Every Thursday in this space, I try to enjoy the finer strategy points of the latest game with a piece that focuses primarily on the Xs and Os of 3 key plays or concepts. This is an interactive piece in that I am more than happy to accept your nominees before Thursday on what you would like us to take a look at via email or twitter. I am not a football coach, merely a hardcore enthusiast who tries to learn more about this fantastic sport every day. With that in mind, I will get some things wrong and am more than happy to admit that at times there is a fair amount of guesswork from those of us on the outside of the coaching room.
Nevertheless, I would argue that football is the type of sport that gets more interesting the deeper you dig down and don't merely watch the ball and your fantasy lineup. 22 men affect each play and it is enjoyable for many of us to watch each play from a number of angles and discuss what we see.
Let's begin with our Week 1 plays from the win over the Giants.
1Q, 1st Drive - Cowboys try to fool the Giants
Watch the play above. It is from the 7:24 mark of the 1st Quarter and on 1st and 10, the Cowboys are in 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE) and run a simple inside zone that Randle bounces outside for no gain. Hardly remarkable, right?
But, watch the presnap motion from 83 Williams and the way he then cracks inside and tries to free Randle up with an inside block. The Giants do a nice job against it, but it looks now like Scott Linehan was using that play to set up a play that he would call 3 snaps later. As you know, coaches like to script their first drive or two, and this one looks like something from the week of preparation that they would set the hook with one play and then come back and try to make them pay.
Now, 3 snaps later, on 1st and goal from the 5, comes the exact same look:
Same look. Same double TEs on the right, both WRs on the left. Bring Williams in motion with the single back. Same run blocking motions from the OL, but this time, Romo doesn't hand the ball off to Randle, he brings it back and tries to hit Williams who clearly is not blocking this time, he is trying to act like he is blocking and then appear behind that LB for a nice easy dink pass TD.
It didn't work as Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is there to defend and it was a tight space to squeeze it in, but I love the chess match. The Cowboys almost got the reward for the setup. LBs and Safeties trust their eyes and their memories. The Cowboys tried to use that against them and almost pulled it off.
2. 1Q - 3:01 - JJ Wilcox makes a big play on Odell Beckham
Giants are driving on their first possession here and it is 1st and 10 at the Cowboys 34. The Giants are in 12 personnel and the Cowboys are in their base 4-3 defense with 4 DBs. This, of course, is the most basic play-calling scenario you can get and both teams are playing it as the "whole playbook" type situation it is.
The Cowboys are blitzing Sean Lee and Barry Church comes crashing down to destroy any ideas of a 1st down run, and the Giants roll with some play-action with only 2 WRs in route. Frankly, Randle at the top is running his route like there is no chance it is going to him, so Odell Beckham down below sure seems like the primary (and only) really read here for anyone involved - precisely, Eli Manning and the Cowboys FS JJ Wilcox. Take a look:
The idea here is that the Giants are expecting for Wilcox to do what Wilcox has done plenty in his first 2 years, and that is to play quite conservatively and to leave a space in front of him where Beckham can run a deep slant and keep in full gallop all the way to the far pylon. If Wilcox doesn't cut it off at the pass, this play could easily be a TD.
As an aside, the Cowboys have been waiting on Wilcox to develop to the next level for a bit. He keeps getting better but the strides are not massive. They do want to run a lot of Cover 3 (the coaches speak quite a bit of using concepts from Seattle) but to do that right, they need a FS that resembles Earl Thomas at least a bit. That is tough to pull off, especially for a project draft pick like Wilcox who had all sorts of raw ability but very little experience in anything resembling what he sees at this level.
Now, again, this is a rather straight-forward read for Wilcox. He sees one primary receiver and realizes what is happening when Beckham begins his break. 27 plants his foot in the ground and charges forward and is looking to rock the receiver and jar the ball loose. This angle shows it pretty well:
Confident and aggressive. Was it a fumble? It was ruled an incomplete pass, but a safety making a play in space in centerfield? Odell Beckham had his bell rung, Wilcox broke his nose, and the Giants were served a message about coming over the middle. This was a real interesting performance from Wilcox where they put him in man on a few occasions against Beckham and he was really a positive player for the Cowboys. Nicely done.
3. 4Q - 0:07 - The Game Winning Touchdown
I will argue that the biggest issue on this beauty that seems to not get enough mention is that if this play is tackled short of the goal-line for any reason (sack or Witten is held at the 1) the game is over. There is simply no way they get another snap off with no timeouts and the clock running. The play ends with 0:07 left and there is just no way to get everyone lined up 10 yards downfield in that amount of time. You can imagine the buzzkill of this game ending on a 10-yard completion to Witten that is stopped at the 1. It would have been unpleasant.
The play is above in the still frame and honestly, when you look at the routes and the scenario, you really do wonder what the other plan was. They see the Giants in "Cover-2" which they have switched back and forth in the 4th Quarter between that and "2 Deep-Man Under".
Then the play is made even more difficult with a poor snap. Again, if the snap somehow scoots past and behind Romo, the game is over. Luckily, the Giants did not bring a blitz. With only 3 rushers, the botched snap is no big deal. Romo calmly fields it, picks it up, and really never looks anywhere but to Witten.
Here is what I wrote on Monday in the Morning After: "Witten was passed off in the zone to backup middle Linebacker Uani' Unga, but Unga allowed Witten to get underneath leverage with that familiar post-up that he has performed dozens of times. Witten against a player who had never played in the NFL before last night? I am pretty sure that Tony Romo knew where he was going all along."
Unga simply cannot let that happen. But, like the rookie Landon Collins on the TD before, Witten takes advantage of another greenhorn. TD Cowboys.
They talk about the game slowing down and the QB having a moment of feeling like everything is at his command at the moment of truth. 93,579 in attendance, millions and millions watching on tv to see what they were going to do on this play at this moment. Romo acts like it is no big deal and finds his guy in the end zone just as Witten crosses the line to pay dirt.
Enjoy that. It is the latest come-from-behind winning touchdown in Dallas Cowboys history.