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?
28 Oct 2010
by Ben Muth
In the preseason, there was a lot of hype about the Cowboys possibly playing in their own stadium for the Super Bowl. Seven weeks and just one win later, that notion seems all but impossible. And as if things couldn't get any worse, their star quarterback went down with a broken collarbone on Monday night. With Tony Romo on the sidelines for the foreseeable future, Dallas' playoff hopes seem pretty dim. As a result, they will probably not get as much attention in this column. So, here is one last Cowboy-centric edition of Word of Muth.
The play that will keep Cowboy Nation up at night will surely be Michael Boley's hit on Tony Romo. As Jon Gruden pointed out, this pressure was not the offensive line's fault. The Cowboys had one of the most basic man protection schemes on the play. I have discussed Base Weak before, and the Cowboys used a related protection I would just call Base (these man protections are numbered, and every team has different numbers). In Base, the five offensive linemen are responsible for the four defensive linemen and the Mike (middle) linebacker. On this particular protection, both running backs stay in to block.
The tailback is responsible for the Sam (strongside) linebacker, and the fullback is responsible for the Will (weakside) linebacker. Blitzing defensive backs are handled differently depending on the game plan -- sometimes they're hot, sometimes they're not. I always thought it seemed weird that the fullback would be responsible for the Will, since fullbacks are generally bigger and stronger than tailbacks. Then a coach pointed out to me that Will linebackers are generally better pass rushers and can blitz more often than their strongside counterparts.
It makes perfect sense that an offensive coordinator would want his blocking back matched up against the more likely blitzer. But, as Gruden pointed out a couple of times during the broadcast, the fullback, Chris Gronkowski, didn't block the Will (Michael Boley) like he was supposed to on this play.
I think the problem for Gronkowski was that he was in an offset I-Formation and the linebacker was aligned outside. Not only was Boley aligned outside, he was looking outside, which Gronkowski probably thought was a tipoff that he was dropping. At the snap, Gronkowski took a couple of steps outside toward Boley. Boley then shuffled inside and shot right between the guard and tackle. By the time Gronkowski realized he had just made a major mistake, it was too late. Boley hit Romo, and Romo's shoulder hit the turf. The result may be the end of Dallas' season.
The Cowboys offensive line may have had nothing to do with the loss of Tony Romo, but they had a lot to do with the loss to the Giants. It was the classic poor offensive line performance -- no one guy played awful, but each one was mediocre, making the unit look bad. Andre Gurode was probably the best of the bunch, but even he was far from dominating.
Montrae Holland got the start for an injured Kyle Kosier but didn't do a lot to capitalize on the opportunity. Holland was pretty good in pass protection, but he really struggled in the running game. In particular, I thought he was really ineffective when he was pulling, often failing to hit anybody. Ironically this is one of Kosier's strengths. Holland left the game with an injury, allowing reserve rookie Phil Costa (love that name for some reason) to show his stuff. Costa didn't fare any better. His lowlight of the night was getting beaten with a swim move for a sack.
Of course, the guy that Holland is really competing with for a permanent starting job, Leonard Davis, struggled as well. Davis continues to look sluggish. The Giants front four is quick, and they looked even quicker in comparison to Davis, who had trouble when he had to kick out to any wide defenders.
One play that really stuck out to me was a shotgun Power (Power is a running play that requires the backside guard to pull). Leonard Davis was so slow out of his stance that Felix Jones actually beat him to the hole, effectively making him totally obsolete on the play. What makes this worse is that Davis was in a two-point stance, which means he should've been able to get moving pretty quickly. I'm not sure if Davis is simply too big, too banged up, or too old, but I think it's pretty clear that he is too slow to play effectively right now.
The tackles were better than the guards, but not by much. Marc Colombo was probably a little better than Doug Free, but he didn't have to block Osi Umenyiora. Both guys battled but seemed overmatched. The problem you face when you play a team with two good defensive ends (like Umenyiora and Justin Tuck) is that you can't really game-plan both of them. The Cowboys, it seems, decided to let their tackles handle with minimum help. This was moderately successful. Like I said earlier, neither Free nor Colombo was awful (like bandwagon San Francisco Giants fans are), but both were beaten often enough to disrupt the flow of the offense.
But a lot of the Cowboys struggles up front were a direct result of the Giants having a lot of talent and a good game plan. It may sound odd for me to gush about a defense that gave up 35 points to a one-win team, but that's exactly what I'm going to do.
After all, the 35 points are really deceiving (unlike Leonard Davis' listed weight of 355 ... come on). Seventeen of those points came off turnovers where Dallas started in the red zone. Factor in a special-teams touchdown and a late pseudo-garbage-time touchdown with a two-point conversion, and 32 of the points come with an asterisk. The thing that jumped out at me when I watched New York play was the athleticism of the front seven (d-line and linebackers). The athleticism of these guys allowed the Giants to bring some interesting blitzes that I really liked.
The Giants frequently used a standup defensive lineman in obvious passing situations. By that I mean they would have one defensive lineman (usually Tuck) walking around the line of scrimmage before the snap. There are a couple of reasons teams do this. The first is to throw off protection schemes. By having a defensive lineman standing up, there is a chance that the offensive line will consider him a linebacker, and he will get matched up with a running back. Whenever there is a standup lineman, it is important that someone points out that he is actually a defensive lineman.
The other reason defensive coordinators like stand up defenders is that it allows them to cheat on any stunts. If you are supposed to slant across the guard's face, you can cheat by moving just inside at the last second before the snap. That late movement is much tougher from a three-point stance.
The nice thing about having this standup defensive lineman is having flexibility in stunts. Because the defensive lineman can move around before the snap, you can put him in whatever gap you want, and come up with some really neat stunts.
One nice blitz the Giants ran out of this package was a variation of the Bozo Cross blitz (the stunt has many names, but Bozo Cross was the best I've heard so that's what we're going with). The basic premise of Bozo Cross is to send two linebackers into the A and B gaps in a crossing pattern. Whatever linebacker is on the side of the blitz rushes almost straight ahead into the A gap. The backside linebacker folds over the top and into the B gap. The goal is to pick the offensive lineman with the A gap rusher so the B gap is uncontested.
|Figure 1: Bozo Cross Blitz|
That's the basic premise of Bozo Cross, but the Giants version was a little more complex. They lined up with three down linemen and a forth stand up defensive lineman (the unlabeled triangle in the diagram). The defensive ends were aligned just outside of the offensive tackles, while the down defensive tackle was lined up over the center.
Justin Tuck was the standup defensive lineman (often called a Rover, a Spinner, or an Imposter), and he was wandering between the center and the right tackle. There were two "linebackers" on the play. I put linebackers in quotes because one of them was safety Deon Grant. He was lined up as a linebacker because the Giants were using dime personnel. The real linebacker (Boley) was lined up over the center, while Grant was aligned over the left guard.
At the snap, it was important for the two interior defensive linemen (Justin Tuck and Rocky Bernard) to slant hard to their right. Rocky Bernard was lined up over the center, but he was responsible for contain. The defensive end (Umenyiora) on that side was responsible for man coverage on Jason Witten, who was lined up in the backfield. When Witten releases for a route, the defender must peel off his rush and cover the Pro Bowler.
It's important to note that Bernard will never get a sack on this play, but it is necessary for him to get outside to cut off any escape route the quarterback might have. Since Bernard is getting all the way to the right C gap, Tuck must slant to take over the A/B gap on that side, to prevent the quarterback from stepping up in the pocket. Also, by slanting inside, Tuck brings Leonard Davis with him for a couple of steps, opening up the B gap for the linebacker. The left defensive end rushes straight up the field to keep contain on his side.
Like I said earlier, the basic premise of the stunt is to send the two linebackers on one side. In this case, Boley went first, blitzing through the right side A gap. Boley was picked up by Marion Barber, who was responsible for him on the play. But Deon Grant (labeled SA in the diagram) came around next into the B gap and went untouched. When Davis carried the slanting Tuck inside, he was unable to get back outside to Grant, who came roaring through the B gap.
That's what I like about the stunt -- even though the Cowboys had enough blockers for the blitz, the matchups favored the Giants. First, you get your best pass rushing linebacker (Boley) on Marion Barber, and then you make Leonard Davis change directions to kick out to a safety with a full head of speed. The result of the last thousand words or so was simple, a sack of Jon Kitna.
Did I just spend almost the entire article writing about defense? I feel dirty. I may need tomato juice to wash the shame off my body after this week.
22 comments, Last at 03 Nov 2010, 12:17pm by JPS