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.
This Saints game is difficult to examine for a number of reasons and certainly scored high on the frustration meter. That said, let's grab 3 items before we put this missed opportunity completely to bed:
1) - 3rd and 1 is sabotaging the Cowboys right now
They are 1 out of 5 this season on 3rd and 1. This includes the 1-handed catch by Joseph Randle against the Giants, the Weeden give-up slide sack at Atlanta, and a couple runs that went nowhere. Here is the most deflating one yet on the one carry Christine Michael was presented with on Sunday.
I thought it was interesting they appeared to audible into a zone stretch left.
As you can see from the still below, this is a run to go behind Smith and Leary to the frontside, with the option of the cutback. It actually isn't an option if your guard - 65-Leary - is getting turned that badly. Alex Gibbs was teaching a zone blocking clinic where he demonstrated the RBs read off of helmet position. The linemen must keep their helmet to the outside (backfield side) of the defender. If they can't - as Leary clearly can't, then the RB can't go to the sideline. He must cutback.
So, Michael adjusts accordingly and heads to the backside which would be right off the back of Jason Witten. Trouble there is Witten has been matched up against a much bigger man and is maxing out his situation to the best of his ability. Also, the DB - 39-Browner is watching that gap and has absolutely nobody accounting for him.
Witten's man beats him - big Bobby Richardson - with a spin move right into Michael's path and the Cowboys are completely deflated as the punt team runs on. You would like to think Michael could muscle Browner to the sticks, but when 2 men are in his path, the play is dead.
As everyone says, you would like to think you can get a yard, but the Saints feel the run is telegraphed and they have everyone up tight. Either you hit the run right up the gut quick or you might be overwhelmed with numbers with any lateral runs. They were here. Running against 8 in the box is no picnic.
2) - 4th and 7 - Weeden finds Williams....Finally.
There is no question the game plan pointed out that they were going to get man-to-man opportunities against Delvin Breaux with Terrance Williams. And when they see that, they are going to go for it with shots.
So they tried. And tried. And tried. And tried. (I spared everyone pulling video, but trust us, they tried this 7 times.) 7! I admire the persistence, but if you go back and examine those first 6 tries - incompletions, you would see a few overthrows (Williams didn't help on one) and several clear chances at a back-shoulder fade because they are sitting on top of the route. But Weeden never tried the throw to the back shoulder.
Either way, this is the entire game right here. 4th down. And for some reason, Breaux is not sitting on the fade. It is there and it is perfect.
Clean pocket. Majestic throw. Beautiful moment, to be honest.
If we are looking for positives, it would be that like the Philadelphia game, Weeden demonstrates yet again why he was a 1st round pick, despite being almost 30 years old. He can throw a beautiful ball. He might have been over-drafted, but he has it in him. And maybe that is worth something moving forward.
3) - Too much defensive confusion
So much frustration about the defense this week and rightfully so. If they beat you straight up, it is one thing. But, if they simply out-smart you and out-think you, that is depressing. Now, to be fair, Sean Lee went down. Then, Andrew Gachkar went down. But, if the Cowboys are going to play lots of man coverage, that means the Linebackers are going to have the Running Backs a lot. And if that is the case, they will often be giving up a little speed, so it is vital they get the techniques correct.
But, they couldn't even get lined up late in the game. It was confusion that got them beat. Like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or Peyton Manning (even Tony Romo), a great element of having a QB like these is that they often beat you by just out-thinking you. That means they get you with the hard-count, or with 12 men on the field, or while you are trying to talk to each other to get your coverages right, they snap the ball.
Football is hard enough if you know the plan. But, if you are trying to figure it out while sprinting after CJ Spiller, it is impossible.
Let's look at a few painful examples of the Cowboys just not being where they need to be:
As you can see, we have linebackers talking and Brees trying to get into a quick snap. Watch where he goes with the ball:
Does that play look familiar? It should. It is the overtime winner.
Here is a play late in the 4th Quarter - the biggest play the Saints had all day until the overtime winner:
Brees is lined up. The Cowboys are discussing something as the play is being snapped. Chaos ensues and the Saints get 30 yards which should have set up the winning Field Goal.
Patmon got there, eventually, but the play was pretty easy for Brees to sort out with the quick count.
Which brings us to overtime. 2 plays in overtime.
The first here is the pick play that injures Gachkar. The NFL won't call this very often, so teams run it constantly. It is worth 1 Offensive Pass Interference a game if you can get this play to hit 10 times. And that is why the good teams keep doing it.
As you can see, if this connects, there is a good chance it comes down again to a safety making the tackle. Now, let me go back to what I wrote about this moment on Monday:
Gachkar was in for Sean Lee who left the game early after taking a collision with big tight end Ben Watson down inside the 5-yard line in the 1st Quarter. He was decent throughout but factored in the loss in overtime in the most unlikely of ways. On the first play of the overtime, he was injured on one of the many rub-route/pick plays when Willie Snead knocked him off his path and appeared to bang knees with Gachkar. This injured Gachkar to a point that he is trying to limp off the field. Call Timeout! Fall down! You admire the toughness, but you don't admire the football IQ of the Cowboys at this point. He has to fall to the turf if he is hurt.
Instead, he tries to limp off and get a replacement. Drew Brees is too smart for this test because the moment he recognizes this advantage - Damien Wilson is going to try to replace Gachkar from the Cowboys bench and sprint on as the Saints are already at the line means that the speedster CJ Spiller is going to have a head start to the far sideline on a wheel route where Wilson never has a chance. This play is doomed from the start and when Barry Church misses another chance for a Cowboys safety to end a play before it gets worse - see last week - the play is in the end zone and the game is over.
Again, in all of these cases, the worst part is how confused the Cowboys appear to be when the play starts. Brees is running the same play/concept over and over, but he is doing it quickly. And with a rookie LB who hasn't played much trying to deal with Brees, it was not a pretty result for Dallas.