As we move forward past halftime in the Cowboys and Lions game, the contest was still deeply in question. While Dallas had evened the score and seemed to have figured out how to defend Zach Zenner and the Lions, the game was still tied and the Lions got the ball first in the second half. How would the Cowboys keep them in check?
The answer, it would seem, was J.J. Wilcox.
"Remember when safety was a weakness?"
First, Wilcox laid a tremendous tone-setting hit on Zach Zenner. The silver arrow shows the run up he got on this play. To get an idea of how fast he was moving, consider that he got to the ball carrier before Anthony Hitchens, who is hitting Zenner at this moment, could bring him down.
But Wilcox had hardly started. He was about to make a huge play. We’ll pick it up midstream. Wilcox is playing a deep half — that is to say, half a cover two. He is basically responsible for helping against the most dangerous receiver entering the silver box. Most every Lion is well covered at the moment so Wilcox stays home over the top of it all.
The pocket breaks down, however, and Matt Stafford begins to scramble. Byron Jones moves forward to cover against the threat of a run. Wilcox must move forward and cover Jones’s man. The Lions can put tremendous pressure on Dallas if they run the routes shown by the blue arrows below, as Jeff Heath (center screen) is getting beaten at the moment.
But Detroit doesn’t run those routes. Instead, they do this:
Heath’s man breaks across the field and Jones’s former man runs almost directly at Wilcox. The only place Stafford really has a chance of making a play is in the blue rectangle, as Brandon Carr’s man has run past him. Stafford’s decision-making here is actually sound.
Unfortunately for him, the throw is not. Look at how far he has underthrown his man. Carr is diving at a ball that is three yards short of its intended target. Once the ball is thrown, however, Wilcox heads for it and, as a good free safety should, cleans up the play with a pick.
Dallas would score off the interception with Dez Bryant drawing a pass interference flag and Ezekiel Elliott swinging around the end for a touchdown from the one-yard line. Then Wilcox would again make a major contribution to stopping the Lions.
Again, the play is in progress. Again, Wilcox has a deep half assignment. This time, there’s only one receiver on his side of the field. But look at the coverage everywhere else! Even though Stafford has a huge pocket and loads of time, there’s simply nowhere for him to put the football. The only possibility is that Marvin Jones, Jr. will beat Brandon Carr on the crossing route. This is a good bet, as Bryan Broaddus has pointed out many times that Carr struggles when asked to carry receivers across the field.
But with Wilcox over the top, Stafford will have to wait. Jones has to get past Wilcox as well, but has beaten Carr to the inside. Stafford’s target is the blue rectangle near the 50-yard mark. Jones is fast and Wilcox is not known for his lateral agility.
But perhaps Wilcox’s abilities are misunderstood. He puts on a burst of speed and dives in front of the pass, with a chance at a second interception. He comes away with a pass defensed, and the team gets a third down stop.
I turned to my father and said "Remember when safety was a weakness?"
After the Lions punt, a penalty would pin Dallas deep in their own territory and Dak Prescott would turn to a different name to dig them out. Terrance Williams. No body catches here. Dak went to him three times in a row. The third was one of the most beautiful plays I have seen.
What you see below in the blue rectangle is your basic stacked box. Both Dallas wide receivers are lined up to the right, Dez Bryant on the outside and Terrance Williams on the inside. The Lions have them in man coverage with a safety over the top. Everyone else in blue is inside that little box on the field.
Dallas runs play action. The linebackers come forward three yards before you see the "oh, crap!" thought bubbles appear over their collective heads as they realize the line is pass blocking. They are out of the play at this point. The safety is watching Dez, with good reason. The silver box is a playground for Terrence Williams and Dak Prescott.
Dak looks to Dez first but I was watching TWill. Just look at the space he has here. "Oh, Williams!" I said quietly. I don’t think anyone but Dak heard me.
But hear me he did. And he lofted one of the finest passes I have ever seen anywhere. I believe Williams could have caught this ball had both arms been amputated at the elbow. I haven’t enjoyed a play that much in a long time. It’s hard to describe how satisfying it was to see it just before it happened and then have it play out so perfectly. ‘Twas a beautiful thing.
Dallas would score on this drive with a reverse pass to Jason Witten. Detroit would not score again this quarter, or this game. With nothing to play for, against an opponent trying to clinch a playoff spot, Dallas could’ve easily rolled over when Detroit took the lead. Instead, they stepped up and dominated a strong opponent with (to this point) 21 unanswered points.
That’s championship stuff, there.