11 for 2011: No. 9 - The Hyphen Screen

Cardinals walked the Cowboys right into a trap on the final play in overtime.

The Following is the ninth 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.

Parts of this post first appeared on Dec. 8, 2011.

Blitzing, and more specifically, fire zone blitzing is a staple of the Rob Ryan defense. We have discussed this at some length in past entries, but usually it is when it works to perfection - such as the study we did when he had Buffalo all confused back in November.  

But, of course, sometimes when you blitz, the other team has figured you out from their film study or they just lucked into a perfect call at a perfect moment. Regardless of how the Cardinals walked the Cowboys right into a trap on the final play of Sunday's game, the truth is on the film for all to see.  

Larod Stephens-Howling is known as the "hyphen" in Arizona, and surely is one of those water-bug types that if they can get into the open field, the opponent is going to have a hard time containing him and bringing him down. Another note worth considering is that the Cardinals have a notoriously difficult time executing screen plays. Perhaps that is why the Cowboys felt that this was not going to be a major issue entering the action on Sunday.

The Cardinals are on the first drive of OT, and are facing a 1st and 15 after a penalty.  The Cowboys scheme for fire zones vary, but just know that it means the Cowboys are overloading their blitz to one side of the field, while the weakside edge LB will drop into a zone instead of rushing.  In this case, that LB is DeMarcus Ware, and the normal genius of such a concept is that the opponent has two guys assigned to block No. 94.  So, the premise is simple:  Blitz more guys from one side than can be blocked, and rush almost nobody from the other-side which leaves the LT and sometimes LG just standing there with nobody to block.  

From the Cardinals standpoint, if they can somehow have a play on that attacks the blitz side, it can go for miles (which it did). If they call the screen to the opposite side, Ware will be standing there and ready to devour the play as he will be unblocked.   

Look at the diagram of how the Cowboys defense is to deploy in this situation on a fire zone to DeMarcus Ware's side:

The Cowboys are trying to drop 2 LBs (94 and 56) into the shallow zones on either side.  Of course, Bradie James is highlighted in green on the diagram (and is standing on the Cardinals logo on the film) because it is rather clear that he busts on this play and gets "caught up in the wash" as he tries to get out wide to the side that the play is about to go.  With Sensabaugh and Newman in man coverage, they will have their backs to the play for most of the play, so this is Bradie's play or likely nobody.  Notice Sensabaugh - highlighted below - asked to man up against Fitzgerald on this play in the slot.  This is why pressure is going to be key, because the Cowboys know that asking Sensabaugh to run with Fitzgerald if Kolb gets time is a very bad idea.  

Also, let's note that the defense must be aware of who is on the field at each position.  A specialty player like Stephens-Howling is a wrinkle that might burn the defense if they are not prepared for it.  Keep in mind, in 59 snaps before this play, Beanie Wells was the RB on 40 of them, Chester Taylor had 6 plays, and Stephens-Howling just 7. What are the keys for the linebackers when he sneaks out there?  Is he a decoy? Or is he a legitimate target in a key spot? The Cowboys are about to find out.

Picture No. 2

Picture No. 3 goes along with the diagram above. Notice the drop responsibilities for Ware and James.  James has a longer way to go and if the hyphen gets to the edge, there is big trouble. So, if they have the screen to his side called, there is going to be a footrace between the Cardinals fastest player and the Cowboys slowest linebacker.

Picture No. 3

The Cardinals do not even attempt to block Anthony Spencer which is either a horrible decision if Spencer can grab Kevin Kolb or a brilliant one if Kolb can slip past 93 long enough to dump the ball off to hyphen in space.  It works like a charm. This demonstrates why mobility for a QB has almost nothing to do with "straight-line" speed and more to do with understanding how a side step can buy you another few tenths of a second.

Now, the moment that causes the issues is shown in Picture No. 4. Let's credit No. 70-Rex Hadnot, the Cardinals right guard, for getting a very impressive hold on James that keeps Bradie from getting to where he is supposed to go on this play.  Holding for a split second on a screen play is often done and seldom called.  But, if you can throw James off of his route to the flank by disrupting him for a moment, the damage is done.  Also, we should perhaps blame Bradie for attempting to get too cute as he tries to give the impression that he is blitzing.  It is a good bluff in some scenarios, but in this one it cost the game.  The concept is for Bradie to occupy a blocker with his first step or two, but he has to bail before anyone can get their mitts on him because he has that entire half of the field on the defensive left.  It is going to be a long run with no contact, but once Hadnot touches him, this play is doomed.

Picture No. 4

We can certainly question the Cowboys thinking their slowest LB could beat the "hyphen" to the edge, but they tried it and the picture below will attest to the fact that the result was ugly:

Picture No. 5

At the moment Picture No. 5 is taken, here is Picture No. 6 from the long angle. Look at what Stephens-Howling is seeing.  He knows he will not be caught from behind and ahead he has two blockers for three Cowboys defenders. And, unless Newman can defeat his man, the only other threat is Abe Elam who is 30 yards down field.  Surely, Stephens-Howling knew that this was a touchdown the second he looked downfield.  

Picture No. 6

Sean Lee is a very fast inside LB, but at 4.6, he is no match for a 4.35 guy like Stephens-Howling.  Lee diagnoses the play and peels off as fast as he can (and is actually quicker to get there than James), but he will not be able to run him down from behind.  James just cannot get there in time, and as you can see, Sensabaugh has his hands full worried about Larry Fitzgerald and is running with his back to the play.

From the time of the catch, the play is doomed. The Cowboys only real hope is that Terence Newman can get around Andre Roberts to bring down Stephens-Howling near the 45. Once Newman is dealt with quite easily, it becomes a comedy of missed tackles and less-than-inspired efforts to bring him down inside the 20 which speaks to the knowledge that the game is already lost once the play goes deep inside FG range.

You can see full video of this play here.

Is it a horrible call from Rob Ryan?  This is the nature of all of football. Call a blitz on 1st Down when few would expect it is a great idea when it works (a sack is a drive ender if the Cardinals are looking at a 2nd and 22)- and a horrible plan when it fails.  Asking Bradie James to get to the flank in time against Stephens-Howling sounds like a very poor plan, unless you are playing the odds that the Cardinals hadn't used him hardly all day long.  One does wonder how a speedy inside LB like Bruce Carter would do in the same situation, and we will get to find out in 2012.

So, perfect call against your blitz or reckless play call from Rob Ryan? It is a results-based business, so in this case, Ryan was caught with his hand in the cookie jar and his players were unable to bail him out.

This is why blitzing is a fine art. If you call it right, you cause a big play. But, one false move and you concede a game that will potentially keep you out of the playoffs.  At 1st and 15, the Cowboys might force a punt from midfield and have another chance to win the game. But, in this case, it was a fitting end to a day where coaches and players alike seemed a step behind.

Next Week: The season is lost in the lights.

11 for '11 series Previous Plays :

1. The Revis Interception 2. The Home Run to Holley 3.  3rd And 21 to Dez 4. Megatron's Dominating TD 5. DeMarco Murray's 91 yard Run 6. Eagles Zone Counter Trap 7. Romo's Improv Bomb To Witten 8. Romo's Throw of the Year