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.
Usually, after a Cowboys loss, fan fatigue has definitely set in before Thursday, but let's take one last look at the Falcons game from the perspective of breaking it down in Xs and Os fashion. Many of these were suggested by you, the reader, so let's get down to business...
1) - Julio Jones TD vs Patmon and No Real Help
I get asked quite a bit what the Cowboys consider their base defense. I would love to spend more time on this sometime soon and walk through the different components of how it all works, but anytime somebody tells you the Cowboys run a Tampa 2, stop listening to anything else they say. The Cowboys do not run a Tampa 2 defense and while they might use that coverage once every blood-moon, the base of the Cowboys has generally been Cover 3 (like Seattle).
Perhaps you have heard this is a copy-cat league. Well, the Seahawks have put out a defense that has run the NFL for several seasons now, so yes, you are seeing Cover 3 all over the place. Unfortunately, many of those teams are learning it also helps to have Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner, and Kam Chancellor to run that scheme really well, but that goes for any scheme.
The Cowboys, though, have been in man coverage the majority of the time in 2015. Many of us wondered if that is where they were headed when they took another corner in the draft (who plays pretty strong man), but when Orlando Scandrick was injured and lost for the year, it quickly became viewed by many that they may need to stay in their zones.
It appears Rod Marinelli disagrees. He wants his DBs in man coverage in many situations, because it seems that bringing Sean Lee from the "hole" on pressures is a big part of what they have planned in 2015, and Scandrick is not going to ruin that plan.
Cover 1 is the most basic coverage in football with a single safety in center field and another defender (often the other safety or middle LB) patrolling the hole. The Hole, is basically the territory in the short-middle of the defense. In there, he can play a robber, a QB spy, or he can often blitz. Everyone else is in man-coverage (with outside leverage forcing action inside to the two safeties).
So, here is this play. 3rd and 3 from the Cowboys 45 yard line. The Falcons have to get to the 42 to keep the drive alive. They line 3 up on the left with Julio Jones in tight. The other 2 outside are going to run a rub-route to free up the outside man underneath at the sticks. This is where the play is likely designed to go. It is there and the Cowboys do not have it covered.
Here is how the play is drawn up:
Now, Matt Ryan is a veteran QB (He is 30 already! - We are all getting old fast) and Julio Jones is a beast. The Falcons have a rule that is no matter what the play is called, if Matt thinks Julio has something tasty, then the play can be modified on the fly.
But here, he is lined up against the Cowboys inside against Tyler Patmon. The Falcons bring a man over in motion to reveal the Cowboys man coverage. The assumption is that Barry Church is actually going to go to Jones (because Patmon is trying to cover the unstoppable guy) and once Church goes with Jones, then they throw underneath on the rub route for the easy conversion to 84-Roddy White. This is the conflict to beat this coverage for the man in the hole (Church). Either way you go, Ryan is going the other way. Pretty basic football.
But, to the shock and surprise of everyone in the stadium, Church doesn't really do either. He doesn't jump the quick slant to White and he doesn't help Patmon in the deep hole. Patmon is playing outside leverage which of course means he is planning on help on the inside. There is no help. Ryan puts a little on the throw and it is academic. JJ Wilcox in center has to make that tackle to keep a bad play from becoming a terrible play. But, honestly, neither safety is resembling Earl Thomas or Kam Chancellor here. In fact, in a day where there were so many poor defensive performances, you could argue the safeties were right there at the top of the list.
This seems to be the coverage they want to play plenty as they have shown it repeatedly against the Giants, Eagles, and now Falcons. It does allow for more options up front, but clearly, leaving Patmon with no help against Jones with the entire field to cover is absurd. From Patmon's body language, you can tell he was none too pleased when he arrived back on the sideline. Where is my help?
2) - Sean Lee Pressures Result in Good and Bad
Let's stay with the theme that the Cowboys want to use Lee as more of a weapon than they would ever ask of Bruce Carter last year in the same spot. They trust Lee to be much more than a Will LB and in doing so are trying to use this new (old) toy in many different ways. Here are 2 times they did this, where they demonstrate the full spectrum of results.
3rd and 8, Falcons 1st drive. Here is Cover 1, with Lee and Church down in the hole. One (Lee) has the RB if he goes out on a route or rushes if the RB stays in. The other, Church, is the robber and in this case, they are both coming on a Double A-Gap blitz. The rarest of birds, a Cowboys 6-man pressure.
Take a look at the coverage behind it. Wilcox deep, the others in tight man under with no help. The pressure needs to get there quick or this could go wrong.
It looks below from the end zone that it isn't your normal Double A-Gap blitz. Instead, Lee appears to be running a game with Tyrone Crawford, where Lee takes out the Falcons guard and Crawford would come around and be matched up against the RB. Instead, Lee has such a head of steam that he chips the Right Guard and then sees there is no reason for him just to go get Ryan himself. The RB, 33-Terron Ward, looks positively confused about what to do. At this point of the game, everything is working.
Unfortunately, sometimes the ideas get burned.
Our next example is from that 2-minute drill that likely should not have occurred, unless the Cowboys call a timeout that unintentionally preserves too much time before halftime. The Falcons have time to drive and it is helped if the Cowboys allow another huge play. Here the Cowboys might not get scored upon if they don't let this happen. But, of course, this ends up being a huge gainer to the RB on a safe throw. As you can see, it is still just a 4-man pressure, but Sean Lee seems to replace Jack Crawford at DE, with Crawford now having the undesirable job of chasing Devonta Freeman in man. The idea here is to confuse and perhaps either get Lee a free run or perhaps a lazy throw to Freeman that Crawford has a chance to pick. Of course, when it gets decoded so easily, it looks like a really bad idea.
That is aided because again, the safeties are watching Julio Jones. He is a factor even when the ball goes elsewhere.
Barry Church again with just the worst possible angle to help shut this play down as a 10-yard gain. If you tackle them just over midfield, they burn their final timeout and you might not concede anything. Instead, Freeman rumbles to about 25 more yards after the poor job by the safety and this thing is just a mess.
So, two plays with Lee in pass rush and the results are great and not so great. Football.
3) Weeden to Witten Down The Seam
We have covered at length the difficulty of the Cowboys at the QB position on Sunday. Weeden didn't throw the ball down the field. That much we know. What has been debated is whether he was told not to do so, whether he refused to do so, and whether there were opportunities. My feelings are that A) he doesn't like throwing the ball down the field (we have observed his propensity for checkdowns and safe throws at both of his training camps in countless scrimmages), B) Linehan did not want any more bad decisions after the INT, and C) there were open opportunities if the Cowboys had the interest in pulling the trigger. Many times to Williams, but here is a big possibility to Witten on 2 occasions.
The first one was that 2nd and 26 in the 3rd Quarter. Falcons are in their Seattle "Cover 3" and this means that you can attack the middle man with two seams. Beasley runs one and Witten runs the other. Look:
Both run down the numbers with the outside guys (with comeback routes) taking the corners out of the play - incidentally, it should be noted that on both these plays, he has comeback routes on the sidelines open on both sides. They just have to use the WRs as more than decoys. This means that there is an opportunity opposite the safety. Now, look at his position. He is on the far hash mark from Witten. Witten has his man on his outside. This is a huge play. But, looking back at Weeden, he isn't looking downfield and the ball is already being checked down before the play develops at all.
This angle might make you crazy. Look at Witten. Look at that potential Touchdown or at least a huge gain. He is wide open by NFL standards.
Instead, Dunbar. They needed 26, they picked up 3 yards.
So, they go to the sideline, look at the pictures, and the Cowboys are coming back to this. They will run a similar look into a similar coverage on the very next series on a 2nd and 12. This will be Weeden's one official shot down the field.
This time the window is smaller and the safety is sitting on Witten. Maybe the chance is to the other seam to Beasley, but either way, a good throw is another big gain.
Here it is from the end zone:
Witten has to adjust his route but there is still a nice window for a throw. Weeden just sails it. There are absolutely chances to be had down the field and receivers who are winning in their routes, and this week I expect the Cowboys to insist upon taking them.
You must stretch the field to give your running game a chance. And with no Tony Romo until November 22 (at the earliest), it is time to show off that strong arm Brandon Weeden possesses.