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Saints game redux

Every Sunday the NFL Network runs some of the games from last season in a shortened format. It’s a beautiful thing to review a game using NFL Replay because they cut out the boring parts of waiting between plays, halftime and all the other junk that consumes the broadcast time of a game shown live. It’s kind of like when Tom Hanks was made a VP in the movie Big and asked his secretary bring up a tape of the Giants/Broncos Super Bowl with all the boring stuff edited out.

So one of the games I got recorded on the Tivo is the Dallas/New Orleans game, which marked the downfall of our season. It was interesting going back to review it six months later with the knowledge of everything that has happened since then. I remember going into the game that it was the contest to decide who the number two team in the NFC was behind the Bears. The Cowboys were 8-4 heading into that game and had just come off a big win in the Meadowlands against the NY Giants. This game was for the inside track to a bye in the first week of the playoffs and home-field advantage. I think we were all pumped going into the game and this was probably the high point of the season. Then disaster struck, we got pasted by the Saints on our home field and crumbled the rest of the way.

So let’s go back to December 10th, 2006 for a quick review of what happened, and to answer some nagging questions that have popped up over the offseason. It’s amazing how time alters the prevailing view of what happened to us last season. Perception is ever-changing, but the facts of what happened in that game are eternally fixed.

The game actually started out extremely well for the Cowboys. On the first couple of Saints’ possessions the Cowboys were aggressive with the pass rush and were causing trouble for Drew Brees. Here’s another example of how perception changes over time. The Cowboys defense was blitzing and moving personnel around to confuse the offense. Sean Payton commented after the game that they couldn’t get the pressure blocked and had to make some adjustments in their game plan. Now this is an area that I think the Cowboys’ coaching staff of last year failed at during the end-of-season stretch, they didn’t make good in-game adjustments.

On offense, we had as good a start as you could hope for when Julius Jones busted off a 77-yard TD run on a draw play to put the Cowboys up 7-0. The defense was doing well and everything looked great. Then the Saints started to use our defensive aggressiveness against us and the game turned somewhat. DeMarcus Ware had a very bad game. Watching the game tape I wondered if I had noticed that the first time around. I had, as referenced here and here in my posts after the game. The problem was that Ware was going after the QB or the ball carrier with reckless abandon and the Saints started calling plays to take advantage of that. We all remember the passes into the flat to Mike Karney and Reggie Bush that absolutely killed us. Ware was supposed to peel off into coverage on those plays, but failed to get a quick-read on the situation and was repeatedly beat.

One play that was indicative of the problem wasn’t even a pass but a reverse. New Orleans had a 4th and 1 just inside Cowboys territory when it was 7-0 and decided to go for it. Sean Payton said that he thought the Cowboys interior was stout against the run so they decided to run a trick reverse on 4th and 1. And it worked because Ware was so aggressive going after the ball carrier that he didn’t keep back-side contain, missed the tackle in the backfield, the Saints got the first down and proceeded to score. All evening long the Saints took advantage of this situation for big plays.

Let’s flip over to the offensive side of the ball where Tony Romo had his first real down game. I know some fans like to play revisionist history and claim that Romo never made a mistake in his life and didn’t struggle down the stretch. Well, I can’t say it any plainer, you’re wrong. Romo began his stretch of shaky play in this game by completing under 50% of his passes and threw two INT’s, one critical, and got away with at least two others that should have been intercepted.

The Saints had something to do with that. They made every effort to keep Romo contained in the pocket by slanting their line to one side, then running delayed blitzes or containment zones on the back-side with their linebackers. They were uncanny in picking out which side of the line Romo was rolling out to and had players there in his face. It seemed that Payton knew the formations and what Romo would do and taught his defense to handle it. During the broadcast it was noted that Romo’s QB ranking going into that game was around 117 when he was outside the pocket. Almost every time he was outside the pocket in this game, the Saints had defenders in his face, so the results weren’t the same. They forced Romo to be a pocket-passer and he struggled some.

But the key play was Romo’s interception when the score was 7-7 and the Cowboys had good field position. Terry Glenn had gotten behind the secondary and if Romo had led him deep outside the Cowboys might have scored on a long bomb. Instead, he led him inside and the ball was thrown short, the Saints picked it off and never looked back. He also almost threw an interception on a couple of plays at the Saints goal line where we had to settle for a FG. And the Cowboys second TD was a gift because Romo threw the ball right into a Saints defender’s hands, but he couldn’t handle it, the ball bounced to T.O. who waltzed in for a score. Even his lone TD pass should’ve been an interception.

Granted his line wasn’t helping him out all that much, Kyle Kosier in particular had a very bad game. But there were opportunities to make plays, and he didn’t. But while Romo wasn’t as accurate as he had been in earlier games, it was the defenses lack of adjustments and mental errors that really cost the Cowboys.

Roy Williams and Keith Davis were both beat on key passes where they were in position to make a play, but just didn’t show the athletic ability or proper judgment to break-up the pass. On another long pass, Roy Williams was beat because of bad technique. A Saints WR ran straight up the field, Roy was in coverage but turned his hips to the inside of the field, the very place where he had help from the other safety! The Saints receiver turned outside on a corner pattern and Roy couldn’t recover. This is indicative of Roy’s continued struggles in coverage. And the Bradie James/Roy Williams coverage in the middle was poor all game long. But the killer was the passes in the flats. The Saints ran a couple of WR’s to a side, one would go upfield taking the CB with him, the other would go across the middle essentially "picking" the MLB’s and the running backs were all alone in the flats because Ware wasn’t peeling off in coverage.

Sean Payton just flat-out out-coached his mentor Bill Parcells, Romo never got a good rhythm going and the defense just couldn’t contend with the Saints offensive fire power. After a first quarter in which the Cowboys were looking pretty good, the wheels came off and we got crushed. You can look it up.

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