Wednesday, August 29, 2012

11 for '11 - #11: Newman's Last Night

The Following is the 11th and final entry 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.

When the season comes down to one night, you wish there was just one play that stuck in your mind 9 months later. Unfortunately, this scenario has unfolded a few times in the last several years - Week 17 match-ups involving a divisional opponent on the road for all of the marbles - and neither of them turned out particularly well. This 2011 finale was not nearly as bad a trouncing as the 2008 affair in Philadelphia, but in a match-up where it is win or go home, well, the Cowboys went home on both occasions.

Unlike the play in the home match-up against the Giants that jumped off the page, this game was a series of frustrations. And unfortunately, to many fans of the Dallas Cowboys, this will be the game that will summarize the end of the Terence Newman tenure in Dallas.

Newman, the 5th pick of the 2003 NFL Draft, was a reasonably solid cornerback for the Cowboys for most of his years in town. Trouble is, he was always paid as the best corners in the NFL with a 6 year/$18m entry contract and then a 6/$50m extension signed in 2008. He did not see the final 3 years and $21m on that 2nd deal, but still made nearly $50 million as a Cowboy.

And as a player who was older than most when he was drafted (he was 25 years old when he played his 1st game in the NFL) and his speed started to diminish causing the horrible cycle of one's demise. First the wheels go, then the confidence goes to compensate for the wheels. From there, it is all "off and soft" coverage. And when the confidence goes in the NFL, it is all but over - especially on a squad that doesn't have safeties who can bail you out or offer much support nor a pass rush that can prop you up. And the Cowboys of 2010 and 2011 were not getting much safety play to say the least and too little pressure without a blitz.

So, here is one game to win the division. December has fallen apart, but with a key gut-check win in New York, all will be forgiven and the Cowboys will host a playoff game in 1 week's time.

From the moment the game began, it was pretty clear that the offensive line of the Cowboys was overmatched. Not that injuries were the only reason, but Montrae Holland did not play forcing Derrick Dockery into duty and then Kyle Kosier left with injury pushing Kevin Kowalski into the game, too. It was condition critical from the opening kick for the OL to hold off a Giants DL that got 6 sacks, but looked likely to get 6 more.

If the team was going to be able to compete, the defense would have to win the game. And they were not only beaten, they were demoralized. And Newman was on top of the list of Cowboys' suspects all night long.

Moments before the most memorable play, the Cowboys had the Giants pinned in deep at their own 5 yard-line facing a 3rd Down and 9 yards to go. The Giants were willing to concede a punt and were simply dumping a ball to Bear Pascoe in the flat to get a few more yards for the punter. Instead, with Newman meeting Pascoe 5 yards in front of the marker, Newman bailed out and went low for the legs of the plodding tight end. Pascoe, to the delight of the crowd hurdled Newman and ran easily for the 1st Down. Later in the half, fullback Henry Hynoski would also want a 1st Down more than Newman would want to stop him. Was Newman hurt? Most likely. It seemed that Newman was always dealing with some injury and it often hurt his play.

But, for whatever reason, the Giants 2 least athletic skill position players on their offense took turns beating Newman on a crucial play on their first 3 Touchdown scoring drives of a game they led 21-0. But, the play in the middle of those two demoralizing moments was the one that many of you can see in your sleep. It is Newman getting beat for 75 yards by Victor Cruz for a rather easy Touchdown that opened the floodgates.

The Play: 3-1-N26 (5:11) (Shotgun) E.Manning pass short left to V.Cruz for 74 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

Personnel: It is worth noting that on 3rd and 1, the Giants remain in "12" personnel (1RB, 2TE, 2WR) rather than switching to the normal 3rd down personnel package for most teams which is "11" (1RB, 1TE, 3WR). THe explanation is because it is 3rd and short, but the result keeps the Cowboys in a base personnel package rather than switching to nickel by replacing a LB with an extra corner.

So, the Giants put on "12" personnel, the Cowboys leave just 4 DBs on the field, preparing for a 3rd and short run. Then the Giants do what is constantly done in this chess game of the NFL - they spread you out by deploying a TE, Travis Beckum wide right against the Cowboys safety Abram Elam. Then, they put both WRs to the left, making both Cowboys' corners man-up with Hakeem Nicks (Mike Jenkins) and Victor Cruz (Terence Newman). This means Newman is left to play the slot - Something that makes him extremely uncomfortable against a player like Cruz who feeds off the slot game. Just to be clear, if the Giants moved to customary "11" personnel in this spot, they know that the Cowboys would have Scandrick on Cruz. The Giants didn't want that. So that is why they used formation and not personnel to get the match-up they wanted.

Let's look at the routes the Giants have on for this 3rd Down. It is pretty clear that their objective is simply to move the chains, not look for a big play. But, this might be one of the many cases where people (including high-ranking people inside Valley Ranch) accuse Rob Ryan of getting too cute. If a exotic defensive idea works and Eli throws an easy interception, it is a brilliant call. But, if it leads to a play that starts an avalanche, then your DC got too cute.

The Giants want Beckum to run a slant, Cruz in the slot to run a short out to the chains, and Nicks wide left to run a 10 yard stop. Very basic stuff.


Here is the Cowboys pre-snap plan. They are showing a single-high safety in a Cover 1 posture. But, their plan is to show that and then do something completely different. The Cowboys plan is to have Sean Lee jump Beckum's slant and for Sensabaugh to charge up the field and blow up a slant to Cruz. They want Newman to play outside leverage (line up over the receiver's outside shoulder, forcing him to want to run inside) which will force Cruz to option to an inside route (likely the slant). When this happens, the Cowboys will have 2 men on each quick route that Eli is likely to throw and the Cowboys should be in a position to blow either up.

Picture #2

At the snap in Picture #3, we already see that Newman lost leverage. Newman doesn't get lined up quick enough and Cruz crosses his face on the route with ease to the outside, and now Sensabaugh's gamble leaves him up the field with nobody to defend. Meanwhile, if any pass is completed, the Cowboys have no safeties deep. They are essentially playing a Cover 0, which means that the slightest completion can go for a Touchdown if the first tackle is broken.

Picture #3

Picture #4 shows us how badly Newman lost leverage, as now Cruz has a step on him to the sideline. Eli sees this develop and makes a quick read to Cruz past the 1st Down marker. The Giants left both a RB and a TE in to block, so there is no pressure whatsoever with 7-man protection.

Picture #4

Here is the presnap from the endzone in Picture #5. You see the Cowboys have the 3-4 base defensive look, but they are dropping Lee into Beckum's slant and Ware is not really rushing, but rather playing off the edge receiver and if he stays in to protect, Ware rushes, but if he releases, #94 must go with him. But, also look at Sensabaugh. If this is an ambush, he sprung it too early. His depth of 10 yards indicates to Eli and Cruz that something is up. He must be blitzing, because his normal depth is much deeper than that. In a world where Cruz has option routes all day (where his route is determined by his read of the coverage), it would be easy for the QB and WR to be on the same page and know how to counter this defensive look. From there, if Newman is not cheating to the sideline with outside leverage, then the Giants have a distinct advantage.

Picture #5

Picture #6 shows us the precise moment where Eli is throwing the ball. Look how out of position this play has left Sensabaugh. There is nobody behind him and he is in full sprint to try to catch the play. But, if Cruz has a 5 yard advantage on Sensabaugh and a 2 yard advantage on Newman, neither of those players are going to catch him.

Picture #6

Now the difference between a 4 yard gain and a 74 yard Touchdown is the roll of Hakeem Nicks. Nicks has Jenkins on the outside and once the 1st Down is gained, if Cruz can stay in bounds and turn it up field, Nicks might be able to spring him. He has a choice to either put a "ear-hole" shot on Newman or simply stay with Jenkins as sort of a basketball pick. He chooses to stay with Jenkins and box him out and Cruz is so fast that he just continues north and nobody came close to catching him.

Picture #7

Simply too easy the rest of the way.

Picture #8

Video of the Play

The summary is this: The Cowboys schemed themselves into a bad spot here. They perhaps were frustrated because a few snaps earlier, they had the Giants pinned in deep and Newman was abused by Pascoe. Then, Ryan rolled the dice with a very risky decision to basically go Cover 0 on 3rd and 1. Was that impatience and frustration talking? If Scandrick is on Cruz, does the same thing happen?

Clearly, this game demonstrated why Newman was overdue to be replaced. He was making premium dollars and was a liability in coverage in the biggest game of the season. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne were major investments and the genesis of those expenditures can be traced back to games like this one.

The team ended the year with a 8-8 record and a trail of tears that were both frustrating and inspired an offseason of moves to try to get the mix correct.

In 7 days, we will see how that has worked.

To review any of the 11 for '11 series, click on the links below:

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
10. Lost in the Lights

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