With a little extra time with the bye week, I was going to study several different spots in the Chicago game with the coach’s film and discuss the finer points of the Xs and Os scenarios before we move on to the Baltimore Ravens.
I am guessing that the team is taking quite the opposite approach since they obviously need to focus on only what they can control – looking forward – but I don’t think that should keep us from furthering our football educations.
One of the most pivotal plays of the Monday night matchup a week ago was the moment late in the first half of a game that had almost no scoring to that point. In fact, Chicago, moments earlier, had just kicked a field goal to take a 3-0 lead with 4:21 left in the half. Both defenses were doing a pretty strong job of keeping the opposition from finding a rhythm.
Now, the Cowboys took the ensuing kick and were now facing a 3rd and 9 after DeMarco Murray fumbled a pitch on 2nd and 5 back to the 21 yard line.
So, 3rd and 9. “11” personnel, with Dez Bryant wide left, and Witten, Austin, and Ogletree to the Right, as you will see below.
Also notated is the pre-snap movement of the Bears secondary. The weak-side safety (37-Conte) is showing early that he is at his normal depth, but as soon as Romo looks ready to snap the ball, Conte sprints to the spot over left tackle. The opposite safety (21-Wright) moves to the “single-high” spot deep in center field, and the corner with Dez Bryant (33-Tillman) takes a more conservative after initially showing “press” coverage right in Bryant’s face as they break the huddle.
Now, that we have set up the play, let’s take an email from a reader about what happens next.
I need your football intelligence to help me understand this.At first I put that INT squarely on Dez’s shoulders. Then Garrett says the hand signal from Romo to Dez was to tell him to adjust his route based on the coverage, NOT to specifically run a hitch route. I don’t know everything about football, but 1 on 1 tight coverage with no safety help doesn’t seem to say “Run a hitch route”. You posses the football brain. Can you please explain it? The only thing I’ve heard is that maybe the blitz should’ve clued Dez to run the hitch. But if there was a blitz of 7 men, Witten would’ve been uncovered and wide open. Romo would’ve been crazy to even consider Dez as a target in that situation. The only reason Romo got pressure was because Cook blew his assignment right? How could Dez have known that was gonna happen? His read is 1 on 1 with no safety help. And this is NOT to be a Dez apologist. this is about one play and one play only.
Great stuff, Dion. Let’s try to work through what is happening from a few angles.
Football is an awesome game that requires amazing mental gymnastics from all involved. For instance, Dion is right. If what the picture above and the picture below are what they appear to be, the quick read is to Witten who clearly has nobody over him – unless you think the DE 71-Idonije is going to suddenly get up and run with Witten.
But, the Bears know that Romo isn’t that dumb. And Romo knows the Bears aren’t that dumb, too. Witten is not open. One of the two linebackers standing over Doug Free and Mackenzy Bernadeau is going to run with Witten. He just has to figure which one. Then, to the right, the Bears have 3 over 2, which means the safety is supporting both corners against Austin and Ogletree.
As we can see, the Bears are bluffing that they might send 7. But, Romo knows one is a bluff who has Witten. Still, 6 blitzing and only 6 defending tell us that Romo knows the ball needs to come out quickly. He also knows that since 3rd grade, the weakest point on a blitzing defense is throwing at the blitz. This tells him the defensive point of weakness here is going to be out left to Dez Bryant.
This is all true so far. Again, the Bears know that this is a basic read, so their wrinkle to this blitz is to not just drop 1 LB (99-McClellin) to Witten, but to drop the other LB (54-Urlacher) into the lane where a slant would be thrown if Dez tries to break his 1 on 1 coverage by running the slant route. Romo will have a hard time seeing a LB from the right side of the ball at the snap stepping into a passing lane for a slant on the left. See Below.
It turns into a type of “fire zone” blitz where you are only sending 5 rushers, but they are mostly overloaded on the same side of the ball where you will have a numbers advantage to get home, while on the other side, RG 73-Bernadeau has really nothing at all to do except watch. But he won’t know that until it is too late.
Let’s go back to the sideline camera and now see the play where you can see all-22. Notice Tillman in the circle up top. Before we go any further, we should point out that Charles Tillman may be the most under-rated ball hawk in the league. It seems like the others (Charles Woodson, Ed Reed, Asante Samuel) get more publicity, but when you combine interceptions and forced fumbles, there are very few better at going to get the ball than “Peanut” Tillman.
The issues with this play and the Romo communication with Bryant is that Tillman keeps changing his posture. As Dion asks, Romo is signaling before the snap to Bryant. The question is, what are they discussing – the blitzer or the route? And the answer is the blitzer. Romo is making sure that Bryant is aware that the safety is coming down into the box. Once that happens, then it is up to Romo and Bryant to rely on their homework to know what to do next. But, no, Romo is not telling Bryant to run a hitch there.
Think of it as a decision-tree. First, we determine if a blitz is on. Then, once we have agreed that it is a blitz, we must move on to the next decision. We call off our original plan in the huddle and begin moving through all of the prep work from the week in the film room and the practice field. This is where football becomes quite complex. Especially if we don’t agree on what we see.
Let’s go back to Tillman. As a veteran ball hawk, he wants to cause issues with Bryant and Romo. It is highly possible that through scouting, they know that Bryant is not always on the same page as their QB. Given that the Cowboys have recently been isolating Bryant on his own side to find ways to get him the ball, it is likely that the Bears waited for a perfect situation to see if they could cause this sort of meltdown. 3rd and long. Bryant off by himself. Blitz from his side and leave Tillman in a 1-on-1 with Bryant.
OK. Now, back to Romo and Bryant. Romo signals to Dez before the play that Conte is blitzing. What happens next is based purely on Tillman’s positioning. If Tillman is playing “press”, then the QB and WR know to run a “go” or a “fade”. These are press-beating coverages that require vertical runs and throws. But, if Tillman is playing “off and soft”, then the proper route to run is the hitch or stop. But, that is not determined without seeing and diagnosing what Tillman is doing.
Dez will see press in pre-snap – because Tillman shows it to him. But, is it press? Because Tillman has seen this blitz and how teams counter it a thousand times, he knows he can foul up the communication between QB and WR. If he has, then he has won. Everyone knows the basic 3rd grade read for a QB is to throw into a blitz. Tillman knows that Dez will determine his route based on the first coverage he sees. So, he shows Dez one thing, but when the ball is snapped, look above and see how Tillman has turned his hips to show Romo that he is playing a soft zone technique with his rear to the sideline. This tells Romo to run the short hitch route.
The picture above is the moment of truth. Romo has snapped the ball and Dez is now seeing the actual coverage. Tillman is not pressing him, rather, he has given Dez a “free release” and Dez has several yards of space. The conversion here is a hitch, because he cannot run a vertical against a blitz if Tillman is giving him this big of a cushion.
Also, above, not that Urlacher is going to cut off the slant perfectly if the Cowboys converted to that. I don’t think that is a consideration, but the Bears don’t know that. They are playing the percentages based on their homework.
At this moment, Romo has to determine what he sees, assume Dez sees it the same way and let the ball go. If he doesn’t, he gets hit in the mouth with the blitz.
Here, we have shown where the ball is in the air, and that moment reveals that Dez is running with his head faced downfield, while Tillman is watching Romo and planting his foot in the ground to break on the ball. If the hitch is run by Bryant, it looks like Tillman would have been right there to either break up the pass or to tackle Dez well short of the sticks, but we will never know. This picture above should show us that if it is a vertical, Tillman is not beat when the ball is thrown. I have heard plenty say that if Romo throws the deeper route it is an easy big gain. That is just not true. Tillman is prepared for either scenario. But, if Dez runs the hitch, it is his job to get inside position against the corner and make the catch with body position. It may not be a first down, but it will not be a disaster.
The final picture shows the horrible outcome. Dez standing at the 33 yard line and looking back as Tillman is the only player near the pass and takes it back to add another moment to his ball-hawking resume.
He earned an easy interception because he did what he has to do as a corner against the blitz. Instead of showing a predictable coverage and letting the QB and WR both identify and react, he showed one coverage to the WR and the true coverage to the QB. A very savvy veteran move against a young receiver that is still trying to figure out how complex the game can be between the ears.
Dez does not need to worry about blitz pick-up. He needs to worry about his read when he is the “hot receiver”. And this time, he was fooled. Romo made plenty of bad throws on Monday night, but this one was clearly based on him depending on Dez to see things for what they were and not falling for Tillman’s game.
I have also heard the idea that maybe they should not put Dez in these spots. Maybe he should not be the hot read in a 3rd and long. That will never work in the NFL. A good receiver has to be able to be dependable in all situations or the defense will sniff that out in about 2 minutes. Good NFL defenses make you do that which you are uncomfortable doing. And in this case, they were testing Dez and his ability to read and react.
And, despite having a good statistical showing, he failed this test.