Xs and Os from Week 2 – 3 Plays to Examine

Late in the week, we finally get a chance to "look at the tape" as Jason Garrett likes to say and examine some plays that we cannot fully digest on TV.  I can’t promise that every week we will be able to do this, but honestly, this is my favorite exercise of the week because only here can you fully appreciate how advanced and complex the NFL game can be sometimes.

Here, we are not looking to call anyone out, and we surely want to leave open the possibility of our eyes deceiving us and more than anything, I want to admit that I don’t have the benefit of the coaches telling me what coverage they were in.  So, sometimes, this diagnosis will be "pretty sure" rather than "100% sure" even though I am trying to get it right.  I will make calls and try to hunt down the right answer, but I will just admit right here that we will try our best to be accurate but invariably, I will see something wrong.

But, let’s pick 3 plays that are interesting but not played out by this point of the week and have some fun talking Xs and Os.  Feel free to tweet me @SportsSturm when a game shows you a play that you would like broken down and I will attempt to include it in this post.


Against Tennessee, there was plenty to break down (which will ALWAYS be the case in any NFL game), so let’s pick 3 and go.  As usual, I will give you the chance to select what we cover.

Mr Britt took the initiative to grab our first play:



Play #1 – 3Q/7:56 – 3/3/39 – Locker to Delanie Walker, Touchdown

We are seeing a ton of Cover 1 schemes from the Cowboys so far through 2 weeks, which was one of the real objectives for the defensive staff when they entered 2014; to see if they can make a scheme work where they employ coverages that allow for their highly-compensated corners to play what they prefer – man coverage – while the rest of the defense works in more desirable zone concepts.

Now, a couple things about coverage.  1) – This is far and away the most difficult thing to identify with accuracy and consistency.  By the way, if it was easy for us to identify their coverages, it would be too easy for a NFL QB to do so.  Therefore, you would prefer that it looks like one thing, but is really something else.  2) – For similar reasons to point #1, we should also understand that nobody runs the same coverage every time.  Again, mixing an disguising coverages is vital and therefore to suggest that TEAM A is running this primary coverage will most of the time summarize what they do the most.  Which is a distinction from what they do all of the time.  Nobody runs the same coverage all of the time or they would likely be roasted quite a bit.  The coaches on both sides of the ball at this level are just too good.

Here, we will try to generally simplify.  This is a necessity for those of us who don’t have a decade of experience and 10 hours a day to study.  But, know that Cover 1 or Cover 2 can mean at least a dozen different things with variations and hybrids.  And I will not pretend to fully grasp them with any depth or accuracy, but I am constantly trying to learn more and I think this is a good play to study on that front.

Here is Cover 1 Robber.  This, of course, is from a playbook that is set up against 21 Personnel (2RB, 1TE) as all play books are, but in this case, I just wanted you to see the overall concept.  In the 1 Robber, the Strong-side safety is playing the single-high safety.  The corners and the Will Linebacker are in man coverage.  And the other 3 – the MLB, the SLB, and the WS LB are in a combo coverage that – in this case – would have the 2nd safety playing the robber.  
The Cowboys seem to traditionally ask Sean Lee to play the robber quite a bit – Here is a good breakdown of his fine work against Detroit last year – but as long as you understand the concept that the corners are in man along with whoever has the RB.  One safety is in single-high, and that leaves 3 defenders to triangulate around the other 2 threats (Almost always the TE and the Z or slot receiver) to play a 3 over 2 zone.  So, your man guys can play man and your zone guys can play zone.  Easy, right?
Here is how it looks on Sunday against 11 personnel with 3 threats on the left.

The arrows designate man-to-man assignments.  I circled the robber, in this case, Bruce Carter.  He is free to diagnose whatever he sees, but clearly he must err on the side of helping out 32-Moore and 55-McClain in their zone.

Above, you can see Moore is waiting on which ever breaks out and McClain is looking for someone to sit in the curl flat.  Locker has a perfect pocket once he sees the Cowboys are not bringing more than 4, and can see that Carr and Claiborne are squared off against the outside WRs.  Although Carr above looks like he is disguising his man drop (facing the man) as a zone drop (butt to the sideline), but will quickly recover, while Wilcox is monitoring McCluster at the bottom to the sideline.

Above, based on the eyes of the defenders, it appears that both Moore and McClain are figuring the slot guy is their guy.  Carter’s robber responsibility has him standing on the Titans’ logo with no real plan, and Church is up top trying to figure out what Locker is looking at.  Here, we should note that Locker to this point in the game gave almost no sign that he was capable of making this throw to the red arrow above.  It looks like a dangerous throw, and frankly, Walker is headed right into the sector of the field already occupied by the far-sideline WR.

Above, we must suggest that there are certain routes that beat certain coverages.  A 3-man zone is not very difficult to decipher if the offense knows that is what you are doing.  We have no idea what the Titans were expecting, but to run the TE deep and the slot guy shallow and out to occupy the corner, means that McClain is supposed to chase a TE who runs 4.49 on a corner route.  And against single-high, Church can’t get there, either.  
Below, the video of Claiborne is seen as he leaves his man to make a play, but then over-estimates his power and under-estimates Walker’s size and bounces off him.  Then, Walker runs past everyone to the end zone which is an exhibition of skills that was most impressive.
Did someone "bust" in their coverage or was it just a great route, throw, and play by the Titans in a game where they had almost none?  I might go with the latter.
Play #2 – 2Q/9:21 – 3/1/D26 – Murray toss left +12
Here is a cool run play that is the same concept as a play-action fake.  In any of these deception tools, the idea is to hold the defenders where you want to, in an effort to – later in the play – take advantage of that slow reaction to what you are really trying to accomplish.  

I tried to draw various assignments on this toss left that makes it an easy conversion, but they are all being asked to cut off guys that they don’t have the angle on unless those defenders stay put at the snap.  And that is where the fake to the FB is needed.

Here, notice the red arrows of the players who are watching Romo and freezing in their stance which makes the play possible.  Big Ron Leary-65 is able to work around the 3-techique because the 3-tech is watching Romo and not realizing that his eyes are getting him out of position.  Leary simply moves  across his man and easily walls him off from heading with the play and this is all only possible because of a fake to a fullback who never touches the ball.

Witten and Leary have to make walls in front of the outside linebacker and defensive end, and if they are successful, once Tyron Smith pulls left (something that is rare enough that teams certainly are not expecting it on a short yardage run play) it is on.  Please note that Dwayne Harris had 2 choices and I am sure he is told to address the biggest threat and he has a nano-second to decide.  He helps Travis Frederick who is trying to cut off the inside LB, but if he chooses the safety this might go for a Touchdown.

But, behold the beauty and power of 77 running in the open field against a terrified corner who rightfully makes a business decision to get out of the way. 


Play #3 – 1Q/5:05 – 3/9/D43 – Romo to Witten +13
If this team can go anywhere this year, it will be because they turned their 3rd Down situation around.  In 2012, they were 5th on 3rd Downs.  In 2013, 25th.  Today, through 2 weeks they are 2nd in the league.  
And, almost all 3rd Down conversions are determined by 2 things: 1) staying out of long distances (see Play #2, above) and 2) beating blitzes.
Cowboys must get to the Tennessee 48 here on 3rd Down.  Blue lines are Cowboys routes, Red lines are Tennessee blitzes.  Romo doesn’t know this at the time, but he is looking at single-high, man under.  He also has 6 to block 6 in protection.

At the snap, you can see that the safety on Witten is figuring that 82 is going to run his normal hook/curl to the sticks, so when Witten drags across the the opposite sideline, he is quickly going to have plenty of space.  Meanwhile, the pressure package is happening with both DTs twisting and both LBs criss-cross behind them.  All that movement is to make sure that one guy comes free because all 4 inside Cowboys (G-C-G-DeMarco) have to decode this plan and make sure they have it sorted.

Notice Beasley running across a bit deeper than Witten and bisecting Witten from his cover man.  The question will ultimately be whether Witten can get to the sticks once the pass is completed.  The deep safety is sitting on 83 and 88 running deeper routes and watching Romo carefully to see if his eyes are going to lend any clues.

Now, back to the protection.  Wesley Woodyard-59 and George Wilson-21 are going to follow the DTs who are trying to cause the diversion.  Wilson no doubt has Murray if Murray goes on a pass route, but once he stays home, he is trying to hide from Murray until he emerges at the QB.

Look at all the traffic above as all of the twisting is happening and still, even though Martin looks like he lost his man, Murray pops out right in Wilson’s path.  This is text book stuff at the moment of truth so that Romo hardly even notices what he was up against.  Free is in a pretty good spot on the left and Tyron is on an island eating a sandwich on the right.

Above, Romo now feels that Free has to force his guy past the QB, so, Romo takes one step up (which would have been where Wilson was going to knock him silly) and makes the throw.
And below, you see Witten uses that brief side-step to get to the sticks and the drive continues on a 3rd and long conversion (more than 6 yards) – something Dallas did just 21% of the time in 2013 – 27th in the league.
So there you go.  3 plays to chew on as we turn our attention to a tricky affair in St Louis where health concerns are popping up as the week goes along.
But, if they can get out of the gate 2-1, I imagine everyone will be quite pleased with the potential this highly doubted team will have shown.