Dallas Cowboys Film Review, Part 2: Anatomy of a Meltdown

In Part 1 of this week's film review, we covered how great the special teams were against the Giants (I don't care if the Giants returners are bad, it was an improvement) and how the offense of the Cowboys was still showing some concerning tendencies before Tony Romo was injured.

Today we're going to devote the entire post to the defense, and why not? After all, despite the offense's struggles early on with Jon Kitna, the complete and total meltdown of the defense over a span of seven minutes between the second and third quarter was when this game was lost. You could look at the injury to Terence Newman as a factor, you could look at Wade Phillips' defensive scheme and playcalling as a major factor, yet when watching this game again it certainly appeared as if the defense just gave up.

Today, we're going to break down two very specific plays and I'll break down the rest of the game by the defense as well. What happened to the defense that was so aggressive and dominant to start the game? How could a defense that forces five turnovers, including three in the first quarter, allow 41 points in a humiliating loss? Follow the jump and let's see if we can't find out.

The Breakdowns:

There are about 25 plays in this game that I could break down frame by frame to explain exactly what went wrong for the Cowboys. No one player was at fault in this game, as nearly every single player on the defense -- both starters and backups -- had blown assignments, suffered from poor technique and played a generally uninspired game starting about midway through the second quarter (we'll get into that a bit later).

For now, here's the two plays I want to focus on. It just so happens that Orlando Scandrick is featured in both, touchdown passes to Steve Smith and Hakim Nicks.

Play 1: 1st & 8, DAL 8, 4:31 2nd Quarter:

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The Giants line up in the shotgun formation with Hakim Nicks (bottom) and Steve Smith split wide. The Giants have two backs in backfield and as Manning steps back from under center, Jacobs goes into motion...

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With Jacobs now split wide, Gerald Sensabaugh follows him in motion and lines up across from Jacobs. This shows that the Cowboys, especially with the linebackers and Alan Ball drawn in tight, the Cowboys are playing man coverage. The other giveaway is how Orlando Scandrick is playing Nicks.

With the Giants on the 7-yard line, Scandrick has given the Giants' best receiver a six-yard cushion. This gives Nicks many possibilities on his route and while Scandrick is certainly focused on maintaining inside position, from that distance a simple one-step drop and shallow screen would be enough to score a touchdown. Especially since the middle of the field is wide open...

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Scandrick plays off Nicks and never moves up on the receiver. Nicks actually turns into Scandrick who has tried to block the inside route at the goaline, but with that cushion, and with Scandrick playing completely flatfooted, Nicks has all the leverage on this play.

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Here is a perfect look at Scandrick's technique on the play. After the snap of the ball, he never moves from his spot and is caught flat footed when Nicks makes his move. This allows the receiver to have all the leverage and the control on the route and Scandrick is forced to do nothing but react to a big and fast receiver who is already in full motion by the time he reaches the goal line.

That Scandrick never reacts to the ball, despite actually gaining inside leverage on the ball, makes this touchdown catch even easier.

Play 2: 2nd & 2, DAL 14, 1:20 2nd Quarter

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On 1st down, late in the second quarter, the Giants are once again in a three wide, shotgun set. From this same formation the Giants had just run two effective runs and the Cowboys decided to play very aggressive the third time around. Nicks and Steve Smith are split to Maning's left, with the Cowboys playing man coverage between Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick. The Cowboys have moved their safeties down low and into the box and are showing max blitz on the play.

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The Cowboys do indeed pull a max blitz, with Alan Ball and Gerald Sensabaugh shooting the gaps at the snap of the ball. Keith Brooking correctly picks up the tight end who releases on a route and Sensabaugh has a clear route to Manning. Just as Manning is getting hit, he releases the ball in a high, long arc into the end zone....

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Here, we can see how poor technique and a poor scheme doomed this play. With the Cowboys playing a full blitz, the middle of the field is wide open. Jenkins plays tight press on Nicks, yet Scandrick plays six yards off Steve Smith in the slot. Smith has a clean release off the snap of the ball and easily could have slanted inside of Scandrick on a hot route, yet instead opts to take advantage of the lack of aggression by Scandrick -- who once again gets caught flat footed.

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Once again, Scandrick is merely reacting to the route and allowing the receiver to dictate the play. Smith has ample room to get to full speed off the snap of the ball against a cornerback who is flat footed and just waiting for him to make his move. He tries feebly to get an arm on Smith...
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By this time, the ball has already been released and Smith is running past Scandrick at full speed. Once again, Scandrick doesn't turn to track the ball in the air and can only watch as Smith makes an easy touchdown catch with about four yards of space between himself and the receiver.

On such an aggressive playcall by the coach, who was trying to do anything he could to get to Eli Manning, there's no reason a receiver should get this easy a release off the snap and get to such an easy pass and catch.

 

The Game:

While Scandrick was certainly at fault, not just on these two plays but on many more throughout the game, this type of breakdown in technique and poor playcalling and design were evident all throughout the game. Terence Newman, because of the Cowboys lack of cornerback depth, was forced to play with a rib injury and could not play press coverage on any receiver. He was targeted all game long and while you admire him for his courage, he was guilty of poor technique and tackling all game long.

This sort of open releases for the Giants happened all game long. The Cowboys reverted to a hybrid zone scheme in the secondary to try and contain the big pass plays, yet the Giants receivers were running free through the secondary on nearly every play. The cornerbacks weren't picking up the right receivers, the safeties weren't reacting to the routes and not one defensive back was able to react to the ball in the air.

Combine this breakdown in the secondary with a total and complete inability to get to Eli Manning and the Giants passing attack had a field day against the Cowboys. The Cowboys attempted to play aggressively in blitzing and in the pass rush, yet the Giants exploited this with strategic running plays off shotgun draws and delayed draws, that waited for the rush to get upfield before the running back took off through the open lane.

So what happened?

The Cowboys opened up the first quarter by forcing interception on the first two drives by the Giants. It was apparent that the Cowboys were fired up for the game, they were aggressive and physical and the pass rush was forcing Manning to rush his passes and overthrow his receivers. This resulted in two high passes that were tipped and then intercepted, and the Cowboys appeared to be on a roll.

On the Giants third possession, the Cowboys appeared to have maintained the same level of control. On third and long, Manning dumped the ball underneath to Mario Manningham who, on first glance, was tackled well short of the first down marker. Yet the Cowboys lost the challenge on the spot and the Giants were given new life. A long pass on the sideline, which Terence Newman nearly got a hand on, was initially ruled incomplete but then reversed on replay. The Cowboys backed off a bit, the Giants scored a touchdown and what should have been a blowout was suddenly a 10-7 game.

Yet after a Cowboys punt, the Giants gave the ball up again after a Brandon Jacobs fumble. The Cowboys defense had stepped up again and once more put the Cowboys into prime position to take a commanding lead.

Then Tony Romo was hurt.

The Cowboys forced a punt on the next Giants possession, which Dez Bryant returned for a touchdown, and the Cowboys defense was right back on the field. While it's tough to see this as an excuse, the Cowboys defense had now been on the field for the majority of the first and second quarter thanks to quick scoring drives by the Cowboys, two short drives at midfield and then a punt return touchdown on the next change of possession.

Add to this the fact that Romo appeared to be significantly injured and you could just watch the fight go out of the Cowboys defense. Wade Phillips admitted after the game his team dropped off after the Romo injury, and it was certainly apparent in the play of the defense late in the second quarter.

The aggression was gone, the technique regressed and the Cowboys allowed a motivated and talented Giants offense to score 17 points in the final four minutes of the second half to stun the team and the crowd and take a 21-20 lead into halftime. The Cowboys never recovered.

DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer tried to kick up their play and try even harder to get to Eli Manning, yet there was a complete breakdown in gap control in that aggression. The Giants ran the ball right into the heart of the pass rush of the Cowboys and completely controlled the clock and the game on the ground. The safeties and the cornerbacks lost control of the receivers and with the Cowboys unable to get to Manning, it was no wonder that the Giants scored 17 more points in the third quarter before the Cowboys were able to get their offense moving again.

One play in the third quarter was the perfect example of this breakdown of heart, aggression and attitude.

The Cowboys lined up in a 5-3-3 formation, with Sensabaugh dropping into the box against an obvious running formation by the Giants with Jacobs in the backfield. On the snap of the ball, instead of aggressive firing into the gaps and taking away the running play, the Cowboys were tentative. They were more than tentative, they were absolutely timid. Keith Brooking was the first linebacker to read the play and instead of firing into the hole and fire into the blocker, he danced in the hole and was caught flat footed on the edge.

Sean Lee was the same, reading the play and just sort of dancing in a group of players instead of aggressively firing to the ball. This allowed Jacobs to get to the edge to score an easy, backbreaking 30-yard touchdown through a couple of hapless arm tackles by Alan Ball and Terence Newman.

The Cowboys, against the Giants, suffered a meltdown of catastrophic proportions. Poor technique, poor scheme and poor playcalling was indicative of not only the inability of the players to recover from the Romo injury and adjust in game, but also the lack of ability of the coaching staff to maintain their players on top of their game from start to finish in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Once Romo was injured, we were going to learn just what sort of team this Dallas Cowboys squad truly was. If there was any doubt before that Tony Romo was the heart and soul of this Cowboys team, then now there is no question that when Romo left the field for the locker room the Cowboys confidence in winning the game left with him.

With Romo out for six weeks, the spotlight shines even brighter on the defense to step up and perform. After witnessing their play against the Giants in the second and third quarter, I doubt I have any confidence this defense can ever come close to the domination they enjoyed last season. Anthony Spencer isn't making plays, Alan Ball is not the safety we thought he was and the inside linebacker depth is nowhere near as great as we believed back in September.

This could be a very, very long season.

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