Friday, December 26, 2014

Xs and Os - Week 15 - Colts

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, many things were noteworthy and interesting.  Originally, I was planning to discuss the offensive line blocking schemes, because over the evolution in 2014 from an exclusive zone-blocking team to what has become - including Sunday - as a team that calls a ton of man-blocking plays with pulling linemen.  On the first drive, there were 7 called running plays with only 2 of them being zone and 5 being man-blocking concepts.
This speaks to the larger point that in today's NFL, nobody is exclusively "one thing" much anymore.  It is too easy to defeat.  If you are a 3-4 defense, you likely have several 4-3 fronts, and if you are a zone blocking team, you likely have other things in your playbook to keep everybody honest.  There was a story in Sports Illustrated recently that the Cowboys are a Cover-3 defense.  I would agree that they play some Cover-3, but I would not call it anywhere close to "what they are", rather in most cases, this would be an example of something they play at certain times.  The larger point being that nobody does one thing.  It would be too easy to deal with.
But, what I do want to work on today were two exceptional passing touchdowns.  There were several more, but these two were selected.  The top one was used because Tony Romo spoke at length about it in the post-game and as he unpeeled the layers of information, the play gets even more interesting.  I included his thoughts on the play with the video here and you can play it below.  I highly recommend you hear Tony talk you through the play before I look at it.  He certainly has great thoughts on what he was looking at.
Play #1 - 3Q/4:48 - 2/11/25 - Romo to Witten for 25 yard TD on seam route.

This is "Shotgun 02" with Romo in empty, 3 threats to his left (83-89-82) and 2 to his right with 11-88.  Why is that important?  Well, this is the same personnel grouping that has been taking teams apart in Philadelphia that we featured here and in Chicago that we broke down and featured here If you love this stuff like I do, you should really review those two pieces and break down how they are playing this awesome chess game. It is a week-to-week dance where they know that defenses are figuring out how to deal with this look and then manipulating them to do the bidding of the Cowboys offense. It is quite enjoyable.

It starts with the pass rush.  There was a time, not so long ago, that if the Cowboys went empty, they would see blitzing.  But now, Romo and the offensive line have been so good at handling it, the blitzes have stopped and the 3-man rush has been the new approach by many defenses.  Well, this means 8 to cover 5 Cowboy threats, and usually this requires either patience by the QB to take underneath gains or precision to throw perfect passes.  As you can see, Romo chose the latter.
Beasley is the only receiver running underneath in what appears to be an option route.  He reads the coverage and then takes his route to the sideline.  The other 4 are on "Go" routes, with the Colts in sort of a 4-4 zone that looks like Quarters up top (but the safeties are definitely not selling anything but getting to the sideline threats immediately), and the middle LB - 50 Jerrell Freeman - sitting on Jason Witten (surely expecting Witten to do what he often does, which is to sit down on a hook at the sticks).
This is where it is fun to hear Romo talk about where he was looking as you can actually see his head go from Dez, to Cole, to Witten, exactly as he says.  He also has all kinds of time to let this happen, but note how he says he has to know where both safeties are.  The safety to the right is all over Dez (because he watched the Eagles film and knows that is Romo's first idea if the corner out there is not getting help) and the safety to his left is on Escobar because with 4 verticals, it is clear that they are getting hit with a zone beater and he can't get them all.  Usually a safety is worried about the "most dangerous threat", but when all 4 are headed to the end zone, the math dictates that someone is going to be in a favorable match-up.  And that, of course, is Freeman vs Witten.
It happens so fast and it does take a great throw right to the perfect spot, but Romo knows where he is headed once the hips turn on Freeman.  Witten sells the hook with one inside step, and from there, the LB stops and then turns to run.  Good night, Irene.
Watch Romo here.  Look at a man who seems to have it all figured out at this point of his career.   Forgive me if the Fountains of Wayne tune "All Kinds of Time" plays in my head here.
He looks to the left
He looks to the right
And there in a golden ray of light
Is his open man
Just as he planned
The whole world is his tonight
Play #2 - 4Q/10:19 - 3/6/43 - Weeden to Williams for TD.
This is how you know the offense is ready to win something.  When it is no longer Romo to Dez.  Instead, both have been pulled from the game and the Colts want to blitz Brandon Weeden with 6 and see how that works out.  You can see the route concept underneath serves to affect the safety and isolate Williams against the corner 28-Toler.  Once Weeden sees this, he knows exactly where he is going and it is - like when they attacked Bradley Fletcher in Philadelphia - over when the ball leaves the QB's hand.
Now, you can see the safeties here.  The Cowboys are in S11, with Joseph Randle in to protect, so the Colts when they send 6 rushers are left to Single-high, man under.  The single-high safety is on the opposite hash mark leaning to the side with Devin Street (and assuming Toler can handle his own business).
Here, note the perfect pass protection.  6 on 6 and everyone has their business worked out nicely.  Randle and Bernadeau (and Parnell) are not the regulars, of course, and this entire lineup of 11 is what you might expect in preseason, but even they hit the Colts hard for a touchdown when they were given their chance.
Weeden puts a beautifully thrown pass right on top of Williams and the Baylor product turns on the jets and goes and gets it easily.  One of those days where everything the Cowboys tried turned to gold.

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