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?
26 Dec 2013
by Ben Muth
The Cowboys' comeback win over the Redskins set up an elimination game against the Eagles that has seemed inevitable since about Week 7. Philadelphia comes in riding high, having won six of their last seven, including a 54-11 trouncing over Chicago last week. The Cowboys haven’t been playing as well. Despite playing against backup quarterbacks each of the past three weeks, Dallas managed just one win, and even that win took a couple of fourth-down conversions on the final drive of the game to eke out a one-point victory. When you add the Sean Lee and Tony Romo injuries, things are starting to look bleak for America’s Team.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. This column has always been more about looking back than looking ahead. It’s a lot easier to be right that way. So we’re going to try to focus on Dallas’ game against Washington. It was a disappointing game from the guys up front.
Let’s start with the truly ugly and work towards the good. If you watched the game on Sunday, you probably know that that the ugly refers to the last couple running plays of the game for Dallas. Late in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys were down six and had driven inside the five with just over two minutes left in the game.
Offensive coordinator Bill Callahan dialed up three straight runs for DeMarco Murray to try to take the lead. They went for 3, 0, and -9 yards.
Obviously losing six yards on three runs is bad, but the problem wasn't just the result, it was how it happened. After the initial three-yard run, Dallas’ line got absolutely demolished by the Washington defensive line. Let’s take a look at a shot from the second-down run.
It’s pretty hard to make out, but that head floating over the X of Great Shame is Doug Free’s. Free has had a good year, and has done a nice job of getting his career back on track after two disastrous seasons. But here, he’s getting put on his ass two yards in the backfield. Heck, he almost hyperextends the poor fullback’s knees. There’s just nothing you can do as a running back to compensate for a guy getting beat like that at the point of attack.
The next play was even worse for Dallas.
The red line is the original line of scrimmage. The yellow X’s of Great Shame mark the spot of a pair of offensive linemen that just got buried. Center Travis Frederick has been pretty good this year -- although he’s been overrated just because he’s a first-round pick that hasn’t been noticeably bad -- but this is an ugly play. It was a tough block, having to reach a shaded nose with no help, but you can’t end up three yards in the backfield before the back even gets the ball. Left guard Ronald Leary may have actually done even worse on the play.
Two consecutive ugly plays in an absolutely critical moment during a must win game. Having watched the Cowboys offensive line all year, it was disappointing because this unit has been better than that, and plays like that in key moments can shape fan perception for an entire offseason.
The right guard position was seen as a problem going into the year for Dallas. The guy Dallas had was Mackenzy Bernadeau, and it was obvious the Cowboys didn’t feel comfortable with him at that spot. Dallas tried to sign Brandon Moore, but he decided to retire instead. Then they brought Brian Waters out of retirement. Despite the organization showing zero faith in him beforehand, Bernadeau has put together a decent little season. I’m not nominating him for a Pro Bowl or anything, but he’s been more than serviceable ever since he re-entered the starting lineup for the injured Waters.
Until last week, that is. Bernadeau struggled against the Redskins in just about every way an offensive guard could struggle. He was pushed back too far in both the running game and passing game. He was beat with quickness in pass protection, he missed cut blocks in the running game, and he didn’t do a good job handling stunts and blitzes. It was a rough game for him, and if Dallas hopes to advance to the playoffs, Bernadeau has to be better against Philadelphia.
Finally, we get to some of the good. The one thing the Cowboys offensive line has done consistently well in the second half of this season is run the outside zone play. Now, the Cowboys haven’t leaned on it too much, but when Callahan has called it the offensive line has generally executed it well. Let’s take a look at a big play from the second quarter.
Dallas is in a balanced single back formation, Washington is in their base 3-4 with the defensive ends slightly pinched down. (They’re in 4Is instead of 5s.) These are the types of plays and formations you’ll see on the first day of training camp. It doesn’t get more basic than this: it’s just ours against yours.
A couple of things to point out. First, is the question mark. I didn’t put that there because I’m unsure of what James Hanna is doing, I put that there because I’m unsure if James Hanna actually exists. At this point, it seems more realistic to me that Hanna is a figment of my imagination that I subconsciously insert into Cowboys games to punish myself for watching too much football. That seems more likely than the possibility that there is a tight end that cannot block and has just 12 catches getting 20 snaps a game for a playoff-contending team that has Jason Witten and a rookie tight end they drafted in the second round. Here, my subconscious decided to have Hanna release inside of the outside linebacker to get in Tyron Smith’s way instead of working a combo block or "arc" releasing to help widen the edge.
The other thing I wanted to point out is that Frederick is doing a nice job of turning the nose tackle's shoulders and raising him up. You can see that he creates a nice target for Bernadeau to come in and chop down. Also, a good job by Leary covering up the 4I on the front side.
You can see that Murray has to put his foot in the ground pretty quickly because Smith has bad positioning on the edge. I’m going to give Smith a pass because of what Hanna did, but typically you need to widen the outside linebacker more on these types of plays.
Luckily for Dallas, Leary and Frederick did a good enough job on the inside that there’s a nice crease in the middle of the defense. If Murray plants and cuts through there, he probably gets four-to-seven yards despite the fact that Bernadeau missed his cut block.
But Murray sees that the outside linebacker on the backside is peeking inside, and that Witten has him completely covered up. So Murray decides to take it all the way out the back door.
It was great vision by Murray and a perfect block by Witten that set up a 43-yard gain for the Cowboys.
If you watched this live it seemed like a really violent cutback, bordering on reversing his field, by Murray. But when you look at it again, Murray ends up cutting back to five yards left of hash where the ball was marked originally. The defense had flowed so far over by that point that it seemed like a more ridiculous cutback. Just a pretty play all around.
That does it for this week. Get ready for what should be a super-sized edition of the column next week, as we’ll break down the game from Sunday night as well as give a little end-of-year performance review on whichever team fails to advance to the postseason. In the words of Bart Scott, "Can’t wait!"
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