Late in the week, we finally get a chance to "look at the tape" as Jason Garrett likes to say and examine some plays that we cannot fully digest on TV. I can't promise that every week we will be able to do this, but honestly, this is my favorite exercise of the week because only here can you fully appreciate how advanced and complex the NFL game can be sometimes.
Here, we are not looking to call anyone out, and we surely want to leave open the possibility of our eyes deceiving us and more than anything, I want to admit that I don't have the benefit of the coaches telling me what coverage they were in. So, sometimes, this diagnosis will be "pretty sure" rather than "100% sure" even though I am trying to get it right. I will make calls and try to hunt down the right answer, but I will just admit right here that we will try our best to be accurate but invariably, I will see something wrong.
But, let's pick plays that are interesting but not played out by this point of the week and have some fun talking Xs and Os. Feel free to tweet me @SportsSturm when a game shows you a play that you would like broken down and I will attempt to include it in this post.
The exercise today is to give one last look to that difficult night on Monday against Washington. I think this is particularly relevant because of Sunday's opponent. Stylistically, it is rather seldom that you play two teams that mirror each-other's scheme defensively like Washington and Arizona. Both think nothing of a Cover 0 blitz - and these days, I bet there are fewer than 5 or 6 teams that share that view in the entire league.
So, let's dive into the 5 sacks and in the interest of time, briefly consider what went wrong as Jim Haslett called an unbelievable game against Dallas - a team many people thought he had no shot at knocking off the tracks on Monday night. You can bet that Todd Bowles is taking notes.
Sack #1 - 1Q - 13:12 - 3/5/D41 - Meriweather sacks Romo, -12
Ok, so here is the first one. So much of Washington/Arizona involves disguising coverages and blitzes. That is the NFL game where you must make the QB and the OL do mental gymnastics in pre snap. You must make them unsure as often as possible, and that is easiest on 3rd Down because they are trying to get to the sticks and therefore only have so many options. This is also why you want to "stay out of 3rd and long" when you hear the guys talk about game objectives. In 3rd and long, the defense can dictate terms if they want to risk safe coverages in exchange for causing chaos. These teams love that.
But, in this case, on the first drive of the game, they are showing pressure, but then only bring 5. That means you can play coverage with zones of 6 against 4-5 targets. Check below how they are matching up early, with most of the coverage going to those players who are likely to run shorter routes to the sticks - Tight Ends and Cole Beasley.
Meanwhile, you have a blitzing safety along with dropping LBs. This is another characteristic of this type of 3-4. DBs rush and LBs drop. Sometimes, a DL will drop. It is this versatility in roles that makes everything difficult to identify for an offense. If you can line up 8 guys over Romo, then as long as you are organized, any 5 can rush and you can accomplish your ultimate goal - an unblocked rusher.
The arrow shows 31-Meriweather who arrives on Romo's blindside just as his targets are getting into their breaks. Romo senses it and spins, but the Redskins are on guard for the spin after seeing it the last several weeks. When 9 feels backside pressure, he will spin back to his left. Meriweather is now going to meet Romo at that spin point.
OK, let's look at the pre snap. 73-Frank Kearse is adding to the scheme a ton by flipping his 3-tech setup from side to side as Romo sets protections - which, of course, throws the protection off. Now, after he moves, Romo directs Witten over to the opposite side which seems to be the wrong call. They are now outnumbered to the left. Frederick now changes the protection and it looks organized again if he can help Leary and Smith clean up the 3 to the right. Here, it looks to me (and this is a guess) that Tyron made the wrong decision here. If he goes out to Meriweather, they are good. But, he doesn't, he is still on 93/73 inside. So you have Frederick, Leary, and Smith blocking 2 guys and the 3rd is untouched.
Then, when Meriweather sits on the outside spin, the play is dead, as is the possession. Nice idea from Washington and a sign of things to come. What you love best about this is the fact that they still had 6 in coverage so there are no major risks being taken. You are just testing the Cowboys ability to decode the plan. When Romo sent Witten to the other side and Meriweather did not follow him, that tipped off the idea that he was blitzing and/or Washington is in a zone.
BUST: I think Romo and Smith are the two most likely culprits, but this is one of those cases where we have to wildly speculate given the complexity of the play. But, clearly, they did not get this one right.
Sack #2 - 1Q - 6:09 - 3/8/W42 - Riley sacks Romo, -11
OK, very next possession, the ball is moving until they get into a 3rd and long. That is where Washington cooks up their next plan. They will now send the house in a Cover 0 blitz with the idea that they can bring one more than you can block - and with the added bonus of Lance Dunbar instead of DeMarco Murray. That means that you have a less-seasoned and less-capable back in blitz pickup.
Above, red lines are the sticks, the blue circle shows your cover 0. So Tony knows what this means. 4 targets vs 4 defenders. That means the Redskins have 7 against 6. He has to get rid of the ball because there is nobody to get the last guy. By definition, that is his man.
Look above at what he sees. He wants the slant to Dez. To get it, he has to make his man, 25-Ryan Clark miss. He does in a way he has done a million times. Now, let's look below at how the protection went. Everyone identified their guy well. But, Dunbar cannot block 56-Perry Riley for more than a moment. Romo knows this, but thinks he can still get the pass off. He thought wrong.
See 73-Kearse again in pre snap? Always trying to mess with the Cowboys protection. This subtle move is consistent all night. And screws things up on many occasions. This time, they are all picked up, but Dunbar can't hold up for long.
Bust: Against a Cover 0, it is completely up the QB to account for the extra man - which he did. The slant to Bryant is going to be possible and then you take your chances that Bryant will get the catch and fight for the final few yards. If there is a bust, it has to go to Dunbar - or perhaps the coaching staff that thought he could handle blitz pickup on a 3rd and long. I will take a LB over Dunbar every time.
Sack #3 - 2Q - 0:23 - 3/3/D44 - Kerrigan sacks Romo, -12
This one is bothersome, because on this occasion the Redskins are not really trying to keep the Cowboys from getting to the sticks. It is 3rd and 3, and Romo could take the conversion, but everyone knows with only :23 left in the half, he has bigger plans.
Meanwhile, the Redskins are showing Cover 0, but when the play starts, their LB gets into the deep safety spot and they actually are dropping into a 6-man coverage that is pretty safe and conservative.
There is 73-Kearse flipping spots again. Now, a stunt to his side where Kearse wants to mess with Parnell, leaving Kerrigan to stunt around Martin to make sure the rookie is paying full attention. Kerrigan wins here and gets to Romo even though there was time to get the ball out quick. But, Washington knew that he would take more time to throw and caught them by being safer with a stunt on a new RT and a rookie RG.
Bust: Martin has to slide over to get Kerrigan, but I am guessing the late movement of Kearse threw off his initial plan. Their attack worked great and even though Dunbar had his edge guy, the sack was still pretty easy for Washington.
Sack #4 - 3Q - 7:59 - 3/11/D36 - Robinson sacks Romo, -12
This is the one that greatly affected the Cowboys 2014. From a Washington standpoint, this is where you got to roll the dice to win big. They showed 7, so the Cowboys protected with 7. That means, they raised to 8. And that was one more than the Cowboys had planned for.
Protect with 7 and there is your Cover 0 look - which, by the way, is not just a look. They are sending everyone on this 3rd and long early in the 3rd Quarter.
The photo above shows the sticks at precisely the moment where Romo realizes he is in big trouble. The Cowboys have their protection fine with everyone blocking their man, but have not accounted for the trailer MLB blitzer. You never want the free man coming from the middle. That is why we always are hearing the coaches teach from middle-out. Take the biggest danger - middle to outside.
Now, you could argue, after so many 1st half sacks, the Cowboys are still being stubborn and naive with their route concepts. It is 3rd and 12, but sometimes, in the interest of self-preservation, you run some more shallow routes and hope to break a tackle because we don't want QB1 laying motionless on the turf. If he has to wait for everyone to get out of their breaks on deep routes, he is going to have to work some magic tricks as 7 try to block 8. There is not 1 option for Romo before he gets decked.
It all happens so quickly. 73-moves sides again. 97-Hatcher slants left and 56-Riley goes right to make this path you could drive a truck through for 52-Robinson on a dead sprint to try to wipe out Romo. The question then becomes who should Murray get? He elects the outside guy, 25-Clark, but I am guessing (again) that he needs to get the guy coming down main street and leave 25 for Romo to try to deal with. Either way, this is not going to go anywhere with these routes.
Bust: I might vote naive coaching/QB play on this one. You simply cannot play into their hands when they are getting more and more aggressive on every 3rd down. Where is Beasley and the rub routes that they showed against St Louis? In other words, once this look is on, you have to alert some hot routes that consider the score/game situation and understand that the world does not depend on this conversion. Sometimes, you need to punt. But, if ever there was a time where you must burn their hands to get them to stop touching the oven, it seems that this is that moment.
Sack #5 - 4Q - 1:25 - 2/1/D12 - Meriweather sacks Romo, Romo fumbles -7
And last, but not least. The last sack. Where they now know that Romo will be wanting to hang in there and make plays down the field and not take dinks and dunks with the game on the line.
They are showing Cover 1, but it looks like Quarters (Cover 4, man under) to me with a 5-man fire zone blitz in front of it. Either way, Romo wants to give a chance to some bigger routes and not seeing protection issues as he settles in before...Bam!
I think we will have to assume that I have been building up Murray's blitz pickup acumen too much, as this one has to be on him. But, again, the fire zone is the concept of sending an overload blitz from one side. You send only 5, but you take advantage of the 3x3 protection concepts (the idea that C-G-T take one side and RB-G-T generally take the other). You are not outnumbering the entire line, just one side of it.
But, as you can see above, if Murray just gets Meriweather, this is protected. Romo cannot assume that Murray might read it wrong. He has to depend on those in front of him to do their job and then he does his.
Bust: This one is clearly on the mix-up by Murray and the non-recognition of a blitzing Meriweather. This, of course, is aided by the depth of 31 when he blitzes. For once, he is not breathing on the line of scrimmage, but in normal coverage depth.
Again, I can't swear I scored all of these correctly, but I am asking those in the know for confirmation as often as possible. Feel free to speculate freely in the comments below. The idea is not to place blame, but rather to understand what went wrong and why.
All in all, these plays demonstrate why my biggest takeaway from Monday night was the coaching victory of Washington's defensive scheme and the disappointing reaction from Dallas to all of these various tactics. For once in 2014, Dallas was on the short end of the football chess match.