betrayed him.

Picture #8

It is a play that will go down in the history books as one that got away. The Giants gambled big and were burned badly. But, the Cowboys best players let them off the hook with a poorly timed misfire. You can see the entire play by clicking here and make up your own mind on the blame game. But, no matter what you come up with, it will not make you feel any better. The Giants have a Super Bowl trophy because the Cowboys let them off the hook on this single play. The Giants have other plays in the "play of the year" category as they tell the story differently, but any Cowboys fan knows that it all should have been different.

11 for '11 series Previous Plays :

1. The Revis Interception
2. The Home Run to Holley
3. 3rd And 21 to Dez
4. Megatron's Dominating TD
5. DeMarco Murray's 91 yard Run
6. Eagles Zone Counter Trap
7. Romo's Improv Bomb To Witten
8. Romo's Throw of the Year
9. The Hyphen Screen

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