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.
Here are some talking points from the Bears game:
Play #1 - 2Q/1:14 - 3/15/D47 - Romo deep middle to Witten for 19 yards and first down.
Personally, I think this is the play of the game. Not because of what happened, necessarily, but because of what might have happened had this play not occurred. The Cowboys at this point were in a real dog fight and were tied at 7-7 with 1:14 left in the half.
To this point, Tony Romo hardly threw a pass that was longer than 5 yards. For those of us who fretted for the entire week after Thanksgiving that Tony doesn't look right, this play was vital. But, don't worry about the fans. NFL defenders know all of these things. They know what they see and they are starting to wonder if Romo can hurt them down the field like he usually could.
So, on this play, not only does he keep a drive alive that will combo a touchdown with running out the entire clock, but it does demonstrate that when needed, he can reach back and throw a reasonable strike on 3rd and long.
This is that empty shotgun that gives a lot of people great pause. There was a time, not so long ago, when an empty backfield meant a blitz was coming and then possibly a sack. But, under Linehan, the Cowboys love doing this and love using 2 TEs to one side with a WR, then Beasley and Bryant to the opposite side so they can combo their routes together to put major conflicts on the 2 DBs and safety that generally follow them. Here, I identified the players and the 3rd and Long route concepts that basically have everyone looking like they are running a vertical for the first 10 yards. Now, a zone all has to back off and concede the underneath routes, which, of course, might allow a 1st down if the protection holds up.
Escobar peels off at 10, Beasley and Witten are at the sticks, and Bryant and Williams are both raising their arm in this picture telling Romo the think they are open. Williams seems to really be open, and Dez seems a bit optimistic that the safety isn't watching him closely.
From the sideline All-22 angle (which is generally no different than the TV copy in Chicago except it is wider) we can see that Chicago is in a zone, but with 5 targets all running verticals, it turns into a 5 on 5 coverage with the safeties just trying to take the most dangerous threats (which they are diagnosing on the fly, of course).
But, here is the angle to watch. It just shows the 4 rushers versus 5 protectors and how confident and calm Romo can stand in the pocket and survey the field. Nobody is close to him, he has 3.2 seconds and might have had more if he needed it to bounce on his feet about 5 times and wait for Witten to get outside leverage on 57-Bostic and complete a very easy 19-yarder, which we know is anything but easy.
Play #2 - 3Q/12:41 - 3/3/C24 - Romo Pass deep right to Beasley, 24 yards, Touchdown
So, going back to play #1, the Cowboys now have an alternate option on 3rd and 3. But, so do the Bears, because they thought that pass to Witten was unpleasant. The Bears decide to bring two linebacker (Bostic and 59 Jones) on a blitz (with Jared Allen dropping with Witten in coverage) and then walk up the safety to match up with Beasley. That, of course, is Chris Conte who is not really good in space to say the least.
This is the same "Shotgun 02" formation on 3rd Down, which is a way to really spread out the coverage, get DeMarco Murray off the field, and find a way to get matchup issues Beasley and Escobar on the field at the same time.
But, more than anything, this shows that Tony Romo is usually the best QB on the field when the Cowboys play. He has Willie Young - a really impressive pass rusher come free on this blitz. We can speculate the protection, but when 2 LBs jump in and a DE drops at the snap, that can really cross up what you want to do with your 5-man protection. As you can see, Frederick has to take 57-Bostic, Zach Martin is on 93-Will Sutton, so Free has to take the inside threat 59-Jones. Handle the inside threats and sometimes, the QB has to account for a guy on his own (especially with an empty backfield). That is his man to make miss, and he does it with ease. Check it out below:
For Romo to escape Young is one thing (which we take for granted because Romo does it all the time, but that is not a normal QB routine) but then to loft a perfect touch pass (albeit a bit of a duck) to a spot for Beasley. Maybe the story of this season is how many plays Romo has made without the use of all of his repertoire. He has been really, really good for a QB who is beat up. By the way, Jared Allen was not sticking with Witten underneath, either. I know that is quite a shock.
Cole Beasley has really grown into a nice role player here who the Cowboys are beginning to really depend on. Heck of a play by all involved.
Play #3 -2Q/6:18 - 2/7/D12 - Cutler to Bennett, 12 yards.
Here is a touchdown that looked all too easy. You know, because it was. Why? Well, the Cowboys busted another coverage. This is the biggest concern right now about the defense - despite the many other issues - is that the secondary is starting to have one guy who is not on the same page as everyone else.
This is a spot where the Bears in 11 personnel can really cause issues because somebody who is really good is usually going to have a tasty option. The Cowboys are in a coverage that we believe is supposed to be Quarters, but Church is running something else (what appears to be perhaps a Cover 3 where he jumps down and takes the flat and Wilcox is supposed to slide over to Center Field). When Church walks up to get in front of Bennett, Cutler sees Cover 3 and holds Wilcox very well with his eyes to the far side of the field. Now, Bennett runs right by Hitchens and sits over the goal-line with incredible ease.
So, you watch this and you look at 4 different players on the Cowboys to have possibly been the guy who busted - Was Hitchens supposed to take the seam? Was Carr supposed to leave his guy in the flat for Church and switch back to Bennett (next to impossible)? Was Wilcox supposed to get over and blow that play up? Or was Church running a different coverage from everyone else?
This is exactly why we can't really point at someone without knowing the call. Luckily, in this case, we know that this one was on Barry Church (as a source in the know indicated as much). But, just trying to decipher what happened there without the call is next to impossible.
Bonus play: We normally do 3, but this one is too good.
4Q - 14:50 - 1/10/C48 - Murray left for 40 yards, First Down.
This is where the game is 35-13 early in the 4th, but if you want to know what the league thinks of the Cowboys running game, here it is. Pulling guards to the left and watch the Bears freak out.
It is the proverbial hole you can drive a truck through as the pulling guards cause everyone to go meet them at the corner, and there is Murray just cutting back inside to find....nobody.
This is exceptional and rare at the NFL level. Just look at Smith clear everyone left and the Bears do the rest. Please also not that 65-Leary pulls and destroys 21-Ryan Mundy at the corner in a pancake that surely made the film room react with joy this week. You would not want to try to take on Leary if you are that much smaller. If you scroll up and see this collision from the sideline view, you will wince in pain for Mundy.
On to Philadelphia. Feel free to comment below on anything we discussed above.