Rod Marinelli gets about as much respect as any Cowboys coach, not just from Dallas fans, but around the league. It’s deserved, too, as he consistently creates more from the Cowboys defense than their roster-talent would indicate is possible. So taking shots at him, and by extension Jason Garrett for allowing what happened to happen, is painful. But this can’t go unchallenged. The Cowboys were out-coached on the Giants final drive that killed three minutes off the clock, and it’s all because the Cowboys were unwilling to alter a basic scheme on defense based on the context of the game.
When the Cowboys punted the ball back to the Giants with 3:57 left on the clock in the fourth quarter, the Giants led 20-19. It’s hard to believe that anybody wasn’t thinking that the Giants were going to try and run the ball. They were either going to run out the clock on the ground, or at the very least they were going to force the Cowboys to burn their timeouts.
The Giants had a fair amount of success running the ball up the middle on the Cowboys throughout the evening, Shane Vereen had gouged them for runs of 10 and nine yards on the Giants previous drive, the touchdown drive. It wasn’t a mystery what they were going to try. Yet the Cowboys played it like it was the middle of the second quarter instead of the end of the game.
They let the Giants dictate the terms of their defense with the personnel groupings, instead of going to a run-heavy defense and daring the Giants to throw the ball. Let me illustrate in pictures.
First and 10 at the Giants 23-yard line. The Giants come out in 11 personnel and line up in the shotgun. They are obviously trying to disguise the fact they’re going to run the ball by showing what is usually a passing formation. Unbelievably, the Cowboys buy it and line up their personnel to match like it’s the middle of the second quarter.
The Cowboys come out with a nickel defense with both safeties lined up over 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. Dallas leaves only six men in the box with only two linebackers, even though everyone knows it’s 99% likely the Giants will be running the ball on first down. At this point, why isn’t Dallas playing a base defense with three linebackers and rolling up one of the safeties to cover the extra wide receiver? They should have been begging the Giants to throw the ball. Incompletions stop the clock, or Eli Manning might have pulled off a terrible turnover, or maybe you get lucky with a sack or something. Anything is better then leaving the middle open for a run. Heck, if they burn you and score, at least you get the ball back with enough time to score and tie it with a two-point conversion.
So what happened on this play? Rashad Jennings ripped off seven yards to make it second and three. Think the Cowboys got the hint at that point? Think they might have thought the Giants would run the ball on second and three? Let’s take a look.
You guessed it, here’s Dallas in the same look although they do move the two linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage. But incredibly they move one safety so far back he’s not even in the picture. Result? Jennings for 12 yards.
Are the Cowboys getting the picture yet? Hardly. First and 10 Giants.
The Cowboys actually limit the Giants to only three yards on the play. Second and seven, what will the Cowboys do?
Same as it ever was. The Giants gash them for nine yards and a new set of downs. Suddenly, the Giants decide to go to 21 personnel, probably a mistake on their part because Dallas finally gets the hint they might be running the ball.
Dallas finally changes up their personnel and insert three linebackers and roll Barry Church up into the box. The result is the Cowboys stuff Jennings for a one-yard game. On second down the same scenarios plays out.
The Cowboys actually penetrate the line and pin a three-yard loss on the Giants. Which turned out to be important because on third down the Giants again went with passing personnel, but ran a draw and just missed the first down by one yard. Of course, the Cowboys had matched them with pass defense personnel, but they can be forgiven at that point because there was a small chance the Giants could have passed on that third down.
Rod Marinelli has forgotten more about defense than I will ever know. Still, it’s almost impossible to figure out a justification for the Cowboys to line up and play the way they did during this sequence when the Giants killed three minutes off the clock. Even if you wanted to stay in a nickel, you could have at least rolled Barry Church up into the box to help with run defense. Having two safeties sitting back at minimum 10 yards from the line of scrimmage is criminal negligence.
What were they thinking?