When talking about a team's gameplan and in-game adjustments a fairly simple but useful rule is; the first half is all about the gameplan, the second half is where adjustments come into play. One of the biggest questions after the Cowboys loss to the Redskins was, "what were the coaches thinking?!" We know Jim Haslett was going to blitz, and blitz hard, so why did it seem like the Cowboys weren't prepared for it? To answer these questions I went back over the coaches tape and broke down every offensive play of the first half, (the gameplan), with special emphasis on third down passing and how Dallas utilized their "utility players", that 11th snap that rotates between Cole Beasley, Dwayne Harris, Gavin Escobar, and the rest of our offensive role players. I'll break down the 2nd half, (the adjustment phase), later this week, but for now, let's go to the tape.
Just an FYI...I originally intended this to be a play by play breakdown of every offensive snap in the first half, but it was just too long, (over 4000 words!). Instead I'm just going to highlight a few plays, and some stats that I noticed. If you are interested in the entire breakdown, please feel free to email me!
Play 2: 2nd and 8 on the Cowboys 22.
Dallas is in a two tight end, two receiver set, with Washington in a 4-3. Hanna, (yellow circle) is a little off the line, split out.
It looks like Hanna (yellow circle) has missed his block, and the DE, (red circle), is in great shape to crash down the line towards the run.
But it's actually a well designed play action. Hanna is now outside the DE, allowing Tony Romo to boot around Hanna and get outside of the pocket. This is a pretty important play; we see that Dallas is already doing things to slow down the pass rush by moving the pocket and running play action.
Hanna does a really nice job as a personal protector for Romo, who easily gets out of the pocket and makes a nice throw downfield.
Play 5: 3rd and 5 on the Cowboys 41:
Dallas comes out in an empty backfield four wide receiver set, with Beasley "stacked" with Bryant, (yellow arrow), Gavin Escobar in the slot, (blue arrow), and Jason Witten in a small split off the line, (red arrow). The Redskins counter by putting six on the line showing blitz.
Dallas counters this blitz formation by moving Witten back into the H-back position, causing a linebacker to pull out of his blitz look.
Romo is looking right towards the "stacked" Dez and Beasley, (I highlighted how Dallas uses this formation here). Meanwhile, on the left side, a blitzer is coming free, and Gavin Escobar is completely open in the vacated space.
One of the biggest complaints in this game is that we ran routes too deep, and didn't have anything quick to counter the blitz. Here we can see two receivers open within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, (marked in red), Cole Beasley, (yellow circle), and Jason Witten, (blue circle). Unfortunately we can see Tony Romo about to be sacked in the red circle. So how did the blitzer come free, and where did Witten come from?
To answer that let's look at the same play from a different view. Here we can see the original blocking scheme, with the Redskins showing blitz.
Here we can see the nickel back creeping up to blitz, (red circle). Romo is seeing the blitz, and motions Witten over to the H-back position.
Here we see that Dallas has done a fairly good job of pass protection. The blitz is coming off the edge from the nickel back, and Witten has spotted him.
And this is where it breaks down. Instead of crossing over to block, (red lines, blue circle), Witten has gone into a hot route, (yellow circle, arrow). It's a judgement call I suppose, but now it's a race; can Witten get into his pattern and present a target for Romo before the corner gets to him?
It's close. Witten is open, and the CB hasn't gotten to Romo yet. But look at Romo's helmet; you're seeing the back of it. Romo doesn't see Witten, because he's started his spin move in an attempt to avoid the sack. My guess is, this is a side effect of Romo's past injuries; instead of standing in the pocket and taking the sure hit, he's worried and is trying to avoid the hit, while still extending the play.
Romo's spin doesn't work as the corner does a good job making the tackle. Meanwhile you can see how open Witten is. So did Witten make the right choice going into his hot route instead of attempting to make a block? Did Romo bail on his read too quickly, and miss the open Beasley? Regardless, Dallas has to punt.
Play 7: 2nd and 2 on Dallas 23. This was a really interesting play. Dallas is in a two WR, two RB set, with Lance Dunbar and Tyler Clutts in the backfield. The TE is split off a bit from the line. Dunbar has four men on the line. Dunbar motions into the slot. He gets redirected badly off the line with a jam, but runs a crossing route about 10 yards deep. Clutts flares out into the flat. There is no pressure, and the pass is completed to Williams.
Play 10: 1st and 10 on the 50. Dallas is in a two tight end, 2 wide receiver, even set formation, (TE and WR on both sides of the line). Play action. Washington is run blitzing, and Hanna can't hold his block. Romo scrambles for a yard. Penalty on the play.
Play 13: 3rd and 8 ball on Washington 42.
Washington is showing blitz with six players on the line. Dallas is lined up with three wide receivers, and Lance Dunbar in the backfield. Cole Beasley started lined up outside, then motions to "stack" behind Terrance Williams, (yellow circle).
In this picture you can see the blitz is getting to Romo. You can also see that both Beasley and Bryant have run short curls, (yellow circle), about two yards past the line of scrimmage, marked with the red line. Beasley, (bottom of the screen) is wide open. So the pass pattern is fine, two receivers run short, quick routes. Let's examine the pass protection.
So we can see that Dallas has six blockers versus seven rushers. That's why the short routes by Beasley and Dez are so important; at least one rusher is going to get free. This means Dallas has to block inside out.
So far so good. Every rusher is accounted for except for number 25 coming off the edge. The goal is to allow Romo to step up into the pocket away from 25 coming off the edge.
And here is where it starts to break down. The edge is fine; Jeremy Parnell does a nice job driving #91 back, (who almost trips number 25). The problem is the blitz coming up the middle. Dunbar is slow to fill the gap, and the linebacker has already started to collapse the pocket. Even worse, Dunbar has horrible leverage, and is on the linebackers outside shoulder, making any block extremely difficult.
Here we see Tony at the top of his drop. He's scanning the field and sees Dez making his cut, (Dez is somewhat covered, Beasely, on the other end, is wide open). He also sees the corner coming off the edge. He needs to step up into the pocket. However that's difficult, as the linebacker blocked by Dunbar is slowly collapsing it. Dunbar is doing a game job of blocking, but it's a battle he's losing.
Here you can see why Romo can't step up in the pocket. Again, Dunbar is putting in effort, but he's no match for a linebacker coming in at full speed. The pocket is collapsing, and Romo can't step up in it to avoid the corner coming off the edge.
Here's the final picture. Romo wanted to hit Dez, but it was too risky, he faces getting hit as he throws. Instead he takes the sack, and Dallas is forced to punt.
It wasn't a perfect play, (we were outnumbered on the rush). But Dallas had the quick routes it wanted. If Dunbar had been able to give Romo a pocket to step up in, he had receivers open for the first.
This next series is the first of Dallas's two turnovers in the half. You'll notice Dallas puts itself in a bad position right off the back with a penalty, and that affects the rest of the playcalling.
Play 14: 1st and 10 ball on Cowboys 19. Dallas come out with two TE, two WR. Balanced line, close splits, except for the left WR who is split wide. Washington has five on the line. Run play. Penalty on Dallas.
Play 15: 1st and 19 ball on Dallas 10. Two WR, two TE. Unbalanced line, the two TE are tight on the right side. Washington is playing with five on the line. Play action, deep to Williams who can't bring it in. Beautiful play and a nice throw, Williams just couldn't make the catch.
Play 16: 2nd and 19 ball on Dallas 10. Shotgun. Three WR with Beasley in the slot. Joseph Randle is the backfield. Washington is in nickel. Draw play, picks up 15, but Randle fumbles at the end, and Washington recovers. Once again, Dallas is running out of a three WR look.
Play 22: 3rd and 4 ball on Dallas 41.
Dallas comes out in shotgun with three WR and Beasley in the slot, (bottom of screen). The Redskins are showing an all out blitz with eight men on the line.
The Redskins only end up rushing five. Because they hid their blitz until the last second, the linebacker is having to run laterally to cover Witten, (yellow circle).
Dallas easily picks up the blitz. You can see that Witten is running a very short route; he's about two yards past the line of scrimmage and is starting his cut, (blue circle). Beasley at the bottom of the screen is matched one on one with a linebacker, and is wide open.
Dallas's line handles the blitz and gives Romo a beautiful pocket. Meanwhile Witten easily beats the linebacker on his out route, getting to the flat. Tony completes the easy pass, and Witten turns upfield for a nice gain.
Play 23: 1st and 10, ball on Washington 44. Dallas comes out with two WR, and two RB. Washington is playing five on the line. Play action. Romo checks down to Murray in the flat who makes a nice run, picking up 39 yards down the sideline before fumbling on the five yard line. Washington recovers.
Note that this is the third play action pass on first down, and Dallas ran another on second down on their first drive.
Play 26: 1st and 10. Ball on Dallas 32. Three WR set, with Devin Street out wide and Dez in the slot. Slant to Dez for an 11 yard gain..
Play 28: 2nd and 7, ball on Dallas 45.
Dallas is in the shotgun, with two WR, (Harris is one) and two TE, with Hanna in line and Witten split out.. Redskins are playing a 4-3 look and showing a linebacker blitz.
The Redskins begin to crowd the line, and Romo brings Hanna in motion back into the H-back position.
The Redskins bring six rushers, but the Cowboys are in max protect with seven blockers.
The line does a great job of picking up the blitz. It looks like Harris is open the whole way; but he's running a deep comeback route. He runs a pretty bad route, and Romo misses him wide outside. This is the first pass play where we don't have a short hot route. But we don't need one, we're in max protect and the line does a great job. Let's look at the protection real quick.
This is Romo's pre-snap read. The Redskins are showing blitz from the defensive back, (red circle), and possibly the linebackers, (blue circle).
Romo motions Hanna into the backfield, (yellow circle). This causes #56 to change his stance (red circle), letting Romo know that that 56 is keying on Hanna.
Washington blitzes two, attempting to overload the left side with the defensive back, (yellow circle) and linebacker, (red circle). They drop one lineman into coverage. Meanwhile, Hanna comes up to help block, and the linebacker who was keying on him steps up to spy, but does not engage, (blue circle).
The line has protection well in hand, so Hanna leaks out into the flat, with the linebacker following, (yellow circle). This is a good mismatch for Dallas, but Romo sees Harris open and goes there. As stated, Harris runs a bad route, and the pass is incomplete.
Play 29: 3rd and 7, ball on Dallas 43.
Dallas comes out shotgun, three WR, with Beasley in the slot, (yellow circle).
The Redskins are showing an all out eight man blitz, (BIG RED CIRCLE!!!). Romo brings Witten into motion back into the H-back position, (yellow circle).
Two of the linebackers bail out of the biltz, (red circle), with one playing a kind of spy, and the other keying in on Beasley, (yellow circle).
Beasley and Williams both run deep routes. Romo doesn't see it, but he has Williams open here; if you look closely you can see that the two defensive backs bracketing Williams both have their backs to him and are cheating towards the streaking Beasley. Romo doesn't throw to his WR's however, so let's look at the play from a different view.
This is Romo's pre-snap read. You can see that Washington is showing a seven man blitz with only six Dallas blockers.
To counter this Witten goes into motion and comes down into the H-back spot. Dallas is now in max-protect.
Here we see that Tony has a nice pocket. The Redskins only rush five, and have dropped a linebacker and a lineman into coverage. The right side of the line is fully engaged and holding their blocks; the left side, (including DeMarco Murray), are matched up one on one.
And here is where it breaks down. Murray just flat out misses his block. It's not something that happens often, but it happened often this game.
File this under the better to be lucky than good department. Instead of continuing his rush the Redskin defender breaks down. He's probably wary of Romo's ability as a scrambler, and doesn't want to be posterized if Romo pulls a patented Romodini.
That breakdown gives Murray the time to atone for his mistake. Notice how he's fully turned around, backpedaling but looking at Romo? Instead of a blocker he's turned into an outlet, and he wants to make sure Romo is aware he's open and ready for the ball. Romo sees him and makes a nifty sidearm throw, and Murray takes the short dump and goes for 25 yards.
Two Minute Drill: The rest of the plays listed come in the two-minute offense.
Play 32: 1st and 10 on Dallas 12. Dallas comes out in a three WR set with Beasley in the slot and Dunbar in the backfield. No receiver gets open, and Romo is feeling some pressure. Dunbar runs a nifty little circle route, and Romo finds him for 12 yards.
Play 33: 1st and 10 ball on Dallas 24. Shotgun formation, three WR, Beasley in the slot. Washington is in the nickel. Blitz from the nickel back, Romo hits Dez on a quick slant route.
Play 38: 3rd and 3 ball on Dallas 44, 23 seconds left in the half.
Dallas is again in shotgun, three WR with Bease in the slot. Washington is showing blitz with six players on the line.
Dallas doesn't go max protect but is running two very short routes. Romo is looking for Witten who is running an out route, (yellow arrow), about two yards past the line of scrimmage. Meanwhile Beasley has run a short curl and is wide open, (blue circle).
Washington does a really good job of staying with the out route, (blue circle). Beasley is still wide open, (yellow circle), but Romo doesn't have time to get to his second read because of pressure up the middle, (red circle). So how did the pressure get there?
Here is Tony's pre-snap read. We can see that Washington is showing a six man blitz. Pay attention to number four and number five, (the nose tackle and DE).
The NT and DE run a stunt with the NT crashing outside, and the DE looping around. Zach Martin picks up the NT, but Jeremy Parnell just whiffs on the DE, (yellow arrow). Both men are now effectively blocking the nose tackle, and Martin has no idea the defensive end is looping around. Meanwhile Lance Dunbar is one on one outside with a blitzing safety, (yellow circle).
You can see the protection breaking down on the right side. Jeremy Parnell has picked up the nose tackle, but has never signaled to Martin that there was a stunt. Dunbar meanwhile is in good position to make his block. Romo doesn't see the rush coming as he is keyed in on Witten, (blue circle), waiting for him to make his cut, (remember, Beasley is wide open on the other side of the field).
Too late Martin feels the stunt (red circle). Travis Frederick had a chance to help out, (yellow arrow), but was double teaming the other DE with Ronald Leary. Dunbar is doing a good job outside, (yellow circle). Meanwhile Romo is still keyed on Witten and has not yet noticed the pressure.
It doesn't end well for Romo and the half ends with a sack. I wanted to point out the nice job that Dunbar is doing outside though. Brandon Merriweather gave Dallas fits this game, it's nice to see Lance Dunbar taking him one on one in pass protection.
What Does it Mean?
First it appears that Dallas came into the game cognizant of the rush. The moving pockets, early play actions, running out of three receiver sets; all these things are plays that are designed to slow down the pass rush.
- Wait a minute! Aren't those things that happen in every game? Well yes, but they were much more prominent in the first half against the Redskins. Let's examine play action for instance. According to PFF, Tony Romo uses play action on 17.5% of his pass plays. Before the two minute drill, (when the Cowboy went exclusively shotgun), Dallas had run four play action passes on 16 attempts, or 25%.
- Six of the 15 running plays in the first half, (40%) came on plays that began in a three receiver set, (on a handful a TE was in the slot, on at least two of those the TE motions to the H-back position).
- In the first half Dallas schemed against the blitz in one of two ways. They would either have one or two receivers run quick curls or outs, or they would go max protect. The only time I saw a blitz and Dallas did neither of these they ran a quick slant to Dez.
- Dallas seemed intent on getting their rotational guys snaps. Both Lance Dunbar and Dwayne Harris saw playing time swapped in for a primary player, (DeMarco Murray and Terrance Williams, respectively). James Hanna saw a ton of snaps as the second tight end, and Cole Beasley saw plenty of action in the slot. Even Tyler Clutts saw action. This mixing and matching early, coupled with both running and passing with all personnel made it difficult for Washington to key their blitz packages on which players were in the game.
- Execution not coaching killed us in the first half. There was no play, with the possible exceptions of 13 and 38 where Dallas lost because of scheme. Any time we were beat with the blitz it was because a player was physically beat; either overpowered, (Lance Dunbar), or through bad technique, (Jeremy Parnell). Tony Romo uncharacteristically missed an open Cole Beasley on a few occasions. But make no mistake, at least in the first half Dallas's offensive game plan was beating the Redskins game plan.
Well those are my thoughts BTB. I know it runs contrary to public opinion, but it seems to me, at least in the first half, Dallas had a working plan to deal with the pass rush. What do you think? I'll be breaking down the second half later this week; and I think we'll see that Washington made adjustments that Dallas was not ready for. Agree or disagree?