Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
30 Sep 2010
by Ben Muth
The Cowboys were 0-2 and in need of a win against the Texans. Not only were they facing an undefeated in-state rival, they faced an avalanche of media hyperbole: Their backs were against the wall, in a do-or-die game, and it was "put up or shut up" time (I think that cover most of the clichés). They needed somebody to step up and deliver a big game to get them off the mat (there's one more). What they got were a couple of guys coming up big to lead them to a really impressive win against a good Texans team.
Roy Williams and Tony Romo got the majority of the press, and perhaps deservedly so, but there were a lot of Cowboys that outplayed the guys across from them. Dallas' ability to execute its game plan well enough early to move the ball and put up some points forced Houston's defense to change their game plan, and that's when the big plays came in the fourth quarter.
The Cowboys offensive line did a great job giving Tony Romo time in the passing game. The Texans' game plan going in seemed to be to rush just four the majority of the time, dropping seven back into coverage. Unfortunately for Houston, Dallas comfortably handled its front four.
Marc Colombo was particularly good in pass protection. The majority of the time, it seemed that the Cowboys would slide to Doug Free's side, often leaving Colombo on an island. The veteran right tackle rose to the challenge, never getting cleanly beaten by his man on a drop back pass. Occasionally, he allowed some light pressure, but nothing Tony Romo couldn't avoid. Colombo made one notable mistake on a blitz where the Texans brought one more guy than the Cowboys could block. Rather than stay with Mario Williams (it was one of the few occasions where Williams was lined up over Colombo), Colombo decided to pick up the blitzing linebacker Zac Diles. Williams had a free run to Romo and forced an incomplete pass. No matter who Colombo decided to block, Diles or Williams, the other was coming free, but if he had decided to stay with Williams, Romo would have had a split second longer. It was a minor blemish on a very well played game.
Because Colombo played so well, the Cowboys were able to give the younger Doug Free a good deal of help in the passing game. This is not an insult to Free's abilities by any means. Most teams tend to slide the protection to their quarterback's blind side as is, especially when playing someone like Mario Williams. What Doug Free did a nice job of was always knowing where his help was and setting up accordingly. When a tight end was staying in to block, he would funnel Williams outside. When he knew Kyle Kosier was sliding with him, he made sure to take away any outside or up field rush. It wasn't a dominating performance by any means, but it showed that the inexperienced Free could be very effective against a good player in the right circumstances.
The interior guys all carried their weight as well. I was most impressed with Andre Gurode's performance. Probably more so than any other offensive lineman I've seen this year, Gurode was able to generate consistent and significant movement in the running game. Usually he was working with one of the two guards, but no matter who he was working with, whomever they blocked was going somewhere. Leonard Davis was solid in pass protection, but he seemed a little slow in the running game. Whether he was pulling or trying to reach a defensive tackle, he seemed to sort of lumber out of his stance, rather than explode. That being said, he was strong enough to make up for being a little behind, but he may struggle with quicker players in the future.
Kyle Kosier also did some nice things before his injury. He was very good in pass protection, helping Gurode with his hands and body presence while keeping his eyes on Doug Free, so he could leave and help Free at the first sign of trouble. But the best thing that Kosier did was pull in the running game. Kosier is excellent at keeping his shoulder square when he pulls across the line. That way, if a linebacker fills a hole quickly and surprises him, he is still in position to block him. It doesn't lead to devastating pancake blocks, but it does give the running back running lanes. When he got hurt and Montrae Holland came in, the Cowboys continued to move the ball, which is more a testament to Holland than anything else. I think he proved to the Cowboys that not all of their backup offensive linemen are liabilities (*cough* Alex Barron *cough*).
The result of all the Cowboys being so effective pass blocking Houston's front four was that eventually the Texans felt the need to blitz. This is when Tony Romo and his wide receivers really broke the game open. It seemed obvious that the Houston coaching staff was wary of blitzing early and exposing their suspect secondary to Dallas' playmakers. But after three quarters of trailing in the game and getting no real pressure on Romo the Texans needed to try something, so they tried to add linebackers to their pass rush. This is when the Dallas started to rip off huge chunks of yards in the passing game, and ultimately win the game. By handling Houston's front four so soundly, Dallas was able to make them adjust their game plan, and the result was a second half aerial show by Romo and the wide receivers.
The passing game looked great, but the running game was just effective enough to keep Houston honest, and that's something the Cowboys couldn't say about their two losses. What Jason Garrett and the offense really did a great job of was using a variety different formations and motions to put Dallas in an advantageous position.
Next, we'll look at two different formations the Cowboys used to run their best running play, the Lead Draw, and keep the Texans off balance. What makes this formation flexibility so great is that it doesn't change anything for your offensive line or running backs assignment-wise, but it gives the defense a lot more to think about.
First, a brief rundown of the Lead Draw play. It is a man-blocked play, with the fullback leading on the middle (or Mike) linebacker. One of the best features of the play is how easy it is to throw play action from, without giving away the pass. In fact, both of Roy Williams' touchdowns came off Lead Draw action in the backfield (there wasn't even a ball fake, just the backfield motion and blocking scheme is often enough).
Against a 4-3 defense, the offensive tackles are responsible for the defensive ends. To block them, the offensive tackles will take a very short pass set, usually just moving their outside foot, and then simply taking the defender where they want to go. If the defender wants to rush up the field, you take them up the field. If the defender slants inside, you take him inside. As long as the offensive tackle avoids penetration straight into the backfield, the runner can adjust off his block.
The three interior offensive linemen are responsible for the two defensive tackles and the weak side (or Will) linebacker. To block these defenders, the center will usually double team or combo block with one of the two guards and come up to the linebacker. It's important to keep in mind that there are very few true double teams anymore. Even blocks that start off as double teams are designed for one of the offensive linemen to come off to the second level and block a linebacker. The center will usually double team towards the nose tackle.
In 4-3 defenses, you identify the two defensive tackles as either the three-technique tackle (so called because he usually lines up on the guard's outside shoulder, which is a three technique. Think Albert Haynesworth when he was good and played hard.) or the nose tackle (a nose is often called a shade in a 4-3 defense because he is rarely lined up on the nose of the ball, usually he shades to one side of the center). With the center combo-blocking with one guard on the nose/shade to the Will, that leaves the other guard one-on-one with the three-technique defensive tackle. The guard who is on his own is left with pretty much a straight drive block.
Once the four down linemen and Will are blocked, that leaves just the strong side linebacker (or Sam) and the Mike. The tight end is responsible for the Sam linebacker. How he blocks the defender is up to him. He has to find the best way to release around the defensive end to get to the linebacker. As long as the tight end gets there, there is no wrong route.
|Figure 1: Cowboys Lead Draw|
As previously mentioned, the lead blocker (usually a fullback) is responsible for leading up on the Mike linebacker. This block is probably the most important of the play. If the fullback can root the middle linebacker out of the hole, it's usually pretty successful. If the Mike comes up and stuffs the lead back completely or comes off quickly, the play is usually a very short gain.
The play is typically run to the tight end side out of an I formation. On the second play of the game (Figure 1), the Cowboys ran it with a very slight difference in the formation. They still lined up in an I formation, but they simply flexed Jason Witten out. Flexing the tight end means lining him up about three or four yards outside of the tackle. Because Jason Witten is such a talented receiver, the Texans were forced to adjust their alignment to take care of him.
They could have rolled a safety down and kept their linebackers in the box, but because of Houston's struggles against the pass this year, they decided to walk the Sam linebacker out. This means that Jason Witten and Jason Garrett have blocked the play-side linebacker simply by alignment. By moving him outside four yards, you have basically eliminated one defender from the point of attack. It seems simple, and it is, but it's one less thing that can wrong on a running play.
The other formation the Cowboys ran the Lead Draw out of was much more creative. (Figure 2) The Cowboys have two athletic tight ends, who give them flexibility in formations.
|Figure 2: Lead Draw from Flex|
One formation they ran a lot against the Texans to take advantage of this was a trips formation with a flexed tight end (Martellus Bennett) and another tight end (Witten) in a hip position. A hip position is about a yard outside and a yard deeper than the offensive tackle. It's called hip position because you're right off the tackle's hip. (As I keep telling you, it's a simple game.) A wide receiver splits out wide.
Once again, the Texans have to adjust to the passing threat. So, the Texans walked the Sam out again to cover the flexed tight end. And now instead of having a fullback lead up on the Mike linebacker, the Cowboys had Jason Witten lead up on him. This is actually an easier block because the Mike linebacker doesn't see a tight end coming from the hip position as easily as he would an I formation fullback. By changing up the formation you have now taken one linebacker out of the play completely and made the most important block of the play much easier. That is what game planning is all about -- putting your players in the best situation to succeed.
Now, you might be wondering why the Cowboys' running game wasn't more successful. If their o-line played great and their scheme was solid, what was the problem?
I think what they did in the running game was enough to keep Houston from completely ignoring the running threat. But if I had to point to a reason why the running game didn't put up more impressive numbers, I would say it was the guy who got the majority of the carries. Marion Barber looked a step slow, and he looked surprisingly easy to bring down. I thought there were a couple plays where there seemed to be a hole or a running lane that Barber was just too slow to get to. As a result, a potential 10-yard gain would turn into a four-yard gain. I wouldn't be surprised to see more of Felix Jones and Tashard Choice as the season goes along.
32 comments, Last at 02 Oct 2010, 12:11am by BigCheese