When I first became a member of this blog, one of the best things I found were Raf's Play-by-Play reviews. After his departure there has been a dearth of posts on the subject. In an attempt to rectify this situation, I shall now present to you the first (in what I hope to be) a long series of posts on "Explosive Plays" in Cowboys games. Where better to start than Cowboys vs. Indians?
The first explosive play actually goes to the Redskins. After an intense series of returns by Brian McCann resulted in for a total of 13 points in the first quarter, the Redskins and their enigmatic quarterback Rex Grossman decided to actually attack our weak pass defense. Silly, right? Their most successful play actually came off a wheel route that Sensenbaugh attacked for an interception in the first quarter. This time the Cowboys got burned.
It's 1st-and-10. The Redskins are on their 48 yard line in a strong side formation. The Cowboys are in a 3-4 with the DL, Ware and Spencer on the LOS. Orlando Scandrick is on the island at the top with Santana Moss and Michael Jenkins is playing a 5 yard cushion against Anthony Armstrong at the bottom of the screen. Bradie James and Keith Brooking are the inside linebackers and I'm fairly certain, though I can't be positive, that Alan Ball and Sensei are playing 2 deep coverage around the 40.
Redskins tight end Chris Cooley shifts from his strong side blocking assignment to create more cushion on the left side of the field. Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking shifts with him and leaves the right side of the field with Bradie James, Orlando Scandrick and Anthony Spencer who will be assigned responsibility for the Fullback Mike Sellers. Rex Grossman snaps the ball.
At the top of the screen Santana Moss is going to run a slant route against Orlando Scandrick and try to weave space between Bradie James, playing spy zone coverage, and Scandrick's man coverage. Keith Brooking bumps Anthony Armstrong, who seems to run an out-route, and slips back into zone coverage besides James, leaving coverage of Armstrong up to Ball. Jenkins slips back into a flat to cover Chris Cooley on a slant towards the sideline. Anthony Spencer drops back into man coverage to cover Mike Sellers on what seems to be a slant towards the sideline. The Cowboys give a four man rush of Demarcus Ware, Stephen Bowen, Jason Hatcher and Jay Ratliff. Jay Ratliff aptly takes the Redskins center out of play in under a second.
Focusing more on the pass rush, Demarcus Ware knocks Trent Williams to the ground but is tripped up for a half second in the process. Stephen Bowen is able to create some pressure on the pocket but isn't able to get past the left guard. Jay Ratliff is now double teamed by the right guard and the half back, and Jason Hatcher is being handled easily by the right guard. Rex Grossman rolls out to the right. Once Sellers reaches the sideline he continues on into a wheel route. Anthony Spencer following close behind makes the mental error of looking back towards the QB to get an eye on the location of the ball.
Sensei is playing the middle of the field and runs towards the sideline to catch up with Sellers to make the play. It takes about 2 1/2 seconds for the ball to leave Grossman's hands and reach Sellers hands. Before that Grossman had already been rolling to the right and Sensei, the strong-side safety, was only responsible for guarding two routes on his side of the field: the slant route, which Scandrick and James both had coverage for and which was heading towards of the middle of the field, and the Sellers wheel route. In order for Grossman to make the play he would have needed to pass through the zone coverage of Brooking and James and he would've needed to break Scandrick's man coverage. It would've been the smarter decision to head for the Sellers route since the middle of the field was well covered.
However, even if it he didn't make the smart decision and stayed towards the middle of the field, what is the point of a coverage safety? He must be able to cover his half of the field and break up deep passes with his lateral speed. Sensei showed a definite lack of speed and quick decision making in being at least 2 1/2 steps away from Sellers. If this were one play it could be written off, but Sensei's lack of ability to efficiently cover his half of the field makes him a liability at safety and until the Cowboys upgrade, they're going to have to give up these deep passes. This doesn't put Spencer off the hook, as he should've stayed on Sellers the entire time, and it was his mistake that gave Grossman such an easy pass. But safeties are supposed to be a safety in case coverage gets past the first defender. Expecting a 3-4 pass rushing linebacker like Spencer to make the play is not thinking.
On another note, those thinking that Ratliff's dip in production is his fault need to take a closer look at how he is handled. In this play the center, right guard and half-back all step up to block just him. It takes Hatcher and Bowen 2 1/2 seconds to come off of one block. Part of the point of a 3-4 DL is to be a big force that requires people to double team them. If we had one really good DE at either RDE or LDE, Ratliff would not have been triple blocked and Grossman would not have had so much time to get off the pass.
Until the Cowboys address these two issues, this pass defense is going to continue to haunt the team.