Thursday, November 01, 2012

Xs and Os - Protecting Romo Vs Giants

This morning, for our weekly look inside the Xs and Os of what transpired in the Cowboys game, we use the coaching film to examine the Giants pass rush versus the Cowboys pass protection.

There is a narrative right now that is out there are we look for reasons why Tony Romo is performing so poorly in 2012 that attributes most of it to the fact that he has no time to throw or that he is "running for his life" on each passing play.

While the Cowboys pass protection has not been very good for several years, that can not be confirmed with statistics compared to the rest of the league.  When you have only conceded 13 sacks in 7 games, the NFL is not going to point at your offensive line as a major weak spot.  The worst 3 in the league at suffering sacks are Arizona (39), Green Bay (28), and Chicago (25).  Given that those numbers are double and triple what the Cowboys are allowing, you will not see too many articles written nationally on this topic.  

I personally believe that the OL of the Cowboys has been a weak spot for about 5 straight seasons.  This is a opinion that is sometimes very difficult to confirm with statistics, because - as we have mentioned a number of times - if a play caller desires to avoid sacks, he can do so with play calling and orders to the QB to get the ball out quickly.  

But, it is an issue that is there.    

Our discussion for today is simply to look at Sunday - leave all of our preconceived notions to the side - and see how much the OL might have contributed to what happened.  Were they able to block the big, bad front of the New York Giants, or was Romo running for his life?  In reality, were the linemen to blame for the 5 turnovers the offense committed?  

Let's see.  

1st Quarter - 

9:54 - Romo throws incomplete pass, is hit hard by Canty who defeated Cook on play

9:23 - Romo is intercepted by S Brown on throw intended for Dez Bryant.

Let's look closer at interception #1 here.  They are nearly at midfield and as you can see below, it is 1st and 10 and they are lined up in a run formation.  

This play was an absolute comedy of errors from the get-go, as you see below, the play-action fake is on one side of the hash marks, while the supposed target of that fake, Phillip Tanner is far away from the fake.  I presume that he far more occupied with the oncoming and unaccounted for Osi Umenyiora, but any attempt to fool the linebackers and safeties on the run fake is out the window.

But, this picture below is all I wanted you to see.  This is as perfect a pocket as you are going to get in the NFL most Sundays.  Romo has a wide circle around him and nobody is close to getting to him.  The down side is that only 2 players are in routes, with Tanner about to make 3 in the flat there.  Otherwise, we have 5 Giants rushing and 6 dropping.  That means we have players all around Dez Bryant when Romo makes this throw into coverage and can only blame himself for forcing a ball where it shouldn't be forced.

The worst part of this decision?  We can debate that.  Was it the perfect protection or was it the fact that this is 1st Down?  Both suggest the simple verdict - this is on Romo and regardless of Dez Bryant's route proficiency, this should not be thrown.  He has to know better than this.


5:57 - Romo intercepted by Webster on pass intended for Austin

This is the VERY NEXT THROW of Romo's in the 1st Quarter after the pick down the middle.  I emphasize the idea that it is his next throw because I assume in the time in between, some coach has told him that to take such a chance on 1st Down is needless.  There is nothing wrong with throwing the ball away and taking a shot when someone is open on 2nd down.

But, here we go again.  Another 1st and 10.  Another under center play where the Giants are no doubt looking for a run since Felix has been given the last two snaps.

Again, let's remember the exercise here.  It is not to look at open men or coverages.  It is to ask whether protection led to any of these decisions.  Well, on this play where Austin made a pretty poor effort to keep Corey Webster from another pick, we see that Romo hasn't had this much space to throw since training camp.  Look at this pocket.  It is immaculate.  It is roomy.  He has all kinds of time.  And yet, this play ends in a giveaway.

Again, on this play, protection is not the issue.  And on 1st Down, to throw the ball that looks like a 50/50 ball at best, is just not an efficient chance to take - given the circumstances that you have already needlessly turned the ball over earlier and that this is your first throw since.

2nd Quarter -

13:15 - Romo intercepted by Jason Pierre Paul

On this particular play - an amazing demonstration of athleticism by JPP, there is an issue that you can see below as Nate Living is beaten by Chris Canty.  Canty, who might have played the game of his career is in on Romo pretty quickly and we can debate whether that affected this play.

7:17 - Giants attack both A-Gaps around Cook and chase Romo with hit.

1:55 - Romo is sacked as Jason Pierre Paul destroys Tyron Smith.

This was a situation where the Cowboys were driving for a touchdown, and this play converted that down to a 51-yard FG attempt from Bailey.  There are a few times in Tyron's career where he is just flat out beaten badly.  And this one might be the best example of that in 2012.

As this picture is snapped below, Tyron is actually flying through the air, as Pierre Paul just pushed him away on his path to sacking Romo.  That guy can do things that are just not normal.

3rd Quarter - 

13:26 - Romo complete to Witten

I only notate this play because it was one of about 3 times where Tanner was run over on a blitz pickup.  He doesn't seem very stout against blitzers and I think this does affect Romo because he knows that Tanner cannot stand his ground for very long.

12:01 - Romo sacked by Joseph

This one seemed like a coverage sack more than it did a bust by someone on the offensive line.  My stopwatch said 4.4 seconds, and that is generally a spot where you would suggest the QB has held the ball too long.

0:54 - Romo sacked by Canty

I would consider this the play of the game.  The Cowboys are ahead 24-23, and seconds ago, the defense just generated a takeaway with the Danny McCray interception.  Now, the Cowboys can drive the ball and lay claim to this amazing comeback.  Put together a long drive and the Giants will be in a real pickle.

But, instead, the Giants front run a simple twist and on one play they sack Romo for a 12 yard loss, basically killing the drive.  It was almost as if they shifted into a higher gear and asked the Cowboys offensive line to match it.

As you can see below, Nate Livings is in the horrendous spot of looking backwards at his QB as his man is about to blindside him.  Chris Canty had a good laugh every time Livings thought he would block him 1-on-1 on Sunday.

0:19 -  Play destroyed as Ryan Cook doesn't get a piece of Justin Tuck on a screen play, and Tuck is on Romo before he has the ball, basically.  And the drive ends, leading the Giants to retake the lead and secure it for the balance of the day.

4th Quarter - 

9:34 - Romo complete to Dez Bryant for 4 yards

This is another stunt that troubles Livings and Cook, resulting in Kiwanuka getting a free hit on Romo as he tries to throw it out to the flank.  3rd Down conversion, but Romo is now under duress on most throws as this game is getting late.

8:16 - Romo sacked by Joseph

Here, Doug Free is fork-lifted back by Justin Tuck, causing Romo to look for an escape path.  Unfortunately, that path is right into the outstretched arms of Joseph.  Free had issues for sure on Sunday, and this is one where he didn't get debited for the sack - but he did cause it.

1:59 - Romo sacked by Tuck - nullified by defensive holding

Here, the Cowboys have Tuck assigned a double team with Bernadeau and Cook.  Neither come close to impeding him, and he destroys the play almost before it started.   This play ended up not counting, but the hold in the secondary had nothing to do with this blown protection.  Romo had no chance as Tuck just tore threw the line without any resistance.

1:14 - Romo Intercepted by Brown on 4th Down

This play was doomed from the start as now Umenyiora takes a turn on Doug Free.  Once your tackle is beaten this cleanly, the play is doomed.  He even held Osi on this, but it did not slow him down as he flushed Romo way out of the pocket and appeared to end the game on one pass rush move.

0:39 - Romo complete to Witten - despite Pierre-Paul beating Smith around the corner again to hit Romo's blind-side while throwing.

And finally,

0:01 - Romo incomplete pass out of end zone

I only include this because I did hear a fair amount of frustration with Romo for throwing the final pass out of the end zone.  Well, this one can be traced back to pass protection as well.  Somehow, despite the Giants only rushing 3 men and the Cowboys had 6 in protection, Romo's arm was hit by Pierre Paul when he threw the final pass, altering the flight of the ball by who-knows-how-much.  See below:

Really, a suitable way to end a day where the pass protection started out ok, but as often is the case against the Giants, it progressively gets worse over the course of the day.  They have too many elite linemen to hold them back all game long.  So, when the game hits its most critical point - the 4th Quarter - they have something left in the tank and your guys are hanging on for dear life.

Overall, 4 sacks and countless more hits on Romo.  He was just lousy in the early going, but he snapped out of it and got them back in the game.  Unfortunately, the protection was good early and then diminished later.

Which linemen had the roughest days?  I would say Cook was pretty bad all day.  Livings has now had 2 tough Sundays in a row.  Free and Smith both had poor moments (Free more than Smith) but they are going against such good pass rushing ends that you should expect some issues if you are going to pass the ball 69 times and have no threat of a run game.

No run game?  To a point where you don't even consider a run on 2nd and 1, 3rd and 1, or 4th and 1 with the game on the line?  Well, that is a different blog entry altogether.

But, it continues to be clear every Sunday - this team needs to fix their offensive line once and for all this spring.  Like they needed to last spring.  And the spring before that....

This game was a collective effort on the offense.  Blame should reside with Romo for one of his more horrendous performances in memory.  And of course, the line was worn down and had many busts that led to the result.  But, it should also rest with the front office for not stocking the Cowboys with a better line against a division rival that has had this line of scrimmage advantage for as long as anyone can remember around here.  They play the Giants twice a year.  Every year.  This hasn't and will not change.

Let's be honest - the Giants had this similar strength when they won the playoff game in Texas Stadium to end the Cowboys 2007 season.   Back then, it was still Tuck and Umenyiora, but it was also Michael Strahan and Fred Robbins.

The names change, but the dominance up front remains the same for the Giants.  Which might be why the results do, too.    

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