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.
It is totally normal to not see a few things that get lost in the mud of a terrible year. But, if you want a deeper look at the Cowboys as an observer, or if it is your job to get this team on the right path for 2016, I think it makes quite a bit of sense to try to evaluate each player separately as we go.
Which leads me to today's breakdown. While this has been a pretty strong year for Sean Lee, I might argue the same cannot be said for almost the entire remainder of the linebacking group. Now, this is primarily about Rolando McClain, Anthony Hitchens, and a bit of Kyle Wilber, as the young Damien Wilson did not see the field much as a rookie.
As we look ahead to the draft, there will be questions for sure about whether the Cowboys should seek a destroyer at linebacker to make this defense into something more special. Because, to be honest, there was not a ton of "special" in this group all year.
This is not a very complex look from Buffalo at all. But, you might have to help me with what exactly 55-McClain and 59-Hitchens are doing here. McClain is thinking the lead blocker is coming for him (he is not) and totally misses everything. Meanwhile, Hitchens is watching the lead blocker go inside, so he follows - not realizing that he is running right from the path of the Running Back.
We should be careful not to over-use terms like this, but this is pretty much "garbage LB play".
The play ends with a nice facemask from Byron Jones and the Bills march 41 yards on one snap of the most simple of run concepts. And it was the 1st Quarter, so we should have a focused and motivated group right here. Let's look at another play.
Well, this is clearly man coverage (causing all of the traffic underneath) and there is where 55-McClain gets caught up in traffic again trying to run with Mike Gillislee. I think Gillislee showed some things this week, but this is not Darren Sproles in space. This is also not all the way to the sideline. If McClain is fit (fair question), this is a play your middle LB has to be able to erase in no time. Instead, he barely touches the RB and gives up a touchdown (that was ruled down at the 1 after further review).
McClain has shown off some elite skills at certain times during his run here and was an amazing player out of Alabama. But, a few snaps in a game like this have you questioning whether you can give him the job in 2016. This is not good enough at all.
Here is one that really smarts. It is a 9-6 game and there is still time. But, you need a stop right here or the game might be over.
And, as you know, there would be no stop and the game would be over on this pretty simple 2nd and 5 run right with Mike Gillislee again.
Cowboys are in base personnel against the Bills. Buffalo pulls a guard right with a lead blocker and suddenly they are off to the races. Again, this is a really basic running concept that seems to out-flank the Cowboys way too easily.
Watch Byron Jones at the snap. He is walking down (sort of) and then bolts back into a 2-high look which is a mysterious coverage for 2nd and 5 with that lone receiver to his side of the field (Chris Hogan). Regardless, darting back takes Jones out of any sort of run support angle and that is going to be a problem, as the end zone view below will show.
So, Lee follows the lead blocker inside. I think Lee should have stayed outside more to try to set some sort of an edge, because when he gets sealed off it is off to the races. The LG gets McClain on the pull, so now in a foot race between Hitchens and the RB, it is too much for Hitchens to make up. But even at that corner, you see Brandon Carr, Jones, and Hitchens with only Hogan and Gillislie.
You would like to think a 3-man situation could at least lay a hand on the runner, but there is no such thing. I would say you had about 4 or 5 defenders that could have done better there: 50, 39, 31, 59 and 90 all come quickly to mind.
The Cowboys gave up 236 yards on the ground to the Bills after 230 to the Packers earlier in the month. Those were the only 2 days of 200+ yards rushing against this year, but the taste in your mouth after these two games makes you wonder about the personnel up front against the run. Especially as the game wears on, the Cowboys are wearing down.