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.
Ok, here are the 3 things I have selected to look at from the Patriots game. There were several more that I could have chosen, but with your assistance, we will settle on these 3 and then pretend that game never happened and get ready for the Giants in 10 days time.
Here we go - we will start with happier news:
1) - Greg Hardy Is Very Good at Playing Football
We already knew that, and the Cowboys clearly were banking on the hassle of dealing with his baggage off the field would be out-weighed by the fact that on his day he is one of the best 10 defensive linemen in football. I don't want to get carried away with career superlatives, but I think we can at least comfortably say that.
What makes him so impressive is on display on this sack above. He is going against the highly-rated Nate Solder, the left tackle for the Patriots who was lost for the year when he tore his bicep on one of these plays. Hardy sets him up with a fake bull-rush with the 2 hands to the chest and then just goes around the corner when Solder is flat-footed. I have never thought Solder was too good against edge rushes, but this is pretty ridiculous. So much so that the "where did that come?" from gesture from Tom Brady is pretty solid.
This is a 3-man rush and plays like this on film will certainly get the attention of the league. They will give their tackles help against Hardy which in turn should give less help for the others on the line and that is when you will see the overall sack numbers increase across the board. Hardy is causing a diversion for his line. Ideal.
Here is his other sack. Marcus Cannon is here and this time Hardy shows his agility for his size which is pretty phenomenal, too. He just dips his inside shoulder under Cannon and again gets to the blindside of Brady.
This is surprising because it is a quick moving play. Play-action with a quick hitting pass to the flat is all they want to do, but Cannon hardly even touches Hardy and the twitch gets a sack and knocks the ball loose. I have been wondering if this fumble would have passed the scrutiny of replay if the ball was recovered by Dallas, but either way, it demonstrates Hardy better be taken seriously.
This last play is what I really like. It is the 4th Quarter and the game is lost. The Patriots are driving again and the play is away from Greg Hardy. What is he all about? Is he a Marinelli player who is making sure he is never guilty of a loaf? Does his motor run hot? You be the judge.
Here is a run to the opposite side to Dion Lewis. Look at Hardy run the play down and bring the pain when Lewis makes the mistake of cutting back against Sean Lee. He gets up and has some words for Lewis. He is playing each play hard and looking to make an impact.
Plenty has been written about Hardy, but when it comes to football, it would be reasonable to recognize him for what he is - a real impressive talent. Some may be as strong and some may be as quick and some may have the motor. He seems to combine all 3 at a pretty elite level.
2. Pass Protection From the RB Position Struggled
I spent a lot of time looking at the RB stable back in the summer. One thing we all talked about at great length was the idea of filling the DeMarco Murray role of dependably picking up the blitzing LB to save Romo on a big 3rd Down. Being a 3rd Down back is often about moving the chains for a RB, but for Dallas, it is also the personal protector of Romo. Nobody thought Joseph Randle was an ideal fit, but Darren McFadden showed in Oakland that this was one of his remaining redeemable qualities.
Unfortunately, that skill set was tested twice early in Sunday's Game and he failed both. Once he was saved by a penalty, but let's look at them both.
First, 1Q - 11:17 and the Cowboys face 3rd and 3.
The Patriots are sitting on Witten and Beasley at the sticks, and therefore taking away Weeden's 3rd and short tendencies. Then, they run a LB blitz (but still just a 4-man rush) from the middle of the line to get in Weeden's face. First 91-Collins takes Frederick to the right side of the OL and then 54-Hightower comes right down Main Street to challenge 20-McFadden. Darren should keep his feet and take on a LB head-on, but decides to try to cut the legs, instead. Sometimes, this works like a charm. Other times, it only delays Hightower getting to the QB. Because McFadden lost so quickly, Weeden never had a chance. This is 3rd and 3. You should be able to get this protected, because it doesn't take long to run the routes. But, the Patriots still got home. Let's look at the coverage.
Beasley is at the top and is getting double teamed (inside-outside) so that either way on his option route is dead. Witten is in the left slot and you can see they have the same plan. If the Cowboys are going to find something on 3rd Down, it is going to have to be Gavin Escobar or Terrance Williams.
Weeden, of course, wants 82 or 11. The Patriots are taking that away. And now the protection broke.
Next possession. 1Q - 7:07 - 3rd and 2.
This time the Cowboys are trying to cross up tendencies with Weeden under center. Maybe this idea will work.
This is a tougher ask of McFadden. He has to carry out a play-action run and then get the LB. The Patriots aren't buying the deception and are sending 91-Collins right off the back shoulder of 90-Malcom Brown. McFadden and Frederick communicate on each play who has which A-Gap because the guards are occupied with their own guys and cannot help 72. Frederick goes toward RG with Brown slightly, but Collins still is looking to blow by McFadden in the opposite gap. It is basically cat and mouse. Collins is going to try to get McFadden to think he is coming between Leary and Frederick when he is actually shooting the gap between Martin and Frederick. Again, McFadden, in fairness, has to carry out the fake before he can do much.
Now, this play was nullified by a hold on 93-Sheard who grabbed some of Witten's jersey, but it still shows how the Patriots were not impressed with the Cowboys 3rd Down ideas. They figured them all out with ease.
Same play, other view. Again, 2 on Beasley and 2 on Witten. It is pretty good schematic planning for New England and it seems to be the plan moving forward for any defense until Dez returns.
3. Mo Claiborne's Rough Outing
One of the best stories of 2015 is the resurgence of Morris Claiborne. He appears to finally have some confidence and performances that he can really be proud of. For the most part, over the first 4 weeks, he has done his best work in the NFL and has seldom busted in his coverage. And, each week, the Cowboys keep putting more on his plate in this new-found desire to run man coverage against any and all opponents.
Last week, it was Brandin Cooks and he responded well. But was he given too much against Brady and Julian Edelman?
First play of the game, they attack him by running that man coverage through traffic.
Now, here below is a play on the final drive before halftime where Edelman is staying alive for Brady with a Dig Route across the middle where he gets leverage on 24 as the Cowboys are in a Cover 3 and there isn't much help to the middle of the field. Nice job by Brady.
Next, Edelman puts on a real nice move at the line where Claiborne is waiting on another pick, and actually just falls and Edelman gets an easy gain when Brady spots it.
This last one is maddening to Cowboys' fans because it is clearly a pick. But, Amendola never touches Claiborne (in the slot at the top) and therefore you can't call an intended pick that never actually makes contact. Have a look. We all know what is happening, but if you are only faking a pick, you cannot expect that to be called. Claiborne has no real way to work with this and the Cowboys have to expect to deal with these if they remain in man, but it turned into the biggest play (by far) of the day.
Have a look:
I realize they touch, but it is never initiated by the WR of New England. Is it illegal? Only if it gets called, and as a neutral, I just don't think that will ever draw a flag.
The Patriots run a lot of pick plays and get called for Offensive Pass Interference quite a bit. But, the cumulative effect of employing it seems to be in the heads of the DBs that are trying to play against it. That seems just as valuable to have them constantly doing the mental gymnastics to deal with the threat. And that might do as much damage as the reality of it all.
Edelman was thrown 5 balls and caught 4 for 120 yards. Claiborne had his biggest challenge and it was a tough day. But, I still think overall this year he has been solid.
Let's be happy they won't see New England again anytime soon. They are very good at what they do and nobody stops it.