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.
This week, I shall confess at the outset that there is nothing I love more than a team that can run the ball with ease at the NFL level. It is a lost art, but when it works, it is the most demoralizing and dominating way to win, in my opinion. I love it, and I really love how the Cowboys have grown into a team that runs as well as anyone in the league in 2014.
Big runs are so hard to come by in the NFL, because there are so many fast defensive linemen and strong linebackers and defensive backs. It takes everyone to win on offense for a big run, but on defense, only one player has to win to stop a play. So, the odds over breaking a big one are not very good at this level. And yet, the Cowboys have consistently put big runs up week after week this year. And on Sunday, they had the big OL back together after Doug Free and Ron Leary's injuries have healed. And the results were pretty solid.
Play #1 - 1Q/14:56 - 1/10/D20 - Murray right, +23, FD
Yesterday on the radio show, Jason Witten talked to us about this particular play that set the tone for the entire day. He talked about the idea that Jacksonville and Seattle run the same basic defense and with Gus Bradley, they are trying to build the concepts that have made the Seahawks so successful. That explains their desire to go get Red Bryant and Chris Clemons and play all of that single-high safety defense they play. Of course, it helps to have Earl Thomas and his friends, but you get the idea.
Anyway, he talked about all of the runs that worked so well against Seattle - mostly pulling guards and using the OL running in space - to beat Seattle at the line of scrimmage. They wanted to run plays like this right at Jacksonville right off the bat:
So, you can now understand the idea behind the very first play on Sunday. They want to feed them some of what Seattle saw - and Jacksonville certainly knew that and studied those runs as well to see how the Jaguars would hold up. First snap, here it comes, just like Seattle.
On any pulling play, you have to close the gap that is opened. Therefore, when you want Frederick and Martin to both pull right, you better understand that there is a giant hole from Doug Free all the way to Ron Leary to close up so that the run doesn't get stopped in the backfield or from behind. So, the arrows above show how that is accomplished. The run is to the left of your screen, But, Free, Witten and Hanna are all blocking down to close the backside off. Then, 72 and 70 come around the corner and create chaos.
This frame above shows the plan happening very well. Leary is trying to get 97-Roy Miller to the ground with the cut block. Then, look at Witten and Hanna deal with their guys and now see 72 and 70 squared to the edge to begin the power moves. I put yellow on their targets. Martin wants target #1 (since he can get there first) and Frederick will circle back for target #2 who is unaccounted for by anyone else. 52- is JT Thomas the middle LB and he is mirroring Murray to the edge and will get him unless Frederick can get there first.
This frame says a ton. First, the TEs and Free have caved Jacksonville all the way in to where it is 72/70 against a DB and a LB. This is bad news for the defense. Look how perfectly squared up that Frederick is on 52. Suddenly, your single-high safety, 37-Cyprien who starts the play 17 yards off the line is the only guy with a chance to touch Murray.
The ease of that run is no fluke. They get a lot of credit for being a zone-running team, but in October/November, I bet they have had more big runs off man-blocking plays with pulling OL/TEs than they have with simple zone stretches. But, either way, the production on the ground has been pretty great. Would love to see another shot at Arizona's defense with Romo in there to keep them honest.
Play #2 - 1Q/7:44 - 1/10/D32 - Robinson right for 32 yards, Touchdown
Here is Jacksonville in 21 personnel out of the pistol. They will get a zone right to the right side here (which looks like the weak side, but they actually have 2 WRs out right) and this will test the LB play to shoot the gaps and shut this down. Notice 59-Anthony Hitchens on the right and 54-Bruce Carter on the hashmark.
We see cause for concern already, as the OL object of each zone play is to get the leverage on their man. Look above at 70 and 66 who both have their men inside. 93-Spencer has actually jumped inside 66, but unless he can get all the way to the RB, he is taking himself out of the play that is designed to go right at him. In fairness, we don't know the exact call, so Spencer might have been working a stunt with Hitchens, but then Hitchens has to get to that gap quickly and he surely is unable to do so. Now, the Sam LB, 51-Wilber has the contain to the outside. But, there is nothing to his inside. Also, notice above how 54-Carter is still in his stance. He hasn't really budged.
Now, on this frame, we see Spencer is off balance, Wilber is handled by the FB, and the RT-67 and C-70 are going to get to Hitchens and Carter. This is very bad news for the Cowboys. You wonder what Rolando McClain would have made of this, but in any event, Jacksonville has built a tunnel for Denard Robinson to run right through.
Look how deep 42-Church is - no run support from either safety so it is vital that the LBs hold off the threat and the numerical advantage here suggests a big play is available for Jacksonville. The Cowboys made this run too easy on the opponent.
The video shows above that Carter had a chance, but the center, 70-Bowanko is able to get to him and Robinson cuts right off his back to the end zone. 84-Cecil Shorts also locks up 42-Church pretty well. Nice job by Jacksonville, but I imagine the Cowboys will warn Spencer about taking himself out of the play (or they won't try that stunt - if it was one - with McClain out) by trying to jump inside the A-gap as the defensive end. Nice play if it works, but if it doesn't, the hole is too big to miss.
Play #3 - 3Q/7:44 - 1/10/J40 - Randle zone right, +40, Touchdown
Here is our zone stretch right. Here, everyone blocks right and Randle looks for a gap, plants his right foot and hits the hole. It is a skill to have the patience to run this because, of course, every zone run can be different. It is simple and improvised at the same time.
Here, please notice the way LG 65-Leary and C 72-Frederick have to work together. It is a zone right, so Leary doesn't have leverage, so generally, Frederick will bump the nose, 97-Miller back to Leary before he gets to the middle LB. On this play, 72 doesn't really do that at all, because Leary is going to cut Bryant down. He doesn't totally get him, but Miller has to jump to avoid Leary and that is all the impediment they need to get this going. Frederick is all over the MLB and Martin and Free are on top of their men to the right.
Tyron has perfect technique holding his man off with that left arm and just running hip to hip with him to watch the backside. It looks like Roy Miller might destroy this play, but here is a good shot at why Travis Frederick is getting All-Pro consideration. Check below.
Frederick has his guy engulfed and also blocks off Leary's guy. By the time Randle hits the hole, the damage is done. Now, downfield, 15-Devin Street and 83-Williams have their guys handled, so again it is 1-on-1 versus 37-Cyprien. And Cyprien had very little tackling success on this day as Randle pulls a Dez Bryant and will not go down before the end zone.
Both of the runs we showed you from the Cowboys standpoint were out of "12 personnel". They are really cooking out of this grouping now and it is making them very difficult to defend on the ground. 12 personnel means you have 7 players on your OL and it makes everything difficult for the defense if they want to bring in nickel to deal with a pass. 12 is the most diverse personnel grouping there is, and finally the Cowboys are figuring it out. You really have to love that and how it should translate to cold weather football.