There are a lot of plays that we can point to and say "if only this was different, the Dallas Cowboys would have won the game, Sunday." This one, however, has to be the most obvious of them all when discussing the loss to the Giants. I am speaking, of course, of the game winning TD to Victor Cruz in the fourth quarter.
The Giants had 3rd and goal. Now, being down six points in the fourth quarter might seem to encourage going for it on fourth down, but I think that would’ve been a risky proposition at best because I believe this play would’ve been a sack except for one player. The Giants would’ve had a very long 9 or 10 yards to try to get in the end zone and I think they may well have taken the points. Naturally both teams would’ve played differently from there, so this is as much speculation as anything else.
But what, exactly, happened on the play? Let’s look at the coverage first. Here we see Byron Jones (blue circle) lined up over the TE, Sean Lee (blue rectangle) and Justin Durant (red X) as the nickel linebackers, and Brandon Carr (blue arrow) over Victor Cruz.
As the play starts, running back Shane Vereen moves out into the flat, TE Larry Donnell fires straight off the line, and Victor Cruz begins a shallow crossing route. Sean Lee with almost preternatural recognition is already flying to the flat to cover Vereen. Carr is moving to cover the inside route, and Justin Durant takes a measured step forward. Notice that he is still roughly even with the hashmark. So far, so good.
But here’s where it all begins to go awry. Donnell plows into Jones, knocking him nearly into Lee, whose pursuit has brought him square into Carr’s way. Meanwhile, Durant is watching Eli and thinking this is a slant to Cruz. He begins moving significantly towards the defensive right to try to cut the slant route off.
To their credit, the Dallas players all navigate the wash pretty well. Jones is being driven straight to the ground by Donnell. It shoud’ve been a penalty, but the real problem with the play is how far away from his zone Durant has come. He’s come from being on the far half of the "W" in "Cowboys" to nearly the "O". He’s jumping the slant, but when you jump a route you have to be sure.
Out the other side, Jones is flat on his butt, Lee has perfect coverage on the RB, Carr is in a nice trail position on Cruz, and Durant is underneath in a great place if this was a slant. But it isn’t, and he is beginning to realize this. He starts to reverse his direction but a linebacker going the wrong way is not going to beat Victor Cruz, in full stride, to the ball. The TD is an easy pitch and catch.
But check this:
If you take Durant off the red x and put him where he was supposed to be, just this side of the hash marks, this play is completely covered. Well, except for Jones on the ground, but I’m pretty sure that they would’ve flagged Donnell for offensive pass interference if the ball had been thrown his way. Eli has literally nowhere to go if Durant sits in his zone. And I’m almost certain he takes a sack, because this was his read the whole way and he’ll have to take a second to find someone else and release the ball. A second he does not have.
Your man on this play is Tyrone Crawford, circled in blue.
At the snap both Jack Crawford and Benson Mayowa give their respective tackles a good jolt, keeping them free to run. Meanwhile Cedric Thornton attacks his guard head on, while center Weston Richburg looks for something to do. Tyrone Crawford is locked onto Justin Pugh and is bending him backward.
While Thornton and Mayowa both try to spin left, Jack Crawford is bending about as good as he is capable of while Tyrone is using his combination of speed and power to take Pugh straight up the middle of the field.
Both spins are swallowed up, while Jack Crawford attempts to get flat and cross in front of the RT, Marshall Newhouse. Meanwhile, Tyrone Crawford, nearing Eli, begins a spin of his own.
Jack successfully crosses the tackle’s face while Tyrone clears himself of Pugh with the spin. Pugh grabs Crawford around the waist for just a moment, though he realizes Eli is throwing and lets go to avoid getting called for holding. This is two seconds after the snap.
I took one final image of the end zone view. It’s a little extra fuzzy, but you can see a lot. At the blue arrow is a completely free Jack Crawford. Inside the blue circle is Tyrone Crawford standing practically side-by-side with an unfortunately empty-handed Eli Manning.
And our red X represents a desperately diving Durant a good three yards behind the play which takes place in space he vacated less than one second previously.
By definition, almost, this final score was the turning point of the game. Had Eli been sacked at the 10, as I’m almost certain he would have, a field goal would be the likely decision. Without the lead, the Giants play a different game from there and so does Dallas. Possibly Dallas plays a winning one.
Unfortunately we won’t know. But there is, as usual during the season, next week.