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.
Yes, this week's Xs and Os entry is 5 days late, so blame me and that Dominican Republic internet. But now that my travels are over, let's get this on the schedule for the purposes of checking all of the boxes this season. We shall not mail in the final month without Tony Romo, and we expect the team to feel the same way!
Ok, a few quick looks back at the Carolina game as we lead into tonight vs Washington:
We will get to what almost everyone wanted to see broken down after that Panthers devastation, but first, I wanted to visit about the running game. Because tonight, I suspect at some point, the broadcasters will discuss the exit of Bill Callahan from Dallas to Washington in the offseason and the effects it has had on both sides.
To be fair to both sides, I think Callahan is a very smart man and deserves plenty of credit for what he taught the Cowboys offense. But, I also think that A) any OL coach who gets 1st round talents in 2011, 2013, and 2014 will have success, B) the Cowboys have actually run the ball very well for not having a feared QB most of the season, and C) the Redskins remain amongst the least effective running teams in the NFL.
Now, that doesn't mean he isn't building something there. They have also played with low-level QB play, injuries, and it takes time (they did spend a very high pick on OL in 2015). But, the narrative that the Cowboys miss Callahan is a massive stretch. They miss Tony Romo. DeMarco Murray. Dez Bryant. And many things from 2014 that have not been replicated and that affects the offense. Bill Callahan and Frank Pollack are not teaching different things. So, I don't buy into that talk much at all.
BUT....I do miss the effective 1st down runs. In 2014, the Cowboys ran the ball all of the time on 1st down a staggering 320 times and an equally staggering 154 "successful runs" - defined as 4 yards or more. That means that they led the NFL in both categories and also 48.1% of the time, they were at 2nd and 6 or less. That changes everything about everything on an offense when you are constantly "ahead of the chains". Dallas is still trying to run on 1st down, but it is all down across the board. 176 runs (13th) for 73 successful runs (16th) for 41.5% (13th). Again, they are at or above league average in everything, but when you were #1 in each category in 2014, this drop is quite noticeable.
Is it Callahan? I doubt it. But, those zone stretch plays that were working on 1st down and keeping everything on schedule have dropped dramatically. And that goes back to everyone doing their job.
The Cowboys tried to start numerous drives on Thanksgiving off with a 1st down run. And on almost each occasion, it ended with a negative run. Not a +4, but rather a -3. And if you want slumped shoulders everywhere, walk back to the huddle with a 2nd and 13.
These are all drive starters - the first play of a drive:
22 personnel with Terrance Williams the lone WR. Williams against Josh Norman and a safety high means you have 9 in the box against the Cowboys 22 personnel. That means strength vs strength. Let's see what happens when the Panthers bring everyone up, but the Cowboys are going to run right into the teeth.
The Cowboys try to give Tyron a chance to gain the edge by some crack backs by both tight ends, but this was a disaster. It looks like they are trying to pull Frederick and Smith into space with those tight end blocks, but literally everyone looks like they are losing their block. Maybe Collins does ok and Doug Free's backside maneuvers are fine. But, the carnage is amazing and as you can see, nobody even touches the two all-world Carolina LBs in 59-Kuechly and 58-Davis.
This looks like a high school team trying to run the ball against the pros.
Here is another. This is the inside zone with a FB lead. On this, the outside guys - Witten and Tyron - are both supposed to get to the linebackers. But, that looks impossible as quickly as those linebackers shoot the A-gaps. How Witten is supposed to get to 56-Klein is beyond me. But, if he can't get there in time - which he can't - then Tyler Clutts is looking at Klein to his right and Kuechly to his left. Kuechly is his guy, but there is too much blue there. This play is also dead before it starts. Look at Romo's slumped shoulders.
I would love for someone to explain how Witten is supposed to get around the DE and to the LB in time. I must misunderstand the design.
And then one more:
Again, these 1st plays are so vital. You are over in a meeting and planning your ideas for the next drive. You just want to get a positive vibe going and then this.
This is the 1st drive of the 2nd half. The defense just cranked up a big sack and are trying to get the stadium going again. Then, you get the ball near midfield. What is your plan. This. Ugh.
Look at Travis Frederick. The snap exchange is poor and the timing is doomed. Then, on the zone stretch right, he has to cover his gap. 98-Star Lotulelei is too quick and McFadden again has no chance.
Again, everyone gets angry at false starts. Give me a false start over a negative run. At least on a false start, I still have 3 downs to get it back. But a loss of 3 on a 1st down run puts me in 2nd and 13 and the drive is often doomed.
Romo spoke after the game about his mental sharpness and ability to see coverages and make decisions in the blink of an eye. This is his job, but there is almost no way to replicate it without playing the position against top-level competition at full speed. He is a very good player, but you would have to agree with that self-assessment that his brain was not "in shape". Let's examine what he meant.
This is the first Pick 6 - on the 3rd play of the game:
Inside the green circle, please find Carolina safety Kurt Coleman. Watch him in the video below. The Panthers are showing 2-high. But, the Cowboys have 4 players in route and the Panthers are suggesting that they are rushing 6. Do the math. If the Cowboys are sending out 4, and the Panthers only have 5 not rushing, this is going to mean that everyone on the right is in man coverage, because surely, they are using the safety to deal with Dez on the left, right?
Wrong. Watch Coleman at the snap. He never budges. Romo assumes he is providing help on Dez. He is wrong. He is assuming that Witten is in man coverage and that this route will be wide open. Wrong, again.
I am not sure I can recall a player just freezing for the first 3 seconds of a play like Coleman did. But, what a great way to sucker Romo on what is his first downfield throw of the game. Maybe holding still causes Romo to never see him? Bizarre and effective. And a touchdown.
Ok, let's also review the other Pick 6. As you can see, it is never a great situation when you have to explain "which pick 6 are we referring to?"
The other pick 6 - the one right before halftime that effectively slammed the door on Thanksgiving and 2015 - also has an interesting component. Here is the presnap adjustments that Romo is going through - we have seen this a dozen times a game every week. But, watch Luke Kuechly. Did he hear a call that he knew? He may be completely bluffing here, but look how he knows the alert to call and goes bananas getting it out to everyone. Then watch him slowly step back repeatedly into his drop. He thinks he knows the play.
Then, at the snap, he carries Witten down the seam and then peels off to the Williams route at just the right moment. He knows there is a Dig Route underneath the seam. He has seen this on film, right? He knows the play.
This is masterful work here by the Panthers. The more you dig into it, you see that there are 2 sides to every play. Yes, below, Romo can be seen staring down Terrance Williams, but also understand that the Panthers are very good and in both of these Pick 6's, they might have won the game in the film room. Very impressive mental plan by Carolina to figure out what a rusty QB might try against them.
It makes you wonder - are the Cowboys too predictable? Are their audibles too easy to decode? After this game, I would be pretty concerned about my route combinations and signals at the line.
One more. This goes back to the defense's lack of takeaways. All season, we have logged the "close calls" as plays unmade by the defense. This one is in everyone's head from that game:
It is late in the 1st Quarter. The Cowboys finally got their footing and now trail 10-3. This is right after the kickoff and the Cowboys have a chance to change the game.
1/10/20 - Newton wants to hit Olsen dragging across the field behind the linebackers. Rolando McClain has seen this play 100 times. Like Kuechly, he knows what they are doing. He has seen it.
This is a Panthers bread-and-butter play. Watch how McClain is sitting on it.
Right on the hands. Would he have returned it for a touchdown? Either way, the Cowboys have the ball deep in Carolina territory. He just had the pick 6 in Miami. Was he going to do it again?
Like so many plays this season, the answer is no. He is not going to change the game with a moment of opportunity. But, this brings us back to the culpability of coaches. At some point, you put them in a spot and prepare them, but they have to make the catch. McClain is playing much better, but this one that makes us wonder what might have been if the Cowboys start the 2nd quarter back at 10-10.
It has been that kind of year. On to this evening.