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How Did The Cowboys Defense Shut Down The Lions After 14-Point First Quarter?

We take a deep look at how the Cowboys were able to cool off the Lions offense.

Sarah Glenn/Getty Images

In the recent Wild Card game, the Detroit Lions came out of the gate and hung 14 quick points on the Dallas Cowboys' defense. Then, they only managed two field goals the rest of the way. The Goog, otherwise known as OCC, asked the other front-page writers if anyone knew exactly how it happened. I decided to accept the challenge and dig into it.

What I discovered was a combination of better play from the Cowboys defense, and worse play from the Lions offense, and some of that centers on Matthew Stafford.

Lions Drive #1

The first touchdown occurred when Dallas did something they rarely did the rest of the game, and that was blitz. On Golden Tate's 76-yard touchdown the Cowboys sent two linebackers who didn't get to Stafford. That left Barry Church singled up on the slot receiver and he could not keep up with Tate. The Cowboys hardly ever blitzed the rest of the way.

Lions Drive #2

On the Lions second drive, they were able to establish a running game and that helped propel them down the field on a 99-yard march. As a team the Lions rushed for 90 yards on the day, 65 of those yards came on that drive. The Cowboys defense was a mess on that drive, they took bad angles, especially the linebackers and safeties, but almost every position group was guilty. They also didn't wrap up effectively. But, after that drive, they did a much better job of taking proper angles, especially the linebackers and safeties. This effectively shut down the Lions running game.

The Cowboys didn't do anything dramatic in changing their defensive scheme in the game. So besides shutting down the run game, here's what else happen.

Lions Drive #3

The Lions third drive was crucial, their defense had stopped Dallas every time, and now they had a chance to build on a 14-0 lead. They had moved the ball from their own 11-yard line to their 46 and had first and 10. Then Stafford happened.


Here is first down. The Lions run play-action pass and have two wide open receivers in the middle of the field (yellow circles). Stafford (red circle) has plenty of time in the pocket but for whatever reason doesn't throw the ball. Instead he holds on to it and Jeremy Mincey gets a sack.


On the next play, they pass again. Stafford (red circle) has time in the pocket and a wide open receiver crossing the middle of the field (yellow circle). Instead he forces a throw to a covered receiver (blue circle/arrow) that falls incomplete.


Third down and Stafford is back to pass again (red circle) with a decent pocket. He has a receiver just clearing the linebackers zone and splitting the safeties (yellow circle). Instead, he forces another pass into coverage (blue circle/arrow) that falls incomplete. The Lions punt and blow a golden opportunity to put more points on the board and really get Dallas in a hole.

Lions Drive #4

This one fails on a couple of bonehead penalties and some very conservative play calls from the Lions brain-trust. The Lions start on their own 14 and after no gain on a first down run, they pick up two consecutive 5-yard penalties. Facing 2nd and 20 from their own 4, they attempt two short passes to their running backs that come up short of a first down and punt. Very conservative play calls.

Lions Drive #5

This was the two-minute drill right before halftime after the Cowboys scored to make it 14-7. On this drive, the Lions did the smart thing, they took the underneath throws and marched into field goal position. Dallas' defense was a little too conservative on this drive and gave up yardage in chunks.

Lions Drive #6

Detroit got the ball to start the second half. On the first play the Cowboys got an interception, and even though they eventually didn't score, it was still a huge play. Follow below the picture for the details.


This is the first play where Dallas got the interception. It's a good thing, too; look at how much separation Golden Tate (yellow circle/arrow) has got from Orlando Scandrick (blue circle). The Cowboys other corner and safety are following the other receiver downfield around the 40-yard line. If Mincey doesn't tip the ball from Stafford (red circle) and Tate catches it, with his open-field running skills, who knows where he would have ended up. This was huge.

Lions Drive #7

This was the Lions final scoring drive. They basically rode decent field position (their own 31-yard line), a few safe passes, and one pass when Calvin Johnson broke a tackle to get 28 yards. They cashed it in with a field goal.

Lions Drive #8

Thank Anthony Spencer for making this drive a three and out.


On second and 9, the Lions run a bootleg pass, but when Stafford rolls out after the fake handoff, Anthony Spencer is right in his grill (red circle). It's a good thing because the Lions had two receivers breaking open (blue circles) and likely would have had a first down if not more. Instead Stafford has to dump it short for a 7-yard gain (yellow circle), leaving a third and two.


On the following third and two, the Lions want to run a flare pattern to Reggie Bush, but Spencer reads it and knocks Bush off the pattern and fouls up the timing (yellow circle/arrow). The pass was incomplete and the Cowboys held, if he catches it he's got blocking downfield that could have been a nice play (red circle). Spencer came through big time on this three and out.

Lions Drive #9

Okay, we now reach the part of our program where the famous non-call occurred. The Lions had done a nice job of driving the ball off their own 5-yard line to the Cowboys 46-yard line. They faced a 3rd and very short two. We all know what happens next, the controversial Brandon Pettigrew/Anthony Hitchens kerfuffle that has dominated the headlines since the end of the game. But what no one is talking about is how completely Stafford blows it on this play.


Here's the play. Notice anything? A Lions receiver is wide open going across the middle (yellow circle/arrow). There is Stafford (red circle) with a beautiful pocket and all the time in the world! Why doesn't he throw it? Instead, he chooses to go to the covered Pettigrew (blue circle).


Here's another screen capture moments later. Look how much separation there is now (yellow circle) and how much of a pocket Stafford still has (red circle). Look how covered Pettigrew is (blue circle). The Lions can cry until the cows come home about this play, but if their quarterback makes a simple read and throws the ball, the Cowboys are in huge trouble.

Lions Drive #10 & #11

(technically two drives because of the DeMarcus Lawrence fumble)

The Lions start moving the ball, but Stafford throws a bad passes to a wide open Calvin Johnson on one play, then DeMarcus Lawrence got the sack on 4th down to seal the game.

So there you go. The Cowboys managed to shut down the Lions through much better angles and tackling in the running game, some nice individual plays from guys like Spencer and Mincey, plus a healthy dose of bad reads from Matthew Stafford.

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