Critical games this weekend in the Pac-12, Big Ten, and ACC could go a long way in determining conference championships -- and maybe even playoff berths.
02 Jan 2007
by Ned Macey
The Detroit Lions had lost every road game by at least a touchdown and were one loss away from earning the number one overall pick in this year's draft. The Dallas Cowboys needed a win to have a shot at the division crown and a first-round home game in the playoffs. Everything was set up for the Cowboys to crush the Lions. Instead, the Cowboys showed that they have completely fallen apart defensively and have little chance of making any noise in the playoffs.
The first inkling that Sunday may have been Detroit's day came early. The Cowboys intercepted Jon Kitna's first pass and returned it for a touchdown. The play was nullified by a penalty. The Lions proceeded to score a field goal on their way to building a 13-0 lead.
The Cowboys can point at Terrence Newman, guilty of the penalty and a later muffed punt, as the culprit for the loss. But doing so ignores not only Newman's punt return touchdown but also the more important fact that one loss was not the biggest problem for Dallas. The Eagles likely would have made this result extraneous later in the day. The real problems for Dallas are the ever-increasing holes in the Dallas secondary and a turnover-prone quarterback.
A week ago the Cowboys were in this very same space. I pointed out recent instances where they had struggled defending passes to running backs and tight ends. Add wide receivers to that list. Roy Williams and Mike Furrey abused the Dallas secondary, combining for 17 catches and 206 yards. Furrey generally runs underneath routes, exploiting holes in zones similar to a tight end or slot receiver. The one time Kitna tried to go deep to Furrey was the play resulting in the nullified interception.
The Cowboys pass defense has officially reached crisis mode. They struggled against a team with no threat of a running game. The Lions efforts to run were futile, 3.4 yards per carry and four first downs in 25 attempts. Their pass offense had slowed considerably from a quick early-season start once opponents had enough tape to game plan for the Mike Martz system.
Perhaps, with a playoff berth already clinched, the Cowboys spent little time in preparation for Detroit. Nonetheless, the problems are too widespread and too repeated to be explained away by the circumstances. The numbers are rather stark. After beating the Buccaneers 38-10 in Week 12, Dallas was 7-4 and had given up 20 or more points four times. Since then they have given up 20 points in all five of their games.
The advanced numbers are even worse. Through Week 12, Dallas was the fourth-best defense according to DVOA. Since that time, they have been the worst defense in the NFL, largely because of a pass defense DVOA of 52.4%. Effectively, Dallas makes their opponents more proficient through the air than the Indianapolis Colts.
Reasons for the change are harder to target. They did lose Greg Ellis mid-season, but the loss was several games before the recent slide. Another possibility is that New Orleans laid a blueprint in their 42-17 whitewashing. But in some ways a blueprint was laid in their first loss to Philadelphia. The common thread from both was the ability to strike for big plays in the passing game.
Those previous games make Sunday's result even more troubling. The Lions were able to beat them by completing a high percentage of passes for medium-length gains. The longest completion covered 24 yards, and Furrey's 11 catches averaged less than 10 yards per reception. Perhaps the Cowboys overcompensated for their propensity to give up big plays. If so, this solution is not ideal, particularly before facing the West Coast Offense featured in Seattle.
The Cowboys have a diverse defense capable of 3-4 and 4-3 looks. The defense gets solid pressure from DeMarcus Ware out of the 4-3. The problem is that their secondary has trouble covering. The safeties are vulnerable, and they lack cornerback depth. Newman and Henry both play solid man-to-man coverage, but that is a high risk strategy if a team cannot trust its safeties.
The Cowboys' problems are not exclusively defensive. Tony Romo continues to turn the ball over at an alarming rate. The bad habits are readily apparent, and Romo's early success is coming back to hurt the Cowboys at the worst possible time.
Romo-mania began when he was playing at a very high level, but that success was primarily against inferior competition. The only top 10 pass defense (according to DVOA) that he has faced is Philadelphia, which abused him. He has played Washington, Arizona, Tampa Bay, and Detroit, among the ten worst pass defenses.
Sunday's major problem was ball security. Romo was sacked four times, and on three he fumbled the ball away. Again, the first play proved an omen when Romo fumbled after a sack. The Cowboys recovered that fumble and another one where Romo lost the ball in his own end zone. The end zone fumble was carelessness, not Lions' pressure. The Cowboys were not fortunate enough to pick up his fumble in the red zone or a late fourth-quarter fumble that set up a field goal. As a bonus, Romo added an interception that set the Lions up with excellent field position for a touchdown.
The sacks themselves are equally a sign of poor fundamentals. Sacks are often the fault of the offensive line, but in most instances they can be avoided by the quarterback. In Romo's case, he is holding the ball too long in an effort to make big plays. Call it the Drew Bledsoe Syndrome.
The Seahawks are not a particularly strong defense, but they are able to pressure the quarterback. If Romo continues to hold the ball -- at least until the sack knocks it out -- he will be sacked repeatedly in Seattle.
The sacks were the first good showing by the Detroit defensive line in a long time, and like the victory as a whole, it should not be taken as a sign that new head coach Rod Marinelli's system is working. The Lions are a very bad team riddled with holes on both offense and defense. One game should not obscure that simple truth.
The good news is that the Lions' plethora of holes makes their failure to earn the top overall pick a potential blessing in disguise. Brady Quinn, the presumptive first overall pick, is not such a can't-miss prospect as to cost the Lions sleep. They have needs at almost every position on the field, and they can comfortably fill them at the second spot for less money. Wisconsin tackle Joe Thomas would fill an equal, if not larger, need than Quinn.
The one predictable component of this game was that the Lions pass offense would have success against Dallas. Mike Martz can always pick up yards in the passing game, and the Lions have responded with an average passing offense. Average, mind you, is quite an improvement where the Lions are involved.
The key to the passing game is two receivers who are excellent stories for very different reasons. Roy Williams is quietly one of the top receivers in football. He is the sole top-flight weapon on the offense and constantly commands double teams. Nonetheless, he has amassed excellent numbers this year and arguably should have made the Pro Bowl. Matt Millen has made any number of mistakes, but drafting Williams was his one unimpeachable move.
Furrey came with none of the high expectations of a first-round pick. He was the Rams' sixth receiver a season ago, so he converted to safety. He came to Detroit to play for his old coach, Martz, with hopes of competing for a roster spot at wide receiver. After the early failings of Corey Bradford, Furrey has emerged as a reliable possession receiver. He averages only 11.1 yards per catch. He plays as a more productive version of Az Hakim or Antwaan Randle El.
Despite the big numbers put up by these two, the overall offense is in the bottom third of the league. The main culprit is an inept running game. An injury to Kevin Jones does not help, but the Lions could not run the ball even when he was healthy. The offensive line has limited talent and has been riddled with injuries all season.
One other possible culprit for the offensive struggles is Martz himself. The offensive mastermind is as talented as anyone at drawing up individual pass plays. The overall construction of his offense may need work. Martz has not overseen a top 10 offense since 2001. His running game has been consistently ineffective the last several years. It should be noted that the Rams, after his departure, have returned to their status as a top 10 offense. Steven Jackson is headed to the Pro Bowl.
Martz's impact on Kitna shows the coach's strengths and weaknesses. The veteran passed the 4,000-yard marker on Sunday. In a sad comment on the quality of Detroit quarterbacking, he joins the immortal Scott Mitchell as the only player to achieve that distinction. Kitna amassed those numbers by buying into Martz's aggressive system. But the mistake-prone quarterback has maybe gone a step too far in that direction. He leads the league in turnovers. As noted above, he was lucky to escape a turnover on the first play, and he added a pick later in the game.
For all Kitna's faults, he is not the biggest problem on a team that lacks talent. They have no set offensive linemen. They lack a reliable third receiver. Even bigger problems exist on defense, a unit again negatively affected by injuries. The best player on the defense, Shaun Rogers, has missed a large portion of the season due to suspension and a lingering knee issue. The Lions have no established second cornerback, with Dre Bly as their only solid option. First-round pick Ernie Sims looks like a keeper, but he is surrounded by inconsistent performers at linebacker.
The Lions are not the worst or second-worst team in football. They do, however, comfortably rank in the bottom 10 of DVOA for the fifth time in the six years of the Millen era. Hopefully, Millen will not be able to use this surprising win as evidence of what is to come. The talent level is depleted across the board, and a change has to come from the top. Until that point, all Lions fans can hope for is the occasional offensive explosion like Sunday with Williams and Furrey making big plays.
Dallas is not supposed to be in a rebuilding phase, but it turns out the team has serious holes. A quick look at their schedule reveals only one win over a team with a winning record, Indianapolis. That win came when the Colts were undefeated but looks much less impressive now. Their other "signature" win was over a Carolina team that also proved to be terribly flawed.
The Cowboys do have some hope because the Seahawks are an equally flawed team. The winner of that game should be easy fodder for either the Bears or Saints. If Seattle does win, remember that it is probably the Cowboys defense, not some sudden rebirth of Matt Hasselbeck. When the season finally does end, the Cowboys will have many questions to ponder about the direction of the team. If they decide not to rebuild, their priorities should rest on replacing the people covering wide receivers, not the receiver who drops too many balls.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
22 comments, Last at 05 Jan 2007, 3:03pm by Tim Wilson