A key to the Cowboys 20-8 win Sunday night was Jason Garrett's win over New York DC Steve Spagnuolo in their high-stakes, game-calling matchup. Both are high- risk/high-reward coordinators;. Garrett likes to gamble with regularity down the field; Spagnuolo likes to go all in for your quarterback. Each is very good at adjusting in real time. On Sunday, each made a key adjustment that gave their team a slight edge. It was Garrett, however, who made the final adjustment, and took the game pot.
Through 40 minutes, Spagnuolo's aggressiveness was working. On Dallas' first successful drive, in the 2nd quarter, Romo succeeded in spite of leaky protection. He beat a corner blitz with a flare to Marion Barber and beat a safetly blitz that came clean with a hurried floater to T.O. which found the receiver in stride.
Spagnuolo doesn't back off in situations like this because he knows you probably need to beat his rushers three or four times in a row in order to score and while he may lose one or two hands in a row, odds are with him that you won't roll a sequence of wins.
Spagnuolo called on even more pressure when Dallas got inside his 35 and broke the Cowboys' interior line. First, Barry Cofield abused Cory Proctor with a swim move and hit Romo. Then, with C Andre Gurode sliding left to aid Proctor, fellow DT Steve Alford beat Leonard Davis with a similar move to sack Romo and drive Dallas into punting territory.
Spagnuolo saw he had a mismatch with Proctor and began overshifting pressure to Dallas left side on sure passing downs. He would put one of his DTs on the nose, to occupy Gurode, move Mr. Everything DL Justin Tuck over Proctor and shade DE Mathius Kiwanuka outside of Flozell Adams. This meant Proctor had to handle Tuck one-on-one. Spagnulo would also bring an ILB into the A gap and send him if there was not a Dallas back on that side of the formation to block him.
The strategy worked through the 2nd and 3rd quarters. Romo escaped pressure to find Patrick Crayton for a deep score, but his offense was sputtering. The Giants were keeping the Dallas running attack caged and their overload strategy let them keep both safeties deep to thwart deep Dallas' passes.
Garrett finally got his calls in sync with Spagnuolo in the 3rd and 4th and broke the game apart. On Dallas 3rd second-half drive, starting at his own 28, Garrett anticipated a blitz and called for a seven man protection from a two-TE set. Tashard Choice faked a handoff and drifted to the right flat, while Jason Witten and Martellus stayed in to block.
The Cowboys sent only two receivers out on patterns. Terrell Owens ran a post-corner from the left flanker spot and Miles Austin ran a deep crossing route underneath T.O., starting from the right flanker spot.
New York faked a blitz and dropped their three linebackers when they realized Dallas was throwing. But all three were at the line of scrimmage when Romo pulled the ball from Choice's belly and dropped to pass. Therefore, the LBs had their backs turned to Romo as they raced into the intermediate zones. Romo got the time to let Austin clear their drops and zipped a 23 yard pass to him.
Garrett then went to part two of his strategy -- counter Tuck's aggression by going right at him. On first downs, Tuck plays LE, across from RT Marc Colombo. On the next play, Dallas ran a tight end screen to Bennett, who chipped Tuck, then dropped three yards off the line to sell that he was going to block all play. This gave Leonard Davis time to sprint out to lead interference. Davis whiffed on his block, but he provided enough of an impediment to let Bennett gain eight yards.
Three plays later, Dallas was in 2nd-and-9 from the Giants 38. Dallas went three wide, with Witten at TE and Choice flanking Romo's right from the shotgun set. The Giants played press on the three receivers and kept both safeties deep. They had six men in the box, with Antonio Pierce at MLB and safety Michael Johnson as the second LB. Pierce was spying Romo and Johnson was shading Choice wherever he went.
Spagnuolo's guys had held Dallas under 20 yards rushing to this point, and with Tuck matched on Proctor, he was confident he could pressure the bruised Romo with four. He also wasn't worried about the run. He was taking away Dallas' deep pass.
Garrett made another perfect call, asking for Choice to run a draw directly at Tuck. Tuck vacated his lane when he crashed inside to try and pressure Romo through the A gap. Proctor was content to simply ride Tuck where he was already going. Gurode locked onto Pierce and Choice had a small but definite lane to run at LG. Johnson got caught up in traffic trying to shadow Choice and offered no resistance.
The play went for 23 yards to the New York 15.
Two plays later, with Dallas in another 2nd-and-9, Garrett anticipated another heavy rush and burned it with an inspired call. He knows that Spagnuolo, like his mentor Jim Johnson, blitzes more intensely the closer you get to his goalline. Garrett again put Dallas in a two-TE set, with Roy Williams left and T.O. right.
New York pressed each at the line and went all in after Romo; the Giants lined up in a three man line and danced Tuck, their three LBs and two safeties behind them. At the snap, all six of them crowded gaps and rushed.
New York had all eleven players within a yard of the ball at the snap and rushed nine of them. Witten blocked for a count, then released his LB and floated laterally to the left flat, acting as Romo's hot target. Romo patiently waited for Witten's guy to set him free and tossed a soft dart to his TE.
MLB Antonio Pierce dropped off his rush to chase Witten, but he was in no position to make a sure tackle. Witten parried him aside with a stiff arm and would have walked into the end zone had he not run into Williams, who was locked onto Aaron Ross on the sideline.
The own-tackle left Dallas just outside the one and Garrett again played against Spagnuolo's tendencies to get Dallas a 2nd TD. On first down, Dallas deployed in a three-WR set, and ran a power draw with Choice out of the shotgun. He gained four feet, but was stopped short of a score.
Dallas then took the three WRs out, and went to a three TE set, with FB Deon Anderson acting as the lead blocker for Choice in an I set. New York sold out to stop an apparent OT run behind Flozell Adams, so Anderson was uncovered when he faked a block and raced into the end zone. He caught Romo's pass behind a disgusted Pierce to push Dallas to an eleven point lead.
Garrett was playing a hot hand and stayed with his new-found tendencies two series later, when Dallas put the game away. Facing a 2nd and 20 after a holding call and an incompletion, Garrett again spread the field with three WRs. Again, the Giants kept their safeties deep to deny the deep pass, and put six in the box.
So again, Garrett called for a draw, this time away from Tuck, who was again lined up on Proctor. Gurode threw a cut block on Tuck, which allowed Proctor to pull and lead Choice around right end. Witten sealed DE Dave Toffelson inside and when Proctor blocked Johnson, Choice was again free into the secondary. His 17 yards put Dallas in 3rd and 3.
Garrett here showed the Norv Turner in him. He had a hot play, and he was going to ride it until New York stopped it. He again called the exact same play from the exact same formation. This time, New York stacked both LBs inside, as Marion Barber was now at RB and the Giants were anticipating an inside run. They also blitzed a corner off the left slot, to try and catch Barber in the backfield.
The blitz failed because Dallas ran away from it. The LBs were too close to the line of scrimmage to make a tackle in pursuit. When Proctor helped Witten drill Toffenson inside, Barber had the edge and gained eight yards.
Garrett did an impressive job getting out of this 2nd and 20 hole, but his calls only moved Dallas to midfield. He had to overcome a 2nd-and-23 two plays later. He did so piecemeal. On the 2nd down, he again deployed in three wide and New York this time played a straight 4-3, two-deep zone. All three LBs dropped deep to take the receivers intermediate options away.
Garrett dented this package with a simple circle route to Choice, releasing late from the backfield. This play had worked for 50 against Pittsburgh last week. It wasn't going that far against a zone, but the LBs were so deep that Choice gained 14 before a New York defender got close to him.
Facing a critical 3rd and 9, Dallas again went three wide, with Owens alone on the left. Witten was strong right, with Crayton flanking him in the slot and Williams far right.
New York went with a 4-2 again, with their CBs pressing the receivers. The Giants had one intriguing change in their look: one of their safeties was in the left slot, as if he were facing a phantom slot receiver. He could have been there to take away a slant to T.O. but he was too close to the line of scrimmage for that option.
He was there to execute a safety blitz and he made his run at the snap. But he was too deep to get close to Romo, who waited for Witten to get a clean release in the middle of the field on Johnson and outrace him to the left sideline. Witten caught Romo's pass two yards short of the first down stick, but had the separation and muscle to pull away from Johnson's ankle tackle and lunge for the first down.
Spagnuolo was backed up again and with time winding down on him and a five point deficit, he was going to bring the heavy blitzes again. Garrett challenged him with a two TE, two back Jumbo set. New York pressed Owens, Dallas' lone wideout, and put its other ten men within four yards of the line. The Giants were in their overload again, with Cofield over Proctor this time and Alford on Gurode's nose.
Witten and Bennett started on the left side, an unbalanced look Dallas had used with little success to begin the game. Here, however, Bennett motioned right and stopped behind RG Leonard Davis.
This is the power-I formation, one that is run by high schools across the country. And here Dallas ran an inside isolation, one of the most elemental runs in football, at any level. On the left side, Proctor got a helmet on Cofield. Gurode and Davis doubled Alford and rolled him back, allowing Gurode to scrape off and block SOLB Danny Clark.
On the weakside, Bennett and Anderson ran in tandem at the LBs Pierce and Chase Blackburn. Bennett blew out Blackburn and Anderson locked up Pierce. Choice dashed through the split Davis and Gurode created in the middle of the New York line. The Giants had only one safety playing the deep middle and Witten ran upfield and cut off his pursuit of the play.
Dallas won every matchup across the line. Choice's work was done when he cleared the line. CB Aaron Ross tried running Choice down from the edge but didn't have an angle.
Garrett, meanwhile, had won his game with Spagnuolo. He stayed patient with his game plan and turned New York's strengths against them late. He found New York's defensive rhythms and countered them with his own. It looks simple and obvious, calling screens when New York blitzes and calling draws when they deploy deep. But it took 40 minutes of trial and error to figure out when Spagnuolo was bluffing with his blitzes and when he was playing a strong hand.
Garrett was content to fold early, observe Spagnuolo's tells and beat him, consistently, on every big hand in the final 18 minutes of the game.
The Redhead must be one hell of a poker player.