Thursday, December 18, 2014

Xs and Os: The Drive of the Season

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) scrambles as they played the Philadelphia Eagles during the first half of their NFL football game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, PA on Dec,14, 2014.
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.
On Sunday, I thought we were looking at the Dallas Cowboys "drive of the year", as they were down to the Eagles, 24-21.  The stadium was rocking with Eagles fans going nuts as their team had scored 24 unanswered points.  At least, unanswered to that juncture.
The Cowboys could feel this game and the division slipping away.  Somebody had to do something quick.  There may be no more pivotal time then right there, right then.
The offense put together a march right down the field to steal the lead back and never give it back again.  This was a masterpiece, using 8 plays, just under 5 minutes, 5 personnel groupings, the same play twice, and several components working together to win a huge game.
As a witness of the evolution of this offense, I wanted to make sure that this drive was properly remembered in Cowboys 2014 lore.  Here is the recap of those 8 plays from the All-22's to give it the love it deserves:
Play #1: 3Q/5:36 - 1/10/22 - 22 Personnel - Murray +1
Open the drive in 22 personnel is a nice indication that there is no panic.  The Cowboys lost the lead, the stadium went nuts, but like we have seen all season, this will not impact Scott Linehan's call sheet.  Fullback lead right and it looks like Martin is trying to pull right but 72-Thornton is right on him and blows the play up by shoving Martin back into Clutts, while Parnell is planning on cleaning up Thornton but the timing was all shot.  Murray was going back inside, but Leary's cut-block wasn't great either.  Frederick pulled his job perfectly to the 2nd level and Tyron looks ok on the backside, but this play was a mess and the Cowboys only get a yard.  2nd Down.
Play #2: 3Q/4:54 - 2/9/23 - S02 Personnel - Dig to Dez +22 FD
Ok, this is one of the Cowboys newer toys; Shotgun 02 personnel (0RB, 2TE, 3WR).  They love running this out of shotgun with an empty backfield.  They ran it 7 times on Sunday - all 7 on 2nd down.  What this does is pretty much show the coverage of the Eagles to Romo in presnap.  He knows it is one of 2 possibilities with a high safety: 1) 5 man blitz with man under the safety or 2) 4 man rush with man under and a high safety as well as a robber in the middle (95-Kendricks).  That is what we have here and now Romo can use his eyes to move the robber and then find his matchup.  Dez is up top with Beasley in the slot running a shorter route.  Bryant is running the 15 yard Dig that he turns in at the 40 where Romo throws a low pass as the QB is trying to stay alive in the pocket until Dez can get the depth of his route (which takes time).  Tyron is having a difficult time holding off his man, but the throw is away and the Cowboys are out to nearly midfield on the easy catch as Bryant has Bradley Fletcher turned around (again).
Play #3: 3Q/4:10 - 1/10/45 - S11 Personnel - quick out to Witten +11 FD
This is a tricky blitz that you might not be looking for on 1st down and the Cowboys come out in Shotgun 11.  I think this demonstrates how locked in Tony Romo was in this game and on this drive, because bad things happen here if you aren't thinking.  4 targets are in route and the Eagles are blitzing 5, but certainly not the rushers you are expecting as both OLBs do not rush.  Barwin drops with Witten and Graham looks like he is waiting for Murray to release (he never does).  You can see Romo recognize and get the ball out to Witten who gets a first down easily, but let's look below at the protection and you will see how handy this play really was.
Pressures are not usually about bringing more than they can block these days.  Rather, they are trying to send guys in areas where you do not expect so they can still have enough in coverage, but also get home with just 5 men.  See above that Tyron never has a guy to block.  Martin and Frederick take the same guy.  So that leaves Leary on his man and the Eagles attacking that A-gap between 65-72 with 2 blitzers.  We don't see this much, but this is a Rex Ryan favorite.  Blitz the A-Gap with a LB to occupy Murray and then a trail blitzer (the other LB) right off his back shoulder who was hiding in the traffic.  When the timing is right, he arrives at the QB before anyone sees him.  You can see he is smacking Romo as the throw is delivered and #9 is tossed to the ground.  Credit the QB and watch Leary and Frederick both reach in vain at the last second when they see what is happening to them.  Fun stuff.
Play #4 - 3Q/3:42 - 1/10/44> - 12 Personnel - Murray +1
They always say that stunts and games from the DL are the best way to deal with zone blocking as it tends to screw up assignments and the unified plan of the OL.  Here is a good case of that as the Cowboys have 12 personnel on 1st down, with both tight ends off Tyron Smith on the left.  They will run an inside zone, which doesn't work because the two inside players cross each other into the Cowboys interior.  Also, Jason Witten has a real chore with Fletcher Cox, and we must admit that Cox swatted Witten aside without trouble.  So, Cox forces the play inside, but the inside guys are having trouble gaining order with the stunt, and the linebackers are untouched and get to Murray without impediment.  1 yard, but another case of the Eagles having plenty of plans for 1st down runs.
Play #5 - 3Q/3:01 - 2/9/43 - 13 Personnel - Murray middle +21 FD
In 2011, on this very field, the Eagles humiliated the Cowboys 34-7 and ran this very play over and over again with great success.  I wrote about it back then, if you care to re-live a rather ugly evening for the Cowboys.  Anyway, it is the counter trap and they would run it right at DeMarcus Ware out of 11 personnel with Brent Celek smashing across at Ware.  Look at this play - 55-Graham is lined up across from Tyron, and then Smith blocks down and leaves Graham untouched.  He runs right at the ball and surely thinks he is about to destroy a play, when....wham!  Gavin Escobar meets him and cleans him up as Murray runs right off his back and through a tunnel of humanity to daylight.  Great job by Murray to dart through the hole even if it isn't there (like Cole Trickle pounding the gas through the smoke in Days of Thunder) and showing nice burst for that point of the game.  Frederick and Leary were both really good at walling off their men here, too.
Play #6 - 3Q/2:15 - 1/10/22 -  11 Personnel  - Murray -1 on run blitz
Here is what happens when you run a zone stretch right into a run blitz.  If it is man coverage, this has a chance, but the slot corner heads right at Murray and is unaccounted for, so Murray does what he can, but Bennie Logan plays the stretch nicely and shakes Leary to make the play.  Minus 1.
Play #7 - 3Q/1:37 - 2/11/23 - S02 - Dig to Dez +21 FD
Cowboys have a 2nd down so they go back to S02, but the Eagles change up the coverage to make sure the Cowboys don't have too easy of a time.  Here, they are bracketing Witten in the middle, man to the left, and a zone (3 over 2) on the right with Dez and Cole Beasley.  The Eagles want to switch on the low shallow route, as Fletcher peels off to Beasley, but 22-Boykin seems a bit confused on his role and 27-Jenkins is playing deep.  You can see Jenkins get up and yell at Boykin, because Dez runs the same Dig route and it is an even easier throw and catch down to the 2.
Play #8 - 3Q/0:50 - 1/G/2 - 13 Personnel - Murray middle touchdown
This is where the beef can be dominant.  13 personnel, and the Cowboys force you to declare your intentions or pay.  Romo hands the ball off and starts walking to the sideline with his fist in the air.  Leary and Frederick usher 91-Cox out of the lane and wall him off and then 29 heads right for that gap and must fall around Kendricks and into the end zone.  Martin holds off Logan and the touchdown is on the board. Then for good measure, Leary falls on Murray with a "good intentions" belly flop to clear people off him.
The Cowboys took the lead back and the game by the scruff of the neck.  It was something special to behold live and a versatile and balanced show of force.  Very impressive work from the offense.  This offense is as strong as the Cowboys have had in many years.
After the game, Jason Garrett addressed his team in the locker-room: "When it went to 24-21, I said "let's see what we've got".  Let's see what this football team is all about.  They started hooting and hollering, and you know what we did?  (Garrett stomps his feet)  We (expletive) dug in. Everybody in this room.  Every player, every coach, every staff member made a (expletive) difference.  We made stops, we made plays, we did the things winning teams do at nut-cutting time.  It's a Hell of a job.  I tell you this all the time: "it's about mental toughness, it's about focus, it's about will, it's about fight."  And that was on display tonight."

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