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 October 13th, 2002, the Cowboys defeated the Carolina Panthers, 14-13, at Texas Stadium in a game best remembered for a very late 24-yard touchdown pass from Quincy Carter to Antonio Bryant.
On November 18th, 2012, the Cowboys defeated the Cleveland Browns at Cowboys Stadium in a game that was won on a Dan Bailey overtime field goal as Dallas held off the rookie combo of 1st rounders Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson, 23-20.
You might be wondering why I am mentioning those two games as we look at the Cowboys 2nd playoff win since 1996. Well, here is your answer. Those are the only 2 times since the Cowboys last Super Bowl victory in which they won a game while surrendering 6 sacks. There are many times they have allowed 6 sacks and lost (including the regular season finale in New York in 2011), but those two were the times they survived until Sunday.
Against the Lions, the Cowboys were sacked 6 times and were under pressure for quite a bit of the game. The Lions are a formidable front, but also uncharacteristically brought quite a bit of pressure, including rather rare DB blitzes. Add to that, the idea that Tony Romo seemed intent on doing what Aaron Rodgers does to frustrate his home fans quite a bit - he holds the ball trying to keep plays alive, risks his health, protects from interceptions, and occasionally holds it too long to give up the sack. It is a very risky game as it only takes one sack for the season to be destroyed via broken collarbone, but these QBs realize the rarity of the opportunity and trust that an extra second will allow the routes to materialize into the play that allows them to advance.
Sometimes, it does. We have the winning touchdown below.
Sometimes, it allows for sacks. Let's look at the protection and see what happened in the first half (3). The 2nd half sacks (3) seemed almost all because Tony was holding the ball and trying to make a play.
This was before the 1st sack and a sign of things to come:
3/7/D40 - S02 - Incomplete to Beasley
Here the Cowboys are in S02 (empty) and the Lions are not going to deal with that today. They know that if you are empty with no attached tight end, there is nothing beyond a 5 man protection. That is called "scat" in many circles and it is dangerous for defenses in that there are so many targets to stretch your secondary. However, they are dangerous to offenses, because they are very vulnerable to exotic pressures. They attack the A-Gap between Martin and Frederick here with a big stunt between 90-Suh and 94-Ansah. They know Martin will go with Suh (because he is Suh!) and then twist Ansah off his back. Frederick is there to help either guard, but he cannot get back quick enough to deal with Ansah in time. Martin needs to hand Suh off to Parnell and slide over and cut off Ansah leaving Romo to deal with the free man coming from Parnell's outside as a DB. This goes on Martin. Romo has to bail on the throw to save his bacon.
Sack #1 - S02 - 2/6/D37 - Sack/Fumble
Here is what happens when teams gameplan based on your tendencies. We started noticing a month ago that the Cowboys love S02 on 2nd down. It has been huge in December that on 2nd down, they are going empty with 2 TE, 3 WRs. It has allowed for some great offensive strikes. But, Detroit is trying to stop it. They want to chase you out of that (which they pretty much did). Here is how they do it.
They lined up with 6 across versus 5. It looks like both tackles are blocking down, but to be fair, I have no idea what 78-Parnell is doing at RT. (Note - after further review, a reader points out that it appears Travis Frederick snaps the ball prematurely as almost all of the OL is late out of their stances - I believe I agree.). He looks confused about the snap count or something because he is not out of his stance. I want to be clear, though. Even if Parnell gets his guy, 77-Smith blocking down indicates that 94-Ziggy Ansah is unblocked. That is Tony's guy - meaning, if they rush one more than you can account for, Romo has to make him miss - which can be done against a DB, but not a DE with his mobility. The 2 "A-Gap" rushers both bail out into zones, but you still have to have them accounted for, so I think this one is the Cowboys being out-schemed. Parnell doesn't help, but Smith leaving Ansah untouched is not schematically sound, either. It really is a mess and Romo has no hope.
Sack #2 - 2/10/D47 - 21 personnel
Again, attack the right side of the line with an overload blitz. There is no question that Green Bay will do this, too. They don't have Suh, but they have Clay Matthews and both will be used as a decoy for the swarm of numbers. Here, Suh occupies Martin and Frederick (because he is Suh!) which means now you can attack Parnell, the FB, and the RB with numbers. It doesn't help that Parnell gets nobody in particular, but you can see he has no good choices here. The only way this play survives is if Martin hangs in there and passes off Suh. But, once he goes with Suh, the B-Gap is massive and everyone loses but Clutts. This could have been very, very bad.
Basically, it seems that Detroit decided to treat the Cowboys right side as a backup RT and a rookie RG. Martin has had a great year, it doesn't mean opponents aren't going to ask tough questions every week.
Sack #3 - 2/7/O46 - 12 personnel
This looks like a classic 2nd down conflict. Detroit is loading up the gaps, Romo is checking out into a play-action pass (I think) and Detroit has the late pressure show with 52-Tapp going from Smith's outside to Leary's shoulder at the perfect moment, leaving a wide B-Gap for 59-Whitehead. Detroit didn't need 8 in the box to chase Dallas out of the run and then they were extra frisky with bringing LBs through gaps opened up by the directional rushing of their DL. If Murray aborts the fake, he might get to Whitehead, but again, the Detroit game plan - especially 2nd down defense - was sound as can be against the Dallas 2-TE offense.
They literally accomplished almost nothing with 2 TEs before halftime and then played almost all 11-personnel in the 2nd half. Quite a subplot for the football strategy nerds, like me.
Now, let's get to a play that you may not forget anytime soon.
This is such a huge moment for the franchise - 3/G/O8 - S11 - Romo to Williams, 8 yards, TD
Trips to the right, Bryant with 2 defenders to the left. They love doing that because it always assures them they have half the field to play 3 versus 4, with man under and a single high safety who decides where to go. Bryant has 2 defenders, the other 3 have 4 more, and DeMarco takes 1 out of the play (2+4+1=7). That means the protection is 5 versus 4. Math!
Romo can do that calculation in his head in merely a fraction of a second. He also knows that if he doesn't get a touchdown here, they will kick a tying field goal and the game is lost if Detroit gets even a field goal. He needs 7. So, he knows he has to buy time. Lots of time. Parnell stones his man. Leary pancakes his. 72/70 double up on Suh (because he is Suh!) and that leaves Tyron versus Ansah. I like Tyron in this matchup, but Romo is asking him for an uncommon 5.03 seconds. Romo takes a hit and throws the ball after Williams breaks off his route.
This is where we get into the conversation - like the 3rd and 20 in Seattle - of "who was Romo throwing the ball to? Now, before you tell me what Romo said in the postgame press conference (he said he was throwing to Bryant but at the last second he changed his mind and threw it to Williams), just look at his angle. It is the same throw. If Williams isn't there, the ball is caught by Bryant and is right on the numbers. He didn't have to adjust at the last second. It is the same target, right? It really doesn't matter. Unbelievable moment.
One that results in this, as my English Soccer commentator friends might call it: "A moment to scream at!"