Thursday, October 23, 2014

Xs and Os: 3 Things To Examine From Cowboys-Giants
Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant (88) points to the crowd after a big pass reception in the fourth quarter during the New York Giants vs. the Dallas Cowboys NFL football game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Sunday, October 19, 2014. (Louis DeLuca/The Dallas Morning News)
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.
Play #1 - 1Q/10:29 - 2/9/D25 - Murray right for 17 yards
Ho hum, another week, another big running day.  They had their share of success on the ground, but this is probably my favorite run of the day to show a few things.  Just your typical "zone right" that they run over and over.
Notice how this is a team exercise.  Everyone on the field has a job to do, and they are all doing it well and with great purpose.  Above, please pay particular attention to the Guard-Center-Guard group of the Dallas Cowboys.  As recently as 2011 this team had the worst group in the league.  In 2012, they upgraded to just poor.  And now, they are willing to measure up to any team, anywhere.  First, 65-Ron Leary is the LG, and he gets a perfect cut block on his man which is one of the objectives of any zone stretch.  Get your guy off his feet.  Once that happens, the Giants can no longer keep their wall.  From there, 72-Frederick and 70-Martin, the Center and Right Guard,  take over.  And for that, look below:

Coaching clinics teach these concepts to coaches at all levels of football and they are always looking for textbook plays.  This may be a candidate on how to zone block.  Watch 72-Frederick snap the ball and get right on 52-Beason and drive him right out of the play.  That is nice, but that is a LB that Frederick badly outweighs.  So now, witness 70-Martin sending 99-Cullen Jenkins over to the sideline with such ease that we can now see the wisdom in taking a guard in the 1st round (something most of us draft nerds really don't care for).  If he can do this in his rookie season - most of the time - then you take him and profit.
From there, you have the proverbial hole that you could drive a truck through, and Murray is off to the races.  Now, he tries to run over as many defensive backs as possible and introduces them to what they can look forward to all afternoon.  Dominating stuff - especially given that this is something the Giants have prepared for and this is one of the first zone runs of the day.
Play #2 - 1Q/8:59 - 3/8/D44 - Romo to Witten for 12 yards, FD
Now, I want to spend the rest of this post on a few plays that summarize the Cowboys success that is vital to keep the running game as powerful as it is.  The ability to convert 3rd Downs into a fresh set of downs and to punish the blitz.  They do both of those things on these next two plays.
There are blitzes (More than 4 rushers) and then there are "big blitzes".  "Big Blitzes" are defined as 6 rushers or more.  They, of course, are some of the most devastating blitzes, but also some of the riskiest for the defense - and perfect for punishing those defensive coordinators who dare call them.  But, the only way to get them to stop calling them is to make them pay.
The Giants dared to send 2 big blitzes on Sunday and Tony Romo and the offense was able to win both of those showdowns.  Let's look at them as Jim Haslett, the Washington Defensive Coordinator, is definitely looking at them today, as he decides how aggressive he is going to be on Monday Night.  You may or may not know this, but Haslett has sent as many big blitzes at Tony Romo over the years as anyone in the business.  Romo has won several, but Haslett won the 2012 finale in Washington by blitzing and blitzing the Cowboys all night long.
Washington believes in sending 7 on occasion (the cover 0 blitz) when the time is right, but New York did not try that.  They maxed out at 6 in these 2 examples.  By the way, from a QB standpoint, once you get the protection right, if you ever see a big blitz, there is generally a 95% chance your opponent is in straight man-to-man with a single high safety. Occasionally, that safety turns into a robber and tries to ambush your first read, but that is very risky because if the safety guesses wrong it could be a Touchdown.  So, most do it like the Giants - blitz 6 - then, play man with a high safety.  This is why a good team can chase you out of blitzing.  Get the protection right and now, Romo knows the coverage and where he wants to attack - either his best offensive matchup or your weakest cover guy.

So, as you look above, the Giants are trying not to be obvious about their plan as the LBs are at normal depth.  Cowboys have 3x1 to the right.  Remember, the sticks are at the Giants 48.  So, Romo does the math in pre snap.  He has 5 OL and 1 RB to handle the Giants who are lined up as if they are in man in front of a Cover 1.  It could be a disguise, but he knows what to expect.

As Romo gets the snap, it is not a disguise at all.  It is clearly Cover 1 and now if the protection is right, Romo knows exactly where to go to move the chains.  But, the protection is always the issue on 3rd Down inefficiency it seems at this level.  Let's check the protection:

It isn't always this easy to sort through a blitz, but this one is really basic.  6 on 6.  The only question is whether 35-Demps and 52-Beason are coming.  It is just as likely that Demps is waiting for Murray to release, so that will change the protection, of course, and why designating the "Mike" is so important in pre snap.

Now, you can see above that Frederick and Leary have to do some switching on the fly, because the Giants are sending 91-Ayers inside to the A-Gap between Frederick and Leary, so 52-Beason can cut behind him to the same B-Gap (between Leary and Smith) that 35-Demps is attacking.  Then, 98-Moore is trying to take Smith wide to make that hole even bigger.

But, look, Everyone switched with ease.  6 man blitz and all 6 Cowboys are centered on their proper target perfectly.  Again, textbook stuff.  Now, Romo confidently stands tall and sees Witten against a LB (57-Williams) in space.  Even at this age, this is the easy read as Witten gets to the sticks and keeps crossing the field.  If Williams is ahead of him, he might just sit down, but he doesn't have to.

By this frame, Romo is clean (Parnell is starting to lose his edge against Pierre-Paul) and Witten is a yard in front of Williams now.  It will take a bad throw to save the Giants now.

It is amazing how easy 3rd and long can be if you have protection that is capable.
Play #3 - 4Q/9:40 - 3/8/O25 - Romo to Bryant for 24 yards, FD
This conversion is certainly a lot more difficult.  The Cowboys are up 7 and a field goal puts you up 10 with plenty of time to play.  Safe here isn't a bad option, but Tony Romo is not going to settle for 3 if there is a Touchdown to be had.  You have to love this team discovering its ruthless side now that they have a little self-confidence.

This time, the Giants are not disguising anything.  Both LBs are sugaring (giving every indication that they are blitzing) the "Double A-Gap" blitz.  And you can bet on 3rd and 8 with the game on the line, odds are very good that the Giants aren't bluffing here.  They want a sack in the worst way.

Now, in the frame above, you might be asking what is different?  Well, look at the last 2 pictures and see that Romo did not move Murray over to deal with the right side which is undermanned.  Instead, he waved Witten over to assist.  This certainly baffles the Giants a bit because they were expecting Witten to be the target, I suspect.  In fact, the single-high safety is leaning over to Bryant's side which makes me bet he was planning on showing that pre snap and then coming downhill as the robber on Witten if they tried to do the same thing they did last time they saw a big blitz (82 on a cross).

Above, Romo gets his protection right - including Murray doing a great job on the A-gap - and Witten's man and the safety are both waiting for Witten and frozen in the middle of the field on each hash mark.  I would certainly pay a penny for both of their thoughts at this moment in time.

Now, check what Romo's view is and see that Murray is there to take whichever LB that 72 can't get to.  Those LBs are going to criss-cross, making it more confusing.  That's ok, because Murray and Frederick are almost 100% on this for 2014.

Here is the video.  I edited it to show Romo's wave for Witten and the edge man for the Giants, 98-Moore looking agitated or trying to warn his mates what is happening.  Watch Murray and Frederick pick up their guys.  Then, once Romo sees that safety is not going to Dez, he is going to give 88 every chance to make a play.
You know what happened from there.
If you want the biggest reason why this team is for real, I submit these last 2 plays are far more significant than the run game.  You still have to make throws in the face of pressure at big moments in a game - especially to win a division and win in the playoffs.  The Cowboys protection is sound right now and they are chasing teams out of blitzing by putting this type of thing on tape as a warning to anyone who wants to try to rattle them.
Now, Haslett must decide if he wants to roll the dice again.  This is not the same Cowboys offense he used to terrify so much.

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