The Following is the 8th in an 11-part weekly series throughout the summer that will focus on the eleven plays that shaped 2011 for the Dallas Cowboys. Every game, about 130 actual plays happen and over the course of a season that number can exceed 2,000. But, we have selected 11 and will pick one each week and break it down from standpoint of “X’s and O’s” and see what we can learn looking back. The plays are not ranked, simply presented as the season unfolded. We hope you enjoy.
One of these days, we need to find the short list of Tony Romo’s top throws of all-time. There is no question that what we are about to look at is his best throw of 2011, but I need to reserve judgement on his entire career before I get too carried away. But, when you talk about improvisation, vision, arm strength, and execution, this particular Thanksgiving throw has it all.
This drive put the Cowboys in a spot where they took over a football game that until that spot early in the fourth quarter was proving to be extremely difficult. To see the entire drive broken down, I recommend you read the piece from last November that looked at the drive as a whole. It might have been the high-water mark for the offense for the entire year. It demonstrated their QB, who had a collapsed lung and broken ribs earlier in the campaign, taking a beating behind an offensive line that was susceptible to the pass rush and the blitz on a regular basis.
It also demonstrates some strategy points that go back to last week as we discussed the performance level and chemistry between Romo and his elite tight end, Jason Witten. As fans, we obsess and focus on statistical findings about a given player and how those numbers match up with his contemporaries around the sport. Surely, 90 catches is always better than 80, and so on. But, I think this play can show us an important example of what Witten does to coverages which, in turn, affects the opportunities all over the field for his mates. And this, is where Jason Garrett has a design advantage that he is crazy not to use as often as he can when looking at route combinations all game long.
This Miami win also gave Cowboys fans a result that has seemed somewhat rare in the last few seasons; one in which the team as a whole and the veteran leaders in specific had just refused to lose. Many things went very poorly in this game and mistakes were made in multitudes. But, in the end, the game was not going to be conceded. They were going to scratch and claw and get that 7th win of the season. As this game ended, with the Cowboys 7-4 after once being 3-4, it seemed relatively certain that this team was determined to fall into its same old familiar December pattern. But, we all know that it turned out that way yet again. More on that in weeks to follow.
The Play: 1-10-MIA 18 – (14:37) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass deep left to L.Robinson for 18 yards, TOUCHDOWN. Pass complete on roll P15 left by Romo; ball caught back of the end zone.
It is S11 Personnel, which is Shotgun, with 1 RB, 1 TE, and 3 WR on the field. They have a 3 x 1 setup to the right, meaning that they have overloaded the right side of the formation with 2 WR and a TE. The only thing threat on the opposite side of the formation at the time of the snap is Dez Bryant.
On this first picture, I wanted to overlay the routes for the play at the snap so you have an idea of what the plan is before the bullets start flying for real. They are pretty self-explanatory, but I did want to add something to Witten’s description. He is really just running a basic 10 yard hook that he converts into a crossing pattern when he sees Romo break contain in the pocket. Much like last week, much of what Witten does on his routes are determined by glancing back in the pocket and knowing what his QB needs. So, know that his initial assignment is to run 10 yards and sit in an open area on a basic route he runs 10-20 times a game.
Miami has a coverage that appears to be man to man on the edges with a zoning of Witten in the middle of the field and a single-high safety to decide where he is needed. Yeremiah Bell is that high safety, and in Picture #2, you can see what he must read. He is not concerned with Bryant who is on a crossing pattern or Ogletree who is on the sideline. He has 2 reads which the arrows indicate: 1) Witten who is in front of him or Laurent Robinson who is headed for the post. From a Cowboys perspective, you can see the spacing here really stresses a safety. Witten is at the 5 yard line and Robinson is headed for the back of the end zone. Otherwise, they are headed in the same direction which likely is why when Romo bails out of the pocket, he wants to bail to his left which keeps those two in his throwing range.
Much like last week, Romo is not very confident in his protection again. There is no reason to blame him, because he has taken a tremendous beating all season long, but the clock in his head does appear to be deceiving him a bit when he feels the pass rush before it actually seems to be arriving. Kendall Langford is pushing Doug Free back into Romo somewhat, but I cannot imagine that it was enough to force Romo out of the pocket unless he was looking for an excuse to bail. By the way, again, as you look at the similarities between this week and last week’s throw in Washington, it is interesting to see left tackle being the spot where Romo looks most nervous. I wonder if Tyron Smith at left tackle will settle this down in 2012.
Picture #3 shows what Romo is looking at when he does break the pocket and sets his feet going to his left. There are only 2 reads that he is considering – the same two that Yeremiah Bell is looking at. Bell, the replay will show appears to have been paralyzed by the choice and ended up covering neither. But, as Romo looks, he sees two players on Witten shallow and two more players on Robinson deep. Remember, it is 1st and 10. This might have been where he considers DeMarco Murray at the sideline or even a scramble, but clearly, he had other ideas.
Now, it is time to throw the ball. In picture #4, you see the throw he has to make. This is where Witten controls the coverage and allows others opportunities by his mere presence. If you are a Dolphins defensive back, where do you think Romo is going with the ball when he breaks contain? Remember, the Dolphins have been looking at the throw in Washington to Witten all week during their film study. It just happened 4 days prior. Robinson has a step on his man, but Romo has to lead him perfectly or risk an interception that would demoralize the stadium after a drive this long. What is interesting is that his throw to Robinson in the back of the end zone will have to basically go right over the head of Jason Witten and his defenders to get there. Witten might even think it is an overthrow initially, but Romo knew where he was going. When we discuss the “NFL Arm”, this is what we are discussing. A 30-yard frozen rope to the sideline that must arrive on time. This, is a throw of great beauty.
In Picture #5, I have placed 2 blue arrows. One is to show where Robinson is when the ball leaves Romo’s hands and the other is to show where the ball will be caught. The throw is such that if thrown correctly, the only person with a chance to catch it will be the Cowboys’ man. And it was executed to great perfection. The only argument on this throw would be whether it should have been attempted (which only gets asked if something bad happens). From this angle, you can argue that a throw to Witten is available that would have given a 1st and Goal if it was caught. But, keep in mind, Romo doesn’t have time to study each frame and analyze this all over the course of an hour. He had 5.1 seconds from snap to throw.
And, finally, the catch, which should not be oversold either. Robinson, for having such a short time in Dallas which included no preseason, had a wonderful knack of understanding how to assist his QB when the play breaks down. Some receivers have this knack and others don’t.
As I was pondering this play this morning, it reminded me of a play from a few games earlier against Seattle that utilized many of the same concepts. It is a different personnel grouping, but again, the idea is to stress the safeties with a high/low cross concept that uses Witten to attract coverage and slips Robinson behind him in the back of the end zone.
Coincidentally, both of these plays from the two different games are the 2nd snap in the 4th Quarter and both end up as touchdowns to Robinson in the back of the end zone. The other players are trying to take defenders out of the middle of the field and leave Witten and Robinson for Romo to decide.
How the team seemed to be on such a good run in November but then collapsed some in December is what we must now focus on for our remaining 3 entires in this series. They had the schedule right where they wanted it until the calendar turned.