Xs And Os: Inside the Cowboys film room for Week 1

The goal every Thursday is to take one or two plays and to really break them down from the good ol’ Xs and Os.  Since we started doing this, we have found access to posting video, then coach’s film, and now, with stills and NFL Game Rewind, you can really have items to look at when you study.

What happened, who was there, and who likely was responsible is rather easy to break down if you take the time these days.  And it falls to people like us to dive in.
This week, I selected two plays.  I certainly don’t attempt to select all negative or all positive plays – just moments in the game where strategy and execution crossed paths and gave us good talking points.  As it happens, both were in the 2nd Quarter, and both were not great moments for the Cowboys.  Nevertheless, I want to dive into both of them with you and talk them out.
PLAY #1 – Giants face 1st and 10 at their own 30 – Result: 70 Yard TD pass to Victor Cruz
So much about playing sound defensive football begins and ends with communication.  And, although I thought this would be a great play to break down from a strategy standpoint – The Cowboys try a fire-zone blitz where Scandrick and Lee overload the right and Ware drops into the shallow zone coverage – the more I look at it, it becomes very clear that the Cowboys were running at least 2 different defenses here.
Frame #1 – I only show this to demonstrate the fact that the Giants rushed them to the line here because it was a rather close 2nd and 1 situation where the Cowboys were thinking a measurement would be coming and the Giants hurried them to get a play off before the 2-minute warning.  It worked like a charm as the Giants are lined up and ready for a snap here and the Cowboys are pretty much unanimously looking at Sean Lee for the call.  
We came to find out later that Monte Kiffin took the blame for getting the call in too late, but I would also add that when this happens, Lee has the chance to call 1 or 2 base calls just so that this situation doesn’t happen.  If you watch the TV coverage, it is very clear that Ware, Sims, and Allen in particular look really confused about what play is being run.  They are literally all with hands in the air looking at Lee when the ball is snapped.
Understand that a corner blitz is not something that will happen much at all the entire season.  So for there to be a corner who is running at Eli and those behind him are so unsure of the call 

Frame #2 – So here at the snap, with the 5 coming on what appears that the Cowboys want to run a rather typical fire zone blitz where 5 rush and the weakside defensive end will drop into the zone.  I have no idea what the call really was, but that looks like what the majority of the front were doing, so now I will speculate what the issue is underneath.

It seems Ware and Sims are dropping into the same zone which would mean that Ernie Sims is the most likely and reasonable man to slide behind Sean Lee and take the defensive right shallow area, where Hakeem Nicks is about to enter up at the 33 yard line as he runs behind Cruz.

However, I should point out that the body positioning of Sims and Ware (facing the man – Myers the Tight End, not back pedaling and facing the QB) suggests that perhaps they each believe that they are actually in man-coverage and that they both believe they are responsible for the tight end and are wondering why the other guy is there, too.

Frame #3 – At this point, we see Nicks all by himself, Ware covering nothing but turf, and the pass rush is almost getting home to Eli Manning with both Nick Hayden having a shot at him, and Scandrick looking like he is being held pretty badly by the left tackle, Will Beatty.

Frame #4 – This picture is from the same moment as Frame #3, and it shows that they have a nice gain underneath to Nicks, but Eli sidesteps Hayden and sees that Allen is too shallow and knows if he buys a moment, Cruz is going to run right past the coverage.  He simply has to put enough on it, because Cruz is going to leave Allen in his dust as Allen is stationary as Cruz is at a full sprint.

And now, the video.  It sure looks like Allen should be deeper at his initial drop and then takes a poor angle.  The video confirms the wheels of JJ Wilcox as he closed the gap quickly from across the field on a very fast Cruz.  But it also confirms that the big issue here is just communication.  It is tough enough to play against an offense that has this weapons.  It only gets exponentially more difficult if half the defense has no idea what defense they are supposed to be playing.  
This play was an absolute mess and one of those bust moments where you are just thankful it did not cost you the game.  
Play #2 – Cowboys face a 2nd and 19 with 0:46 in the 2nd Q – Result – Incomplete to Williams
If we all agree that there is nothing more important in the NFL than having a big-time QB, then there can be nothing more important than making sure you don’t lose him in the season opener to a major injury.  And despite doing a fine job all night long in protecting Romo, this is the one that almost did them in.
Understand that so much of pass protection is based on getting the ball out of there in a timely fashion.  Nearly every season, Peyton and Eli Manning are the two best QBs in the NFL at avoiding sacks.  They do this, because they make 1 or 2 reads and then unload most all of the time.  They don’t hold the ball and wait for things to open up.
A point of discussion this week was “why was Tony checking down so much?”  Well, part of that is coverage and part of that is faith that your offensive line can hold up for an extra second.  After 2011 and 2012, you will have to excuse Romo if he is a little gun-shy about hanging on to the ball.
In this spot, Ronald Leary has taken a holding penalty and the Cowboys are backed up on a 2nd and 19.  They are also in their 2-minute offense which means S11.  Romo has had time to throw, but 19 yards to the sticks are going to require that he either takes 2 nibbles or waits for the players to get 20 yards down the field and open in one play and that requires big protection.
Frame #1 – We want to point out all of the major players in this sequence.  You can click on any picture to enlarge it. 

Frame #2 – The Giants did something here that either I have never seen, or I have never seen pulled off so perfectly.  It the LDE-WLB stunt.  We are all familiar with T-E stunts or something between 2 or 3 defensive linemen.  We are also familiar with twists and various maneuvers meant to screw up blocking schemes, but what the Giants did here was a thing of beauty.

First, 94-Kiwanuka engages Doug Free to the outside to set him up high and to get Free to turn almost towards the sideline.  When his body turns that significantly, he can no longer see much else in his periphery vision.  Free is completely focused on closing off the edge to the fine pass rusher.   Meanwhile, Jacquian Williams looks like he is blitzing the B-Gap (between guard and tackle) and DeMarco Murray squares him up and is ready to handle him as he stands between the rusher and the QB in perfect form.

Frame #3 – Now the incredibly odd strategy that caught everyone off guard.  Instead of 57 trying to battle Murray for a shot at Romo, he runs directly at the ear hole of Doug Free and blasts him into next week.  I have heard a lot of people down on Free for this moment, but seriously, if a linebacker comes at you at full speed and you have no idea he is coming while you try to block Kiwanuka from a different direction, every tackle in the league is going to meet a similar fate.

Kiwanuka is now free of Free, and he heads back inside the stunt and Murray must be thinking bad thoughts as he knows how long he can hold off a defensive end with a head start.  This won’t work well.  Meanwhile, little known Justin Trattou is actually working Tyron back to Romo here from the other edge.

Frame #4 – This is a frame you don’t want to see.  Free on his knees, Tyron falling, and 3 Giants meeting at your QB.  He gets the ball out in 3.5 seconds, but he is about to take a helmet in the ribs and a sandwich from the other side as this will leave him in a heap on the field.

Frame #6 – Lets roll it back and look at what Romo saw.  He does have Dez Bryant in the right flat for a modest gain, but he knows it is 2nd and 19 and he wants more than 7 yards.  So he, then looks for other options.  This is the gamble that every QB takes.  Do you throw it at the first open man, or do you keep shopping for a better deal, but risking the pocket caving in as you go?

Frame #7 – Here is the moment where everyone is hitting Romo.  He just sent the ball to Williams near the sticks, but the pass was off its’ mark.  You see he has Austin shallow for the crossing pattern, but he passed on that, too.

In looking at the play on video, you almost want to compliment the stunt concept more than you want to blame the blockers.  They have to be prepared for anything, but in fairness, that is really exotic.  
Tyron has to hold up better on the outside as he got a bit top-heavy and lost his balance.  
But, in the end, your QB1 took a major hit and now wears a kevlar vest because of it.

Hope you enjoyed these breakdowns and leave your comments or questions below.

Tomorrow, we dip into the mailbag and get ready for the Chiefs.