Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Morning After: Redskins 20, Cowboys 17 (OT) (6-2)

How many times does a lesson need to be taught before it is received by the entirety of the intended audience?
Because this was the 109th time the Cowboys and Redskins have played each other, and the shock level of the final result last night seemed to have surprised so many that it appears most must have missed the series history lessons.
By the way, let's not suggest for even a moment that there were very many warning signs that the 2014 Cowboys' season was going to hit a bit of an iceberg on Monday Night, save for the constant reminders in every direction that in this league (in general) and in this series (in specific), anything can happen and no wins are to be assumed.
The Redskins shocked a large majority of the football world on Monday night as they brought in a 3rd-choice QB we are all familiar with, new starters at several key positions, and a coaching staff that had no issue throwing caution directly to the wind.
They employed a similar game-plan that helped them beat a Tony Romo-led offense many times in many big situations.  That is, when the Cowboys are suggesting that they are interested in cranking up the passing game, they would send blitz after blitz until the Cowboys either passed them out of it or conceded defeat.  This is Jim Haslett's open book for any and all Dallas coaches to decipher and prepare accordingly, as he has now done it in every meeting since 2010 when he took over the Redskins' defense.  He plans on treating Tony Romo as if it was Romo who was the young, untested quarterback.  He will not respect the possibility of being burned badly, but rather turn up the heat more and more until he either wins or dies trying.
And on Monday night, with 2 very young cornerbacks who made us wonder if Haslett would dial it back to protect those youngsters, he was the same gambling coordinator he always has been.
According to my notes, Haslett blitzed the Cowboys on 21 of 38 pass attempts, and more specifically, he blitzed Romo on 19 of 32 (59%).  Given that nobody on the Cowboys schedule had blitzed more than 12 times all season, and that nobody approached 50% all year, and that the Seahawks and Giants both blitzed just 5 times in the previous 2 games against Dallas, it seemed that the NFL had backed off Romo and the idea that the best way to attack a Jason Garrett/Tony Romo defense is to play coverage.  That must have pleased Haslett to see that perhaps Dallas was letting its guard down.  Especially with the way the Cowboys had punished the Giants every time they dared to try a big blitz (6 or more) with relative ease.  Let that be a message to anyone who challenges the Cowboys with pressure!  Haslett likely had to hide his smile.
He called for pressure over and over again.  Big blitzes?  He sent 7 of them.  How about bringing pressure on 3rd Down?  Well, the Cowboys tried to complete a pass on 3rd or 4th down on 12 occasions last night, and the Redskins chose to blitz those 12 situations 100% of the time.  12 for 12.
And as you can see, based on 5-13 on 3rd and 4th down conversions and just 17 Dallas points, the Cowboys did not pass these tests with flying colors.  They struggled through the air all night long and it followed a script that goes back to 2010.  Either the Cowboys lose these games and the passing game struggles, or they win these games on some late-game magic tricks (2011 twice, 2013 at Washington) by Romo and the offense after struggling most of the afternoon.
Romo is now 4-4 against Jim Haslett's defense with a passer rating of 84.8 in those meetings and a very low yards-per-attempt of 6.88.  Both of those numbers are severely below his 96.8 ratings and 7.65 YPA against the rest of the league.  And versus blitzes?  Before last night, Haslett had him at a passer rating of 69.8 and a 6.47 YPA.
Last night, on those 19 occasions where Haslett tried to rattle Romo with pressure, Romo completed 9 of 14 passes for 98 yards - good for a passer rating of, you guessed it, 84.8 and a YPA of 7.  But, those numbers are extremely misleading, since that does not account for the 5 sacks which lost 53 yards and more damaging, what quite possibly could be either another back injury or at that very least, a major injury scare.  Factor those plays into a QB rating, and you might call it 9-19 for 45 yards which would be a rating of 54 and a YPA of a minuscule  2.26.
The pressure came in many varieties and disguises, but the determination from Washington clearly was to push the issue at Dallas and force them to play some level of defensive offense.  This has worked for many opponents of Garrett/Romo over the years, but the feelings locally were that the arrival of Scott Linehan and this monstrous offensive line meant that those days are over and that the Dallas offense is sorted and now strategically sound against such tactics.
Clearly, that was wrong thinking.
The game was about much more than merely this blitzing issue, as Dallas had to contribute to the plot by turning the ball over on a few occasions and nearly turning the ball over on several more.  It also required Dallas to stray from their formula of running the ball as often as possible, as, at times last night, it looked like the Cowboys brain trust was trying to conserve DeMarco Murray for games down the road where he would really be needed.  Against a 2-5 Washington team starting a scrap-heap QB, surely they would not need a full night's work from Murray, right?
Meanwhile, defensively, Rod Marinelli has orchestrated a defense who has survived on a paltry "one sack per game" pace.  Surely, at some point, they will need to make things uncomfortable for an opposing passer to stand tall in the pocket and throw without impediment.  But, perhaps Colt McCoy is not the type of NFL passer to make you pay for no pressure, right?
Wrong again.  McCoy had a 2nd half in which he was 17 for 19, 187 yards, and a QB rating of 107.7.  Additionally, he ran for a 7 yard touchdown on a vital 3rd and goal QB draw where the Cowboys played coverage and by the time they realized that the Texas' QB was running at them, they were either being blocked or were too far out of range to stop him from crossing the goal-line.
The Cowboys elected to send pressure on twice in the 2nd half in 23 opportunities.  On the first blitz (the 1st play of the 2nd half) McCoy tucked and ran for 7 yards, and on the second, he hit DeSean Jackson for a deep shot of 45 yard on the final play of the 3rd Quarter.  And that was it.  For the rest of the game, 14 opportunities, Dallas never sent more than 4 rushers at McCoy.  In fairness, during that stretch, they did get 2 sacks, including a massive play by Jeremy Mincey that kept the game from ending in regulation by knocking the Redskins out of Field Goal range.
That forced a punt where the Cowboys would get the ball back with a 17-17 tie and 1:52 to play.  Tony Romo, who had left the game at roughly 9:20 pm, would re-enter at about 10:15.  He was knocked out of the game at 7:57 of the 3rd Quarter when Plano's Keenan Robinson - another Longhorn who factored into the proceedings - came from his middle linebacker spot on a blitz where the Redskins, yet again, sent more rushers than the Cowboys could deal with. There were no receivers who appeared to be in hot routes as Bryant was on a sideline route, Williams on a dig, and Witten on a deep seam.  All of those routes require a little time and Romo certainly did not have that.  He saw Robinson come untouched and turned his back to brace for impact.  That is where it appeared that Robinson's knee hit Romo in the lower back and as Romo fell to the ground, you could see his right arm go limp and just drop the ball.
That is clearly the worst case scenario that we feared so much back in July and August, about what might happen if teams blitz him without mercy and test his ability to sustain multiple impacts.  Each week, as he spun to big plays and looked more flexible and confident with each passing win, the alert level would dissipate and worry seemed to be a wild over-reaction of gloom and doom.  But, with one hit to the lower back of the Cowboys franchise QB, it all came rushing back that as wonderful as the year has started, the ominous skies can reemerge without much advance warning.
From there, Brandon Weeden entered the game and helped the Cowboys to 10 points in 2 drives.  Much of the yardage was racked up by a 51-yard run by Murray and a 23-yard screen pass, but when it came time for Weeden to make a few throws of substance, he hooked up with Jason Witten for a key 25-yard touchdown that even the score back up at 17-17.  But, despite Romo missing nearly an hour to have his back examined and no-doubt medicated, Weeden only had 2 drives because the defense could not get off the field against McCoy and the Washington offense.  During that stretch, Washington converted on 4 consecutive 3rd Downs, and then a subsequent 4th down when the Cowboys finally stopped them on 3rd.
When Romo was available, the scene then looked like a sports movie ending was on the build.  The publicity-starved Owner/GM goes back and forth to the locker-room and the sideline to check on Romo's status and whisper in the ear of his head coach.  Mincey's sack then provided the opportunity and with less than 2 minutes to play, Romo would grab his helmet and have a chance at maybe his most dramatic comeback yet.
But, Haslett had other ideas.  On a 2nd and 2 from the 11, a down and distance that seldom says blitz, Haslett dialed up a 5-man fire zone blitz from Romo's right, and DeMarco Murray - who had been so solid at blitz pickup all year - ran right past Brandon Meriweather who smoked Romo and again you saw that right hand of the QB go limp and drop the ball onto the turf at impact.  Somehow, Washington did not recover the fumble, but disaster was averted when Murray did recover it.  On the very next play, Romo throws a risky pass that Bashaud Breeland nearly intercepted, but Terrance Williams wrestled away for a 1st down.  Disaster was circling.  From there, Haslett blitzed 7 on 3 straight occasions to force the game into overtime.
In OT, McCoy led another long drive with a few key plays to get Washington the FG lead.  Dallas would need points or lose, and another 2nd and 2 turned into 3 straight passes. Romo missed a wide-open Bryant on 3rd down, instead trying for Witten who was covered and the pass went incomplete.  That led to a 4th and 3 to try to save the day, but more pressure from Haslett and his troops, caused pocket chaos and a hopeful pass to Bryant that was easily defended by Breeland again.
The Redskins were willing to live or die by the blitz against the heavily favored Cowboys, and Dallas had no answers.  How that can be, with 5 years of Redskins film at the complex is hard to ponder, but we must concede that while Washington seems to struggle against most teams on their schedule, the confidence and swagger that they conduct themselves with when playing the Cowboys is remarkable.
Before the game, we talked plenty about how this is a fine mid-term exam to see how far this offense has come in 2014.  Would the new identity destroy the old ways to defeat them?
On this night in Arlington, the Cowboys' coaches and players failed the test.

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