The Following is the 6th 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
“Clearly, they are confused out there” – Cris Collinsworth, on the Cowboys defense – October 30, 2011
One of the biggest issues for the 2010 Dallas Cowboys was a complete inability to stop the big play. So, the plan for 2011 was to not change players on almost any level defensively, and to change out the defensive philosophy from the Wade Phillips 3-4 defense to the Rob Ryan 3-4.
The Rob Ryan 3-4 is a more complex defense that attempts to utilize all resources to cause confusion, chaos, and the ability to cause game changing plays for the defense. When run properly – with the proper personnel – it is a rather tried and true scheme that has worked well across the NFL. Of course, the Cowboys tried to take 10 starters off the worst defense in the history of the Dallas Cowboys and simply change the scheme and hoped for much better results. They learned the hard way and spent the spring of 2012 trying to find what amounts to as many as 5 new starters for this upcoming season.
In 2011, Ryan tried to install his defense without the benefit of the offseason program. We will never know how badly that set things back, as some players and teams were affected by the lockout and others seemed to do just fine (see: Cam Newton) with the limited schedule for installation and learning. What is odd about the 2011 Cowboys defense is that it defied conventional wisdom. Most observers expected the transition to the defense of Ryan to go slowly. There would be early growing pains, but as the season went along, he would be able to install things on the fly and ultimately by Thanksgiving everyone would would grasp their responsibilities with great ease.
And yet, everything went quite the opposite. In September and October, the Cowboys defense was actually outperforming expectations. In every game, the defense had done its job to put the team in a position to win. They played well enough to win in New York, but were sabotaged by a poor QB decision. They won in SF and against Washington. They played very well against Detroit until the offense turned a 27-3 lead into a 27-17 lead on two throws. By the time the defense took another snap, they were back on their heels. Then, a very difficult test in Foxboro went very well. The defense scratched and clawed and did a great job over 60 minutes, but couldn’t stop Tom Brady late. Still, they outperformed all expectations in that difficult spot. The next week, they dominated a feeble Rams side and were among the league leading teams in many defensive metrics. Including a major downturn in the number of explosive plays conceded.
In 2010, the Cowboys surrendered 69 explosives (plays of 20 yards or more). That number was high above the league average for playoff teams of 54. If they wished to get in the playoff mix, they would need to knock their per game average down by 1 explosive per game. From 4.3 per game to around 3.3. And through those first 6 games, they had done even better, surrendering just 19 explosives in 6 games (3.2 per game).
But, their 7th game of the season would be their first battle against one of the two elite teams inside their division. They would play the Eagles in Weeks 8 and 16 and the Giants in Weeks 14 and 17. Then, and only then, would the Cowboys know their true ability to deal with those teams that would stand in their way. Sadly, the findings would be quite disconcerting.
By the end of 2011, the Cowboys would have improved in the big play defense, dropping from 69 to 64. In fact, the league went the other direction, with the average number of explosives conceded by playoff teams rising from 54 to 64. This, one might note, was a direct result of the putrid defenses in New England and Green Bay that were not bad enough to keep either team from making the playoffs, but might have been the reason that both were beaten ultimately by the Giants in the playoffs. They conceded absurd numbers of big plays, but had offenses that were able to cover for them for most of the year.
Regardless, the Cowboys still gave up too many big plays. Of the 64 conceded, 57 were through the air and 7 on the ground. This might explain the offseason initiative to overhaul the secondary. One might argue the pass rush needed help, too, but nobody can debate the premise of finding two potentially elite corners in the offseason if you have given up 57 passes of 20 yards or more in 1 season.
Which leads us back to the NFC East. Perhaps the most troubling number when digging into the 2011 defensive season were the issues that the Cowboys had with the division. In 6 games against the division, the Cowboys gave up 33 explosives. In the other 10 games against everyone else, they only allowed 31. That tells us a few things. Outside of the division, the Cowboys played some rather weak offenses. But, inside the division, they were sliced and diced by the Eagles and Giants in a scary way. The Redskins put up 8 explosives, the Giants had 12, and the Eagles put up 13.
And no night was a bigger disaster than the Sunday Night in Philadelphia on October 30th. Realizing that this series is about “11 plays that shaped 2011”, it would be nice to identify one play from this debacle. But, the truth is, the Eagles didn’t have one play that decided the game. They had as many as they wanted.
You might recall that Rob Ryan had some pretty inflammatory things to say about the Eagles in the build-up to this game. And therefore, many of us rubbed our hands together to see what sort of Ryan family game plan he would unleash in his Dad’s old city. But, what we saw was one of the worst Cowboys performances in a long time. The Eagles had a season high 7 explosives. They had 10 different plays of 18 yards or more. They knocked out the Cowboys in the 1st Quarter, and by halftime, the game was in garbage time.
And the worst part? The Eagles were doing much of their damage by running the same plays over and over again. Now, remember that their were only 7 running explosives all year against the Cowboys. And yet, 3 of them, were on this night in Philadelphia. And all 3 of them, were to LeSean McCoy who was breaking off a 30-carry night for 185 yards. And, all 3 of them were on the EXACT same play.
Let’s look at it:
Play #1 – 12:57 1st Quarter – 2-7-Phi 46
The Eagles are running a zone play to the right. They will get a right slanted block from every member of their offensive line. DeMarcus Ware will be unblocked – or so he thinks – as LeSean McCoy will take the handoff from Michael Vick. The Cowboys in pre snap are seeing the Eagles set up for a strong-side run right, too. And therefore you can see a safety sneaking down to cover the tight ends. Clay Harbor – 82 is in motion on the right side and the plan will be for him to go all the way across the line and get the unblocked Ware in a trap situation. (Reminder: Click on any picture to enlarge)
The play hinges on 2 things happening for the Eagles to get anywhere. 1) – Clay Harbor has to get to Ware before Ware destroys the play. But, the premise of not blocking him is to encourage Ware to “take the cheese” and to in some ways take himself out of the play by heading too far into the backfield. Whether he realizes it or not, Ware is the only defender who is in any position to protect the cutback if McCoy doesn’t follow the action of the offensive line to the right. And 2) – Jason Peters, the Eagles LT must move Marcus Spears out of the lane. If Spears can hold his ground or defeat Peters, this play won’t get much. But as you begin to see in this photo below, Spears is certainly not close to standing his ground. Just looking at the hash marks, you see how easily Peters is able to truck Spears and build a wall for McCoy to see. Now, Ware is upfield and Harbor hardly touches him, but he doesn’t have to, since Ware has over-pursued and taken himself out of the play. And look at all of the green grass for McCoy to navigate.
By the time of this 3rd picture below, McCoy is by himself looking at both Cowboys safeties as the only players left on the field. The rest of the defensive line was plowed out of the picture and now he will grab an easy 21 yards on a play that they would run again very soon.
Here is the exact same play, a bit later:
Play #2 – 3:37 – 1st Quarter – 1-10-Dal 36 OK. It is one possession later. The Eagles have the Cowboys on their heels and confused. And the Eagles are going to come back to that very same play to see if the Cowboys have a better plan. The only difference from a Philadelphia standpoint is that there are not double tight ends stacked to the right. Instead, Brent Celek-87 is the single TE and his motion to the right sets the trap again. Dallas, seeing a more balanced formation, does not overload to the offense’s right, but instead is ready to bring Abram Elam as a blitzed to the outside of DeMarcus Ware. So, the Eagles will purposely not block Ware again – but the trap will be headed his way. Meanwhile, there is no accounting for Elam. He is unblocked and will have a chance to destroy this play. Both Ware and Elam are circled in blue. Remember, zone play to the right, with McCoy looking for a seam to cutback left. He takes one step with his offensive line, and then darts off the back shoulder of the left tackle.
So, remember the two keys for the Eagles. 1) – Celek must get a piece of Ware and have leverage so that Ware cannot get back to the inside in that split second where McCoy is arriving with the ball, and 2) – Peters vs Jason Hatcher. If Hatcher can stand his ground, the play cannot cut back. But, Hatcher is plowed out of there with no effort whatsoever, and there is enough room for the Queen Mary on this play. Elam totally takes himself out of the play by guessing it might be an outside running play. When it is a quick hitting run up the middle, the Cowboys are doomed.
In the photo below, I have circled Elam and Jason Hatcher. I just want you to see the body position of Hatcher as his back is facing the ball carrier. He is totally turned around. The middle linebackers follow the offensive line’s movement to the right, but the ball carrier is not. That is a very bad combination for the Cowboys. And, once Ware is taken out by a tight end again, with Elam further outside taking himself out of the play, the Cowboys have called a run blitz that attacked the wrong spots. And McCoy is doing nothing more than taking candy from a baby.
Sensabaugh will catch him before the goal-line, but not before a 34 yard run.
So, the Cowboys have taken the bait twice. Surely, the Eagles will run this play again before the night is over. Will the Cowboys be more prepared?
Play #3 – 4:11 – 3rd Quarter – 2-18-Phil 34
Again, this is the same play, however, this time, the Eagles will flip it and zone left with the tight end kicking out to the right side to get an unblocked Anthony Spencer.
The Eagles again have double tight ends to off of their left tackle. So, the Cowboys are lined up to deal with that. In fact, if the Cowboys don’t cheat to that side, there is likely a call at the line of scrimmage to run the play left. Then, if the Cowboys do shift, they come back with this cutback. We are also reminded on this play how middle linebackers get their keys on where a play is headed. They always take hints from the offensive line and most specifically, from the guards. So, you can see from watching Keith Brooking-51, how tempting it is when you see the entire OL zone blocking to the left to take a few steps in that direction, because we always anticipate that the running back is going to follow his line. But, when the Eagles show us that it is all a deception game to get the Cowboys to over-pursue, Dallas just cannot resist the urge. See Spencer, again, unblocked.
Spencer sees Clay Harbor coming to get him again and turns his body to keep contain. Jay Ratliff is easy caved in and cleared out of the way by the right guard. The right tackle goes to get Bradie James. This leaves Brooking (inside the blue circle above) as the unblocked man who must get McCoy or the Cowboys are in trouble.
Brooking is there, but with too much open space around, it doesn’t take a quick player like McCoy much effort to leave a slower LB like Brooking in the dust. This, in a few frames, demonstrates the Cowboys hopes that Bruce Carter’s speed can make a real difference moving forward. Look how far back Brooking is as McCoy is now 10 yards down field, and spots the 2 Cowboys safeties another 10 yards back. No wonder he had 185 yards. We just showed you 3 carries where he found 77 yards on the same play without much resistance at all.
The Cowboys did not have much trouble stopping big runs all season. Remember, these 3 plays are bad, but they are 3 of the 7 explosive runs all year long. This was a horrid night, but it did not repeat all year.
But, the bigger issue goes back to the NFC East. If you are the Cowboys, you simply must look closely at the 6 games you play each year against the division as the biggest priority. Entering 2012, you have the Giants and Eli Manning who routinely score in the mid 30’s against you. You have the Eagles, who have so much speed at the skill positions that you simply must adjust and find equal speed to stop them. And now you have the Redskins, who appear to have a QB who actually has more explosive physical tools than Michael Vick. When you 3.1 explosive plays per game to teams outside the division, but 5.5 explosive plays per game against divisional foes, you can understand the initiative to change or die.
Just as we have seen time and time again, you have to survive your division if you wish to go further. The Cowboys were 2-4 in the NFC East in 2011 and were blown out in their two prime time road dates at Philadelphia and at New York. These games are huge and the organization cannot step forward without handling this business. On these plays, the Cowboys were simply out schemed and out manned. The defensive ends were caved in 3 times in a row. The LBs and DBs offered no support. And the Eagles, like a 6th grader playing Madden, just called the same play again and again.
I trust this game is talked about quite a bit inside Valley Ranch when they were making changes this spring. Let’s hope they made enough of them.