The Cowboys have had a very odd year with regards to their defense. So much so that at times you do just look at the personnel available and concede that to judge these players against a normal grading system is just unfair.
Then, you admit that injuries happen all of the league and there are no sympathy cards arriving in the mailbox. You also see that you are in the middle of a playoff push and you make do with what you have.
Some of the most endearing characteristics of recent Super Bowl Champions is the “next man up” philosophy which basically says that every injury is “just a flesh wound” to the total body of the roster, and therefore, grab a new body and throw him out there.
Of course, we know that this is merely a band-aid and there is a reason that different players get different salaries – because the difference in ability levels between your starter and the free agent off the street that has to replace him in Week 15 is substantial. Or, at least, you hope it is.
Late in the game, when everyone is tired and battered, the Dallas Cowboys have become a team that can find the 4th Quarter sack. Think back to almost any win you would like, and you will almost always see some key moments late in the game that involved the Cowboys pass rush. And sure enough, that can be proven in that the Cowboys are 2nd in the NFL with 4th Quarter sacks with 16.
And from November on, the Cowboys are #1 in the NFL with 10 4th Quarter sacks. You can almost name them all, including clutch moments last night as the Steelers were trying to find a winning score. 3 giant 4th Quarter sacks took down Ben Roethlisberger that started with DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer sharing a sack, then Sean Lissemore popped through to get one, and finally, Anthony Spencer who did it again.
Spencer is quite a story….in 2012, it seems that he doesn’t need an advocate any longer. He trails just JJ Watt and Aldon Smith in 4th Quarter sacks this season with 6, and many of them have been absolutely huge.
In this space every week, we deconstruct the games and examine for “splash plays”. In your 14th game of the year, it seems absurd that there would be 3 different players registering their first real contribution of the season in that metric, but look: Brian Schaefering, Michael Coe, and Eric Frampton all did just that as injuries and erratic play has pushed them on to the roster, and eventually on to the field.
Rob Ryan has taken his fair share of criticism in the last 2 years in Dallas – most of it brought on by his special brand of Ryan-family-bravado that makes him an easy target – so, I think it is only fair if we offer him a little congratulations for making sense of this group when the season is on the line and his defense keeps making game-changing plays late in these must-win December games.
In fact, against the Bengals and Steelers we have seen some very interesting increases in aggressiveness from the defense in terms of blitzing and bringing pressure. This requires faith in your secondary and a risk that perhaps is a result of desperation.
You could make a strong case that this has ambushed these opponents because they see on film a huge chunk of the season where the Cowboys didn’t blitz much at all. So, perhaps they lulled their opponents to sleep. But, even when they dial it up more, they are still picking their spots. And below, I want to look at a genius idea from Ryan that perhaps won the game:
Breakdown of the Lissemore sack:
This is a real interesting moment of the game that in retrospect might have been the equivalent of a defensive “hail mary”. If you recall, DeMarcus Ware had just made a huge mistake when he belted Ben Roethlisberger in the back of his head with his right arm after Ben had hit Antonio Brown for 11 yards. This moved the ball quickly near mid-field with over 1:30 to play and the Steelers had all of their timeouts. It is reasonable to assume that if the Cowboys conceded any more real-estate, the Steelers would be squared away to attempt a game-winning field goal.
Now, Ware is off the field on this next snap, adjusting his arm brace with the equipment staff. It is 1st and 10 from the Steelers 46 yard line. Of all of the times to try your biggest blitz of the game, this would not be when your opponent would expect it. No Ware and a 1st Down play. This all tells Pittsburgh that this is a play to go look for more yardage.
But, Rob Ryan sends his 5th blitz of 6 men on 1st Down ALL SEASON. That is in 167 possible situations.
But, with Pittsburgh in 11 personnel, that means you will have man-to-man underneath a single-high safety. Gerald Sensabaugh will start the play at 20-yards depth, but at the snap, he is clearly headed backwards fast to a point where you cannot even see him on the “All-22”.
On this first picture, check out Eric Frampton, the 2nd safety, charge to the line across from Heath Miller and that gets the attention of the RB to Roethlisberger’s left to pick-up.
Now, check the view from the endzone. Here, if you include Frampton, is a 6-man blitz with 6 blocking.
See that Spencer is back on the inside and this will alert the Steelers since they surely broke down his impact moment in the Bengals game and are on guard when he moves in side. Ryan will use this against them because he is asking Spencer on this play to attract as much attention as possible. He will stunt him inside across the center’s face and have Albright cut back around him in a twist.
The key here will be getting 2 to stick with Spencer. This will free up someone in a 6-on-6 scenario so that someone is running free at Roethlisberger. But, it has to be quick.
Now, look what happened. Spencer attracted all 3 interior Steelers.
It could not have worked better. The Cowboys wanted one man to run free and instead the Steelers let 2 men run free. You can see David DeCastro #66 can see what happens in this picture below as he tries to reach out to get Alex Albright, but nobody even touches Sean Lissemore.
Here is what is going on behind the pass rush as there doesn’t appear to be anywhere for Ben to go with the ball quickly against this blitz. If he waits, Miller might turn the corner on the wheel route to the left sideline (at the bottom of the screen), but that is a slow-developing route for sure.
He has to wait and when he does, Lissemore gobbles him up, with Albright and Victor Butler all right behind him. Anthony Spencer was such a threat that the RG, C, and LG all keyed on him, and this does what the blitz should do – causes confusion and gets a man to run free.
Hard to believe a play like that can work with #94 on the sideline, but that is also a brilliant time to spring a trap.
The play lost 8 yards and Anthony Spencer then registered his 10th sack of the year on the very next play and the Steelers threat was over.
Let’s take a look at the “Splash Plays” from Week 14 vs the Steelers:
Splash Plays are key impact plays from the defense. Usually, they are obvious, but there are some that blur the line. I have listed time and play of each one for those who want to double check my work.
Clearly, this was Brandon Carr’s best game of the season from a standpoint of showing up on film.
His aggressive plays all suggested that his history with Todd Haley was quite useful in knowing what to look for and what routes might be coming.
And the play he made in overtime was the type of game-winnnig play at just the right point of the season that justifies his salary.
Pass Broken Up
Pass Broken Up
Big Hit Pass Break Up
Pass Batted Down
3rd Down Stop
Pass Break Up
Here are the season totals through 14 games:
The Steelers found big plays with relative ease on Sunday, including a 60 yarder over the top that caused many of us to acknowledge that Danny McCray is a real target since it was very similar to the Thanksgiving bomb. The Cowboys seem to realize that he is being attacked and are trying to limit his exposure in pass situations. You have to stay deeper than the deepest man, but he is too likely to eat he cheese of a play-action fake.
Roethlisberger to Wallace, +60
Roethlisberger to Miller, +30 TD
Roethlisberger to Brown, +26
Redman left, +22
Roethlisberger to Cotchery, +21
Roethlisberger to Johnson, +21
Roethlisberger to Wallace, +20
Blitzing did help lead to some big plays, so this might have been Rob Ryan’s finest moment of the season to generate so much of a pass rush off blitzes when the game was on the line.
Pass Rushers Against Pittsburgh– 42 pass rush/blitz situations:
Once again, how do you judge a defense that is down both defensive tackles, both inside linebackers, a safety, and a corner?
Given the circumstances and given what we saw the Steelers were capable of earlier in the game, it is tough not to congratulate the Cowboys for surviving a great fight where both the winner and the loser was going to take huge shots from the opponent.
But, who would survive at the finish line? The Cowboys did.
Now, here comes the Saints to seek and find your weaknesses. It is a tough job that Ryan has these days.