First off I’d like to apologize for a little bit of redundancy. By the time you are reading this, many of you will have read Bob Sturm’s "Decoding Linehan" series for this week which covers much of the same ground. I still have my own things to say about this, however, and I also don’t want to redo the work I did making these pictures so I’m going forward with my article.
Rather than looking at a specific player, let's show how the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff made the Ezekiel Elliott dagger in the third quarter of Sunday’s game happen. It was a tremendous bit of strategic, long-term thinking that goes to show that play-calling isn’t just about one game. But I will remind you, at the end, that football very much is. That is to say, with only 16 games on the season, the ability to pull the rug out from under your opponent and gain a victory is much much bigger than it is in other sports where the length of season and, particularly of a typical playoff series make these moments much less impactful and tend to lose them in simple statistical likelihoods.
So, what was the set up?
Dallas here in 22 (2 RB, 2 TE) formation. Geoff Swaim is in motion from one side of the formation to the other.
We’ve seen this play several times, but this was one of the most successful. Jason Witten pretends to block for a moment (blue circle), everyone else is run blocking for a typical zone run. Note the linebackers flowing forward to meet the attack head on.
As Dak Prescott fakes the hand off to Ezekiel Elliott, Witten breaks off his block. Swaim, too, is disengaging. Look at how nearly all the Redskins are looking to the defensive left.
Not only is Witten left totally alone, but so is Swaim. Witten would rumble for 29 yards on this play.
We saw this play going back to preseason (where Swaim infamously dropped two of Prescott’s first passes in the NFL running this same play). After watching it again and again on film. the San Francisco 49ers were ready for it. They gambled on Dak’s inability to adjust quickly and won. Here’s the same play, from a slightly different formation, including Brice Butler off screen on the offensive left (blue arrow). Witten is again circled.
I broke down this play for last week’s article, but I want to highlight a couple of bits. Watch how Witten is jammed at the line.
Or, in close up
Not only is Witten opposed from the very beginning, but the cornerback on that side comes off his man (Terrance Williams) to cut off the front side of the play, which the 49ers are sure is going to the TE. So sure, in fact, that they leave a massive gap for one of Dallas’s fastest receivers.
If Dak, who is under no pressure, reads this situation correctly and has the ball out to Williams at this point, it’s a huge gain... and possibly six points. He hesitates for a long time, however, and the safety closes all the way to where he could’ve contested the catch, had the ball been on target, which it was not.
But defenses weren’t done sitting on this play. Enter Cincinnati. Same setup. Same Swaim motion. Same Witten on the near side.
Then this happens. One LB is challenging Witten up close, while two more and a safety (red box) are flowing hard, not to the run, but to the bootleg. Swaim (blue arrow) will run right past Carlos Dunlap because he’s in a pattern.
And Dunlap, for his part, decides that he’s seen enough of this bootleg garbage. and puts a lick on Dak. Notice all the Bengals flowing towards the bootleg and away from the run. It’s almost the exact opposite of the first play above against the Redskins.
This prompted Sturm to tweet:
That bootleg rollout as a drive starter has been scouted.— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) October 9, 2016
But Dallas was aware. And the trap was about to be sprung. Of course you all know what is coming next. Same set up. Same Swaim motion. Same Witten near side tight.
Swaim is running across behind the line just as before. Witten draws a safety and a line backer (red box) in hot pursuit.
Swaim (blue arrow) wham blocks Carlos Dunlap. Witten waves his arms for the ball which is already in Zeke’s hands, selling the bootleg even harder for the men running with him. Elliott, as you know, has 60 yards of green in front of him.
This play was set up by long term-planning by the coaches. It’s an example of the creative job they are doing putting the Cowboys in a place to succeed. Dak Prescott, for his part, is responding by doing everything they ask of him and the offense is running like a top.
So what does this all have to do with Tony Romo?
Remember the play above where Williams was wide open? It’s not just that Tony would’ve made that read. It’s that Romo can, by all accounts, create and spring these kind of traps, in game, because of the depth of his understanding of NFL defenses and the Cowboys game plan. That is an invaluable thing.
The NFL is not baseball, where you have 162 games and five- and seven-game series playoffs to let averages win out. Statistics are important, but performance is more than statistics. Every game counts and counts big. Every game has to be scrapped for and taken. Every advantage needs to be available to you at a moment’s notice because you may find yourself in a real scrap. That’s why clutch QB play is so essential, both down the stretch of individual games and the playoff road. Dallas has an offense that is firing on every cylinder right now and mowing down everything in their way. But there will come a time when it won’t. There will be opponents who are up to the task. And that’s when you need someone who can create on the field and open up new avenues of attack.
Someone who knows the system inside and out, and how to work within it to make defenses dance... like Tony Romo.
This game is far more strategic and mental than any of us realize. As long as he is physically able to play, the experience and understanding Romo brings to the table has a value far greater than all but the most studious of us can even grasp. That value should not be overlooked and dismissed.