Thursday, October 16, 2014

Xs and Os - 3 Things to Examine from Week 6 - Seattle

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 3 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.
1Q - 7:19 - 4/3/D38 - Punt Blocked by Baldwin, Returned for TD by Morgan
This week, we look at the dreaded blocked punt. The Cowboys special teams almost cost them a win in an overall fantastic team performance.  You certainly don't want to get in a habit of having your best efforts undone from a few special teams mistakes.  That is as demoralizing as it gets.
Let's focus on the punt block here.  Seattle saw something during the week that they wanted to spring on Dallas' punt team at the very last second to see if they could ruin a game early.  Rich Bisaccia and his crew have done a pretty nice job of being prepared, but this is one that they will need to learn from.  The good news is, they can learn after a win.
Above, I have filled in the names for all the players on the Dallas side, and the two primary names on Seattle.  Baldwin is off the screen by design.  At the snap of the ball, he is racing to the scene and his timing is everything.  If he arrives too early, they are ready for him by changing the blocking assignments to account for the extra man at the edge.  If he arrives too late, he can't get to Jones in time.  But, give Baldwin his due.  He gets there at the perfect moment and the Cowboys are not prepared.

When you watch the play live, I walked away sure 38-Jeff Heath busted. But, in general, he is just back there as the protector, to clean up any messes that get to him. The problem here is that 2 problems arrive at nearly the same moment, and chances are regardless of which he chooses, the other gets to the punt.
Let's go over the issues here. 1) It is always going to be the job of Dwayne Harris to yell an alert to the line when he sees Baldwin charging to the line. He must let them know what is happening, and in general, your punt play is not going to be facing maximum crowd noise. It appears that perhaps this was not done properly.
2) 56-Korey Toomer, brought in partially because of his special teams ability, was beaten pretty badly by 57-Michael Morgan. Ironic, since Morgan might have been the guy to force Toomer out of a job as one of the final LB options in Seattle, but nevertheless, if Toomer can hold off Morgan better than he did (which is not at all), then Heath slides to Toomer and the alert is handled. But, Heath did what he is supposed to do - handle the closest threat. Like it blitz pickup, you have to deal with up-the-middle threats with your top priority if the arrival times are similar.
From there, the chaos is on. You can see Heath looking to his left and then getting back in the center as he knows he is in a bind. You simply cannot have 2 guys get to Heath without being impeded even a little bit. Toomer looks like he slid left, expecting 53-Cam Lawrence to go with him, but you can see Lawrence is dealing with a stunt with 91-Ladoucer in the middle.

So, a real mess.  Toomer has to do better and you can make the case that perhaps Heath picked the wrong guy - although the more you watch it, the more you wonder if Morgan blocks it himself if Heath vacates the middle.  All in all, you simply celebrate that you overcame this disaster.
Which led many of you to ask me this week:  How often do the Cowboys lose games in which they get a punt blocked?
In the last 17 years, they have lost in Seattle (2012), at the Jets (2011), at Arizona (2008), at Philadelphia (2001), at New York Giants (2001), and at Kansas City (1998). However, they have had punts blocked Sunday in Seattle, at Indianapolis (2010), home versus Washington (2002), and home versus San Francisco (2001) and won.
So, of the last 10 punts that the Cowboys have had blocked, they are actually 4-6. And wow, Filip Filipovic, the punter in 2001, had 3 punts blocked in one season. That is amazing, given that Mat McBriar had 3 punts blocked in his entire career.
2Q - 14:22 - 2/7/D8 - Murray right for 10 yards
This run is quite enjoyable if you love Xs and Os. The Cowboys running game has certainly experienced an exciting evolution in the last 12 months which has been well documented in this space. But, here is one that was requested by one of my emailers because he just wanted to make sure that Ron Leary was credited with his huge performance. If you haven't looked at his awesome cut block on the final Murray TD, you should go back and read Decoding Linehan where we highlight that play.
So, here is the 2nd play of the 2nd Quarter and Leary is on the move again. When you talk about the young OL, everyone talks about 3 1st Round picks, but football is really fun when you find undrafted free agents who can play with the 1st Rounders and not look exposed. That might be the path Leary is on in 2014.
One other note, the Cowboys have built their new identity around zone blocking schemes with inside and outside zones being the majority (and sometimes entirety) of their running renaissance. But, now, we see the counter punch - some man-blocking power plays with pulling guards (and tackles and tight ends) that are being sprinkled in to mess up an opponent's efforts to slow down the zones. You have to love it.
Anyway, on this particular play, notice a few things - 1) the play starts with DeMarco Murray stepping to his left to allow the guards a chance to get in front of him. Timing is everything with pulling guards, but they aren't the fastest guys in the world. So, Murray must elongate his path to give the big boys a chance to get in front of him.
2) I didn't notice this until last night when they showed the play from Bobby Wagner's perspective on NFL Turning Point, but Murray's false step takes 54-Wagner in that same direction and out of this play.
3) Notice the path of the two guards.  First, Martin gets 31-Chancellor and pushes him out of the path with great effectiveness.  Then, here comes 65-Leary around the bend and drives 53-Malcolm Smith into 29-Earl Thomas and ultimately 25-Richard Sherman.  Anytime your left guard can pull right and have 3 Seahawks on the ground 10 yards down the field, you would have to give him a gold star.
4Q - 4:55 - 3/20/D31 - Romo to Williams, +23, FD
Behold, for the 3rd time in 2 weeks, we have a "Play of the Year" candidate.
If they don't get this play converted, they have to punt, down 23-20 with less than 5 minutes to go.  To convert this is vital and quite possibly the ball game.  The Cowboys are in max-protection, with Witten and Murray in protection until they can slide out and get in a late route.
Bryant is out left, Williams wide right, with Gavin Escobar in the right slot and Witten tight to Free to help if necessary.
This is one of those cases where the All-22 is actually worse than TV, but you can definitely see below what Romo was looking at.  I think the key point of strategy to look at is DeMarco's poor chip on 51-Bruce Irvin.  If he is going to "assist" Tyron, then he has to make sure he actually knocks Irvin back to where Tyron can take over.  In this case, his chip doesn't really move Irvin off his path at all, and also he gets in Tyron's way.  Bad combination.  They would have been better without any chip at all.
But, now Irvin, a rusher with incredible speed, has Romo in his sights - once again from the blindside. How Romo feels that, spins out, and then stays alive is a story.  The fact that he then converts a 3rd and 20 (something that the league does less than 10% of the time even when conditions are ideal) is nothing short of miraculous.  Then, Williams awareness and technique to complete the catch in bounds... Wow.
There is some question about who Romo was throwing this ball to, but I feel this angle proves that it was Williams and that he might not have even seen Witten since he knows Witten is not on a route long enough to move the sticks.  You cannot imagine how fast this is happening in real-time as the Seahawks rushers and your linemen are all swirling around as you try to make this play.
I have watched this play dozens of times and it doesn't get any less impressive with each viewing.  Romo is a special talent who appears to have the ability to still make plays that most QBs wouldn't even attempt.
In other words, Bob, his back is doing fine.

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