Last week, I began a series in which I'll examine five key moments in the 2010 season. As I stated in my intros to the first two of these (#5 is here; # 4 can be found here), the moments I'm interested in examining all either represented or forced a larger philosophical change that ended up having long-term repercussions during the 2010 season, and perhaps into the future. Today's installment looks at a play from week two, against Chicago. The Bears' first touchdown exposed a weakness in the Dallas defense that continued to haunt the Cowboys for the remainder of the 2010 campaign.
Moment #3: Week 2: Cutler TD Pass to Greg Olsen
As we headed into the 2010 season, Cowboys fans were somewhat divided about how successful the offense would be, for two reasons: in 2009, the Cowboys had an unusually low yardage-to-points ratio and their offensive line had been inconsistent. The area of debate was largely whether these two trends would continue or prove to be aberrations.
On the other hand, very few folks in Cowboyland doubted that the defense would continue to play to the level that they had to close out 2009. The end of that campaign had been marked by the ascendance of several young players, principally Anthony Spencer and Mike Jenkins, who seemed to be fully realizing their draft status. And, of course, they closed out the season with several dominant performances in succession (and didn't actually play poorly in the playoff loss to Minnesota, a game in which the Vikings defensive line utterly dominated and Brett Favre played out of his mind, several times hitting well-covered receivers through tiny windows).
At the outset of the 2010 season, this trend seemed destined to continue. Although the Cowboys lost the season opener to Washington, it wasn't because of the D; the ‘Skins amassed only 250 total yards, and were a paltry 3 of 13 on third downs. Against Chicago the following week, they yielded just over 300 yards of total offense and held the Bears to an impressive 1 of 11 on third down, for a paltry 9% conversion rate. For the better part of the first quarter, the defense was stifling.
Then, at the end of the first quarter, the worm turned, for the game as well as the season. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler had spent the first 2 drives under siege; to relieve this pressure, Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Martz began to call up quick-hitting passes designed to target the areas being vacated by blitzing Cowboys defenders. He hit Devin Hester on a skinny post to earn a first down at the Dallas 39. The Bears lined up in a one-back, one tight end formation, with TE Greg Olsen outside RT.
With Olsen thusly positioned, Wade Phillips and Co. likely assumed that he would stay in to help protect the beleaguered Cutler, so he dialed up a double-barreled ILB blitz, sending Keith Brooking and Bradie James into the gaps on either side of Bears center Olin Kreutz. Unfortunately, Olsen released went into the pattern, thereby forcing one of the blitzing Dallas inside 'backers (theoretically it was Keith Brooking) to recover and then cover Olsen, who caught the ball with nobody near him at the 34, and scored on a 39-yard TD after free safety Alan Ball whiffed on him inside the 10.
The job description of and NFL offensive coordinator is to attack the weak and injured with a ruthless efficiency. On the pass to Olsen, Martz did precisely this. The formation's lone RB, Chester Taylor, lined up in the right slot, against Ball, with Hester flanked outside him, opposite Terrence Newman. Had Dallas not blitzed, Brooking would still have had great difficulty keeping up with the much speedier Olsen (for evidence, consider what he did to Lawyer Malloy on the Bears first touchdown against Seattle). In sum, the play was designed to exploit the right-middle of the Cowboys defense, namely Ball and the slow-footed Brooking.
Later, in that game, Cutler hit unheralded jitterbug WR Johnny Knox on a 59-yarder when safties Ball and Gerald Sensabaugh opted to follow Hester on a crossing pattern, leaving Mike Jenkins without the deep help he was expecting. Suddenly, the Cowboys had to prove that this play didn't signal a fundamental weakness but was a singular incident. For the rest of the season, they failed to do so, and opposing offensive coordinators preyed on the soft middle of the Dallas pass defense like starving lions on an injured wildebeest.
Two weeks later, against the Titans, Jenkins gave up a 52-yard gainer to Kenny Britt when the deep help he was expecting from Ball never materialized. After a valiant defensive effort against the anemic Viking offense, the Giants' offense made hay against the same group of interior defenders that struggled all season. Keith Brooking looked overmatched against the run; Orlando Scandrick couldn't cover anything in the middle of the field; Sensabaugh was beat all night, and by the time the fourth quarter rolled around he had seemingly lost his enthusiasm for tackling.
Even as the Cowboys improved dramatically after Phillips was canned, the interior defense was continually exploited, by high-profile and bottom-feeding offenses alike. By season's end, most pundits agree that this season's D ranks among the worst ever to don the star. There must be many contributing factors to ineptitude this vast. To my mind, however, much of 2010's defensive malaise can be traced to that fateful pass to Olsen. It exposed a weakness that Phillips, and then Paul Pasqualoni, could never find a way to conceal.
Among many other projects, Rob Ryan will be asked to make the Cowboys' defense stronger up the middle. If I were Jason Garrett, the first thing I'd do is to pop in tape of the game against the Bears.