One of my many offseason projects is to do the annual sack registry, as we focus on the 40 times the Cowboys conceded a sack. In their efforts to become the best offensive line in football, I see their ability to defend the pocket so Tony Romo can do his job and preserve his heath as the single biggest obstacle that stands in their way. I highly recommend that you read Part 1 of this series if you missed it, as we established the overall premise of this study and discussed some macro issues on the topic before we analyzed Weeks 1-4 of 2014.
This particular entry will grab Weeks 5-8 (games against Houston, Seattle, the Giants, and the Redskins) - which was essentially the month of October 2014. This is also the 4-game split in the season where the team conceded the most sacks (9) of any 4-game period (until they got to the playoffs where they gave up 10 in just 2 games).
We will see a few things in this entry which are key - one is the role of the QB in pass protection. A QB can and should be blamed for sacks as often as the men in front of him, despite the fact that we seldom see a QB do something physically incorrect (like you will see from those who must protect). This is because a QB pass protects mentally. Peyton Manning has many great attributes in his skill-set, but perhaps the one that is presented to QBs at all levels for them to attempt to emulate is his uncanny ability to avoid sacks. Over the course of his career, there have been 539 team seasons in the NFL. Manning owns 7 of the best 20 years for not conceding sacks. He basically teaches the course on not getting hit. It saves his team yards, but it also saves him a physical beating that shortens careers.
How does he do it? He gets the ball out. He refuses to hold on to the ball too long to wait for someone to get open, save for the rare moments where the game is on the line. He will happily throw the ball away (sometimes even risking an intentional grounding) to "live to fight another day". His offense is designed to suit this situation, with many quick-hitting routes that allow him to use less than 2 seconds in the pocket regularly. He doesn't do it perfectly all of the time, but he certainly does most of the time. Manning is the industry leader in terms of pocket awareness and not allowing blitzes to ruin his plans.
So, insisting on getting the ball out quickly is a real key (with proper route designs that allow for this) but the 2nd important way a QB assists with a vital role in pass protection is knowing that sometimes, he has a guy. We have seen this quite a bit over the course of time and often Romo does pretty well. There are times where an opponent - especially Washington - will risk everything to send one more guy than you can block. If the Cowboys have 5 "in", they will blitz 6. If they keep 6 in, they will blitz 7. And yes, sometimes, when the Cowboys have a RB and a TE staying in, they will even blitz 8. This is what we call "Cover 0" usually, behind it, because if you are blitzing one more guy than they have protecting, then you can only play man-to-man behind it. In other words, there is no safety. A QB must know this by checking his safeties in pre-snap reads, and when he sees they are coming for him, he knows that A) there is nobody in center field and B) there are not enough guys to block this.
We don't see Cover 0 blitzes in this generation like we did in the good ol days. In the 1980's, every team would send a full-house blitz and dare the QB to beat them. The problem is, QBs did. And more and more defensive coordinators decided that Cover 0 blitzes were too risky and unsound. But, not all of them. The Ryan brothers still do it. Jim Haslett will still do it. Cover 0 lives, but it is much more rare. How does a QB deal with a team blitzing more than you can protect? 2 ways: 1) get the ball out quickly or 2) make the extra man miss. We have seen Romo try both over the years with mixed results. But, these situations are often where a sneaky spin can open up an amazing throw down the field.
So, yes, QB's are often to blame for sacks. Get the ball out and live to fight another day.
Anyways, let's look at this week's group. Sacks 9-17 of 2014.
First a disclaimer: The analysis below is not meant to be exhaustive for each play. There is context that could require massive write-ups on each sack, but in the interest of time, let’s do this short and sweet. I will try to identify the bust on each sack, but sometimes, it will be a guess as we do not know specific assignments. We are trying to get this right, but invariably, some of you will see the same play and reach a different conclusion. Cool?
|#9||HOU||1/7:19||2/5/28||4||56 - Cushing||29-Murray/9-Romo|
Here, the Texans use that 3-4 to get a sack by rushing 4, but bringing the inside LB Cushing through the A-Gap (between Frederick and Martin) rather than an edge LB. What is crazy here is the Cowboys have 6 OL in the game here (with Parnell outside Tyron) and they double team each of the Texans front 3. They are trying to fool the Texans into a big play-action pass over the top to Dez Bryant here on 2nd and 5. So, they bring in Parnell and tell the Texans this is a handoff to Murray, but Houston doesn't believe them. The Texans blitz an inside LB (perhaps even as a run blitz), but because the safeties don't bite, the home-run over the top is not there. This makes Romo reload and try to buy time. But, he must have forgotten that Murray can not hold off Cushing forever. Cushing is between 30 and 40 pounds heavier than Murray and he is getting no help. Romo has to know better here, so he gets half the blame. This is also one of a few attempts at play-action that did not go well, prompting the Cowboys to do that less and less.
|#10||SEA||3/11:29||2/6/43||5||94 - J Smith||84-Hanna|
Here is another one. 12 personnel, 2nd and normal, play-action fake. But, to sell this, James Hanna has to block Bruce Irvin on the edge. That's not going to work. You can see here why some QBs just don't care for play-action - to sell the fake, they have to turn their back on the play for at least a second, so when they turn around, they can hear the footsteps before they can even make a read down field. Irvin destroys Hanna, the Seahawks did not bail on the play-action, and this play was dead and gone. The Seahawks did rush 5, but it wasn't really a blitz - it was just how they defend a run and when you sell play-action, that is how teams will defend it sometimes.
|#11||NYG||1/14:28||2/5/25||5||90 - J Pierre Paul||9-Romo|
Are you starting to see why the Cowboys stopped with the play-action fakes? Here is another one. This one is to sell the inside give on the 2nd play of the game and convert it into a screen to Murray it appears. The Giants also did not believe the theatrics, and instead sat right on Murray in the flat, causing Romo to reload and then run around with some level of "Favre-ian shuffle". This is where 80,000 people advise him to just get rid of it. Not every play or every drive is going to be a great one. Self preservation, young jedi. Romo gets this one and play-action is almost dead.
|#12||NYG||2/1:21||1/10/27||4||90-J Pierre Paul||77-Smith|
We won't spend too much time on this one - it is obvious. This is SCAT protection (just the front 5) against their front 4. You have to get this blocked up to have any chance in the NFL. Tyron Smith is great, but his best test every year has been JPP. Tyron wins most of the battles, but it sure seems like JPP has his moments and here, it is pretty simple. 77 has the blind side, but gets off balance on his punch and it is over. Leary and Parnell were losing, too, but this play was doomed.
Ok, a small note here on the last 5 of this study. These are all from that Washington game that will long be remembered as where 2014 almost was destroyed by a bad Redskins team. I wrote a long piece about these back when the game happened and even provided downfield angles to explain the plays and why I think the coaching staff was to blame for much of that mess. This was all about the Redskins smartly deciding to cause chaos with the Cowboys 3rd Down tendencies.
|#13||WAS||1/13:12||3/5/41||5||31 - Meriweather||9-Romo/77-Smith|
What the video doesn't show is 73-Frank Kearse adding to the scheme a ton by flipping his 3-tech setup from side to side as Romo sets protections - which, of course, throws the protection off. Now, after he moves, Romo directs Witten over to the opposite side which seems to be the wrong call. They are now outnumbered to the left. Frederick now changes the protection and it looks organized again if he can help Leary and Smith clean up the 3 to the right. Here, it looks to me (and this is a guess) that Tyron made the wrong decision here. If he goes out to Meriweather, they are good. But, he doesn't, he is still on 93/73 inside. So you have Frederick, Leary, and Smith blocking 2 guys and the 3rd is untouched. Then, Meriweather runs to Romo untouched and sits on the Romo outside spin. I think Romo (set the wrong protection pre-snap) and Smith are the two most likely culprits, but this is one of those cases where we have to speculate given the complexity of the play.
Here are a few things to consider. Washington brings 7 with Dallas having just 6 in to protect and the 3rd down back is Lance Dunbar. So, Romo has the guy on the far left on his own, and to Romo's credit, he makes him miss. If everyone else holds up, they have a chance downfield against Cover 0. But, how is Dunbar, at 198, going to hold off a middle LB for long? If there is a bust, it has to go to Dunbar - or perhaps the coaching staff that thought he could handle blitz pickup on a 3rd and long. I will take a LB over Dunbar every time. Also, Romo might have to understand that a punt is ok.
There is 73-Kearse flipping spots again. Now, a stunt to his side where Kearse wants to mess with Parnell, leaving Kerrigan to stunt around Martin to make sure the rookie is paying full attention. Kerrigan wins here and gets to Romo even though there was time to get the ball out quick. But, Washington knew that he would take more time to throw and caught them by being safer with a stunt on a new RT and a rookie RG. Martin has to slide over to get Kerrigan, but I am guessing the late movement of Kearse threw off his initial plan. Their attack worked great and even though Dunbar had his edge guy, the sack was still pretty easy for Washington.
|#16||WAS||3/7:59||3/11/36||8||52 - Robinson||Coaches|
Here is the play that almost derailed everything. The Cowboys are in 3rd and 11, but also very stubborn. They don't want to let Washington bully them anymore. Washington shows 7, but bring 8. Dallas has 7 in. They also want to let their receivers get to the sticks. And they miss the most important blitzer. Note: The general rules are you protect from the inside out - that means that if someone is blitzing from center and another from the edge, you have to take the biggest threat first.
It all happens so quickly. 73-moves sides again. 97-Hatcher slants left and 56-Riley goes right to make this path you could drive a truck through for 52-Robinson on a dead sprint to try to wipe out Romo. The question then becomes who should Murray get? He elects the outside guy, 25-Clark, but I am guessing (again) that he needs to get the guy coming down main street and leave 25 for Romo to try to deal with (even though that is the blindside). Either way, this is not going to go anywhere with these routes.
I might vote naive coaching/QB play on this one. You simply cannot play into their hands when they are getting more and more aggressive on every 3rd down. Where is Beasley and the rub routes that they showed against St Louis? In other words, once this look is on, you have to alert some hot routes that consider the score/game situation and understand that the world does not depend on this conversion. Sometimes, you need to punt. But, if ever there was a time where you must burn their hands to get them to stop touching the oven, it seems that this is that moment.
|#17||WAS||4/1:25||2/1/12||5||31 - Meriweather||29-Murray|
I think we will have to assume that I have been building up Murray's blitz pickup acumen too much, as this one has to be on him. But, again, the fire zone is the concept of sending an overload blitz from one side. You send only 5, but you take advantage of the 3x3 protection concepts (the idea that C-G-T take one side and RB-G-T generally take the other). You are not outnumbering the entire line, just one side of it. But, as you can see above, if Murray just gets Meriweather, this is protected. Romo cannot assume that Murray might read it wrong. He has to depend on those in front of him to do their job and then he does his. This one is clearly on the mix-up by Murray and the non-recognition of a blitzing Meriweather. This, of course, is aided by the depth of 31 when he blitzes. For once, he is not breathing on the line of scrimmage, but in normal coverage depth.
Let's just admit the Washington game was an unmitigated disaster.
So through the 8th game, Free has busted on 3.5 sacks, Tyron Smith 3, Tony Romo 2.5, DeMarco Murray 2.5, Zack Martin 1.5, Lance Dunbar, James Hanna, Ron Leary, and the OC all get 1 each. It is worth noting that Free missed part of the Seattle game and all of the NY and Washington games.
Like I said, I am not promising I am seeing these all correctly, but that is what I came up with. How about you?