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.
The last "look back" piece of the week is here, so let's grab three items from the win against the Eagles before we turn full attention to the Falcons at noon on Sunday...
1) Sean Lee Destroyed Things on Sunday
Sean Lee has always been a fine player and the biggest issue of course has been to keep him on the field. He has played at multiple positions and it multiple schemes, but perhaps the "Will LB" in the Marinelli 4-3 is his best fit ever.
We better slow our roll on jumping to conclusions about where this will end. Can he play a full season and should we expect 5 highlight reel plays every week? That seems optimistic, but on Sunday in Philly, the results were quite exceptional.
Above, witness the most enjoyable moment of the day. I put both angles on this because I think it is great to see what the Eagles were complaining about this week - that the Cowboys were sitting on their plays.
Basically on this sweep, Lee sees Sproles move in motion to Bradford's right. He knows the tendencies of what that means. From there, know that 62, Jason Kelce, the center is supposed to get to Sean Lee to cut him off so this doesn't happen. This, means that Sean Lee is going to pretty much beat Sproles to the corner like a heat-seeking missile and destroy the play (after Mincey penetrates and gets the ball rolling). Kelce really never gets close to Lee, and the play is a clinic video on how to cut a path through traffic and to find the ball and end the play. It is beautiful to behold. I have watched it 100 times.
The next play is a zone right out from under center. There are no presnap tips here on direction, but Lee is watching the cutback. He knows the Eagles and he knows the RB and DeMarco Murray loves to cutback against the grain on these zone stretches. Give DeMarcus Lawrence credit for setting a nice edge to chase the play back inside. Crawford and Mincey build a fine wall and Mincey seems eager to sit on the cutback, too. But, there is Lee - as they said, if he plays the Will, he will be clean most of the time (unblocked) and here he meets the runner at the line and ends another play.
The Eagles Right Guard, 66-Gardner, is not very good. Here, it is pretty likely he is supposed to help chip Terrell McClain to his center and then go get a piece of Sean Lee for this play. Kelce and Gardner are so overwhelmed by McClain who blows up this play that Lee is again untouched. Give a huge assist to #97 on this and then Lee cleans it up. It is worth noting that if they get a piece of Lee, this could be a big run. It never got out of the garage.
This interception is a very interesting scene that I don't have figured out. It appears 86-Zack Ertz is Lee's guy all along, but Hitchens flashes in the passing lane at the goal-line and Lee appears to be a ways off his man. Either way, Lee recovers and is face-guarding Ertz for a bit, before he senses the ball is getting close. At that moment, he turns and Sam Bradford kindly hits him in the chest with a huge interception moment of the game. Massive stop for the Cowboys.
I hope you didn't marginalize the injury to 97-Terrell McClain this week. That guy shows some wonderful stuff in short yardage and here is another example. Look at him blow up the frontside here, and then 58-Jack Crawford leaves a clean lane for Sean Lee on the back to meet DeMarco again behind the line of scrimmage. Lee makes no mistake, but this again demonstrates the importance of many contributions to make his job easier. Heck of a job by all involved on so many of these stuff runs.
2) The Play That took Down Tony Romo
Instead of writing this up again, I am actually taking what I wrote on Monday all in italics below and merely putting some visual aids so you can see all of this clearly.
Things were going fine on this afternoon in Philadelphia for the Cowboys who looked in great control of the game, up 13-0 and driving again inside Eagles' territory after a beautiful long pass to Lance Dunbar against rookie linebacker Jordan Hicks from Texas. That 39-yard play converted a 3rd and 13 as Romo scanned the matchups and saw Dunbar out wide against Hicks and lobbed the deep ball right into the bucket for a fine big gain.
The formation for that conversion, though, was the same formation that the Cowboys have used so much since 2013 and would use again 2 plays later. It is "Shotgun 11 empty", with 3 WRs, Jason Witten, and with Dunbar lined up wide as a wide receiver. The good news is that this means Dunbar will often be in man coverage against a Linebacker who cannot run with him. But, this also means that Tony Romo and the offensive line are on their own. "Scat protection" means just the 5 on the line and no blitz support should the defense bring pressure. The defense is not inclined to bring pressure often, of course, because the Cowboys have them spread way out and have 5 men in routes. This requires all of the coverage guys you can handle so the Cowboys are used to getting 4-man pressures against this look.
But, 2 plays later, the Eagles had enough. They were not getting anywhere with 4, so they brought a 5th man. That means it is 5 vs 5. The Cowboys offensive line pitted against the Eagles pass rush. If anyone breaks through the line, he instantly becomes "Tony's guy". That means Romo has to get the ball out and save himself, especially on a 2nd down.
Instead, disaster strikes. Fletcher Cox (notated with 3 in pic above) moves Tyron Smith out wide. Beau Allen (2) takes Travis Frederick the other way. This leaves the man the Eagles wanted to attack - whoever happened to be playing left guard, Mackenzy Bernadeau or La'el Collins, in this case Bernadeau - isolated on an island. Bernadeau picked up the blitzing linebacker DeMeco Ryans (4) quite well, but there was a trail blitzer right off Ryans back shoulder. It was Hicks (5) again. (Hicks delays his blitz until Ryans is engaged and then runs in behind him) That same rookie Longhorn who was covering Dunbar on the long pass was not the surprise pressure man and when the Eagles in front of him all occupied their men, he had a free run at Romo. From there, Romo must get rid of the football.
Why he didn't is interesting as well. The Cowboys are definitely looking to their left to run something involving Cole Beasley who is between Terrance Williams and Witten. Williams is going on a deep route, but Witten appears to be intersecting his route with Beasley on what is commonly a "rub route" to free Beasley in the middle of the field. Unfortunately, it doesn't really appear that Beasley is planning on doing what Witten thinks he will do. Made worse, Malcolm Jenkins, the Eagles safety who is up on Beasley, is sniffing the same thing Witten is seeing and cuts inside to jump the WR screen to Beasley (even though Beasley doesn't look like he is planning on that at all).
NEW: Ok, since Monday, I have talked to enough people involved in the play (including Witten himself) to see what happened here. Below, look at this picture that shows the Eagles are playing Cover 1 which means that they have a high safety (in the circle) and the other safety is supposed to be on Witten. He is not (notated with the question mark). The Eagles have blown their coverage and the Cowboys have an easy gainer here if they can get Witten out in the flat. Unfortunately, Beasley's man saw this issue and made alterations.
All of this makes Romo change plans. He is definitely planning on the quick pass to Beasley. But, Jenkins jumps it meaning that if Romo throws it, this can easily become a Pick-6 for the Eagles. So, he doesn't throw it. He pumps, double pumps, and then loses the ball as Cox and Hicks converge. If he throws it away, this might not happen, but Romo was planning on some of the improvising that has made him very successful. This time, though, after Hicks lands on top of him as his body lands on its side, a maneuver we have seen over and over demonstrate that the human body was not created with pro football in mind, the clavicle was broken by the impact.
Ok, back to our Xs and Os visit here. I have been asked quite a bit this week if I think this means Romo is to blame for his injury. Basically, when someone gets hurt, we want to put the blame on somebody.
Honestly, it is football. You cannot praise him for his improvisational skills when it works and then get mad the one time he falls awkwardly and gets hurt. He is who he is and he generally makes all of the correct gambles at this point of his career. But, this one was incorrect. He would kill the play if he could do it again. This is a quick reminder of how impossible it is to do what he does for a living. Hundreds of split second decisions, and if you get the wrong one wrong, you miss 2 months.
That is why there is nothing close to "QB1".
3. Brandon Weeden Burns the Cover 0.
The key to the Cowboys season might be the ability for Brandon Weeden to take this offense and make it move. Not to Romo's level, but at least to the level of a replacement-level QB in the NFL. Can he do it? He certainly has the arm. But, at the moment of truth can he pull the trigger, find the right guy, and then make the defense pay for risking the house on a blitz?
This play gives everyone hope.
Here we see the Cowboys in Empty, S11. They evidently trust Weeden enough to put him in this spot on 3rd and long in Philadelphia in the 4th Quarter (albeit with a reasonable lead). The Eagles don't even attempt to disguise their plan here as there is simply no safety back there for Weeden to see. He has to know they are about to bring the house to hit him, but also that there is a massive opportunity here. Beasley in the right slot runs a short route to the inside, so now the only receiver on the right is Terrance Williams against Byron Maxwell.
Now, something I feel pretty strongly about is the idea that has been preached by defensive coaches forever - our coverages must match our fronts. This means that if we are blitzing, let's understand the right coverages behind it for the quick throws. This is why you will always see press coverage when someone brings the house - a QB wants to get the ball out quickly, so let's make that impossible with corners right in everyone's face, right?
So what is Maxwell doing here? It is 3rd and long, but he is dropping 10 yards off to the sticks. There is no safety. What is he anticipating that Williams is about to do? He has run the skinny post/slant in-breaking routes 5-10 times already. What is the hesitation from the corner? Does he not know it is Cover 0? He has no help.
Here you can see the hit Weeden knows is coming. He understands he is about to be hit. He has indicated in the press that he is concerned about his health and has already taken a concussion in preseason, so there are some of us watching to see how willing he is to take one to make a play. This is the best evidence that he still is ready to do what it takes to play QB in the NFL. Defenses will test that week to week, but this is now on film to show that he is not to be insulted with a simple test like this.
He was taking candy from a baby here. And it gives the organization a little hope for the next few weeks.