Any Given Sunday: Cowboys Over Seahawks
by Andrew Healy
Usually, when a team pulls a big upset, it sticks to a tried-and-true formula. A little bit of luck, maybe a big play in the kicking game, win the turnover battle, and squeak one out. On Sunday, Dallas did none of that. They gave up a blocked punt for a touchdown. They lost another punt on a Dwayne Harris muff. The next possession, they lost a fumble on a blown shotgun snap. On the game, they lost all three fumbles and the turnover battle. The Cowboys were unlucky against the Seahawks.
And they won, anyway. Dallas dominated the defending Super Bowl champs and two-time reigning DVOA title-holders on both sides of the ball. It was Seattle's worst single-game performance by DVOA in the Russell Wilson era, and also their worst performance on offense. Seattle totaled just 206 yards of offense on the day, the sixth-lowest total for any team this season, and averaged just 4.3 yards per play. By stoning the second-ranked offense coming into the game, Dallas had the fourth-best defensive performance of the season.
|The Best Defensive Performances of 2014|
Only one team (Detroit) appears even twice on this list, so we might not expect to see Dallas appear here again. But given the doomsday (not Doomsday) predictions for the Cowboys' defense before the season, it is kind of amazing that they appear here at all. Moreover, even after adjusting for offensive strength as DVOA does, the list shows that it's easier to dominate a bad offense than a good one. The Cowboys' performance is one of only two on the list, and the only one in the top ten, to come against a top-ten offense.
So where the heck did that come from? For one, Dallas was unusually well-prepared to stop Percy Harvin. On the day, Harvin gained -1 yard on six offensive touches. He was targeted one more time, which actually increased his average yards per play. His play log for the game makes it look like he was going against the 1991 Eagles or the 2000 Ravens.
|Quarter||Time Left||Down and Distance||Play Description|
|1||14:23||2nd and 5, SEA 26||Run left for -1 yard|
|1||11:34||1st and 10, DAL 14||Screen left for -1 yard|
|1||10:51||2nd and 11, DAL 15||Jet sweep right for no gain|
|2||0:16||1st and 10, SEA 20||Screen right for -4 yards|
|3||7:58||2nd and 7, SEA 49||Run right redirected up middle, no gain|
|3||6:57||1st and 10, DAL 14||Pass over middle for 5 yards|
|4||8:33||2nd and 9, DAL 30||Throw away in Harvin's area|
Harvin has not had much success overall this year and he got bad blocking on several plays, most notably from tight end Luke Willson on the jet sweep. But the Cowboys did a great job of anticipating the plays to Harvin. Orlando Scandrick helped stop both screens through quick recognition, and middle linebacker Rolando McClain made a difference even when he wasn't in on the play. On the second snap of the game, he read the formation with nobody split wide left and Harvin in the backfield to the right. He called out the direction of the play, pointing linebacker Justin Durant further outside. Durant got far enough outside to push Harvin back in for no gain. On the screen just before halftime, after Harvin escaped Scandrick, McClain came flying in from the middle of the field to get Harvin for a 4-yard loss. That Rolando McClain, previously known as a low-effort guy with off-field issues, is flying around and directing the defense says anything is possible for the Cowboys.
By the DVOA
Dallas's dominance was not limited to its defense. The Cowboys' offense also comfortably got the better of the Seahawks' defense. Only on special teams did Seattle win the battle.
Dallas's dominance by DVOA is bigger than New England's was in their 43-17 win over Cincinnati last week. The seven-point margin belies the large performance gap between the Cowboys and Seahawks.
Oops, They Did it Again
Against the Lions last year in Week 8, Dallas led 27-24 with a little over a minute left, facing third-and-14 from the Lions' 35. Detroit had no timeouts. Phillip Tanner ran for 9 yards, which should have run the clock down to around 20 seconds after the field goal attempt. But Tyron Smith was called for holding, stopping the clock. Gifted a full minute to score, Matthew Stafford memorably threw two great passes to Kris Durham and Calvin Johnson before calling his own number on the sneak that won the game, 31-30.
On Sunday, the same Dallas player made the exact same mistake in nearly the same situation. Leading 27-23 with 1:18 left and the ball on the Seattle 15, the Cowboys ran DeMarco Murray on third-and-7. Murray was stopped for a 2-yard gain that realistically should have ended the game. Seattle was out of timeouts and was looking at getting the ball back with about 30 seconds left after the Dallas field goal attempt.
But Tyron Smith was called for holding Michael Bennett on the run, stopping the clock with 1:12 left. So Seattle got more than a minute to try to get the touchdown they needed to tie the game. Dallas did not get burned this time, but the mistake if anything was even worse, since the extra yardage was much less valuable than it was last year with the play starting at the 35.
So l would be cautious with any suggestions of Jason Garrett for Coach of the Year. Otherwise, it was a very good day for the Dallas coaches, particularly on defense, but you simply have to coach your players to avoid all penalties in that spot. When the same mistake cost you a game less than a year ago, the failure is even more egregious.
A Tale of Two Quarterbacks
Sunday's Cowboys-Seahawks game was a matchup between two very good quarterbacks with similar styles and statistics. Tony Romo and Russell Wilson ranked between sixth and 10th in DVOA in each of the last three years, including the first five weeks of 2014. This season, they were right next to each other, with Romo ninth and Wilson 10th. Despite those similarities, the narratives on these two quarterbacks could scarcely be more different. One quarterback, the shorter one with the great defense, already has "Winner" firmly emblazoned on his forehead. The other is still trying to shed the largely-undeserved image that he comes up small in the biggest moments.
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This game turned that script around. Wilson had poor statistics (22.5 QBR, 2.7 Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt on 32 dropbacks) against the 24th-ranked defense by DVOA. Romo had excellent stats (80.8 QBR, 8.5 ANY/A on 33 dropbacks) against the fourth-ranked defense. And these disparities, if anything, understated the disparity in play between Wilson and Romo.
Consider Wilson first. Two throws stood out. First, with 2:03 to go in the first quarter and facing first-and-10 on the Seattle 47, Wilson got good pass protection on a deep drop. He drifted right when he had the opportunity to step up in the pocket. Then he drifted back and then right, where he nearly got sacked. Finally, from the 32 and nine seconds after the snap, Wilson released a pass while falling down that should come with a gift certificate for these pants. The pass might have been a throwaway, but it ended up going off Brandon Carr's fingertips.
That was bad, but it will probably be a while until Wilson makes a throw as bad as the one he made late in the third quarter. On second-and-8 from the Dallas 20, the Seattle line shifted left at the snap. Anthony Spencer forced Wilson left and had him in his grasp when Wilson threw this pass.
He was looking for Marshawn Lynch with a little shot put. Unfortunately for Wilson, Kyle Wilber was just sitting there. Fortunately, Wilber dropped a criminally easy interception. Wilson fails twice on this play. First, Dallas was playing a vanilla short zone that it did not disguise at the snap, so he should have known that defender might be lurking. Second, he failed to see Wilber through the mass of linemen between Wilson and where he wanted to throw the ball. These uncharacteristic mistakes led Wilson to make a throw right to a defender with nothing but pseudo-grass in front of him.
It probably only feels like that ball would have been picked had Romo thrown it. Unlike Wilson, Romo made good decisions throughout Sunday's game. Watching the tape, I had these thoughts on some of Romo's third-down throws, where he helped Dallas convert 10 of 17 chances:
|1||2:38||Third-and-2, SEA 2||Four covered receivers on the play. Romo finds the one guy who was open (Gavin Escobar) on his second read. Touchdown.|
|2||13:01||Third-and-4, DAL 24||Everybody is covered and Romo makes the right decision to check it down to Joseph Randle. Here, it did make sense to throw it short of the sticks. Byron Maxwell is called for holding.|
|2||5:27||Third-and-4, SEA 24||Bryant gets big separation to the inside from the slot on Maxwell. Romo drifts right, perhaps unnecessarily. He chooses the right target, but his throw is a little late. Bryant could have had the OK throw around the goal line.|
|2||2:13||Third-and-8, DAL 21||Romo makes the right decision to find Lance Dunbar underneath the Seattle zone as Malcolm Smith gets too far outside. Gain of 21.|
|2||1:18||Third-and-14, DAL 39||Was this the play design? Romo lets the receivers get downfield, Dunbar slips out, and Romo gets it to him with acres of space. Witten springs him for the first down with a sweet down block on Steven Terrell.|
|4||6:55||Third-and-5, DAL 25||Romo throws a nice back shoulder to a well-covered Bryant, who makes a good play on the ball.|
|4||4:55||Third-and-20, DAL 31||Wow. Much more on this play follows below.|
Other than that last play, my favorite Romo throw of the day doesn't appear on this list and it didn't even count. With 11:35 left from his own 13, Romo got blindside pressure off the edge. He stepped up in the pocket and fired a bullet just before Cliff Avril hit him. Unable to set his feet, Romo still hit Dwayne Harris right between the numbers. The play got wiped out by a holding penalty.
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Seven minutes later, Romo would again evade blindside pressure before stepping up and throwing on the move. That play is the play of the season through six weeks.
Film Room: Romo to Williams
With 4:55 left in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys faced third-and-20 on their own 31, trailing 23-20. Brian Burke's Win Probability Calculator gives the Cowboys a 16 percent chance of winning from that spot. But the calculator is a cold, mathematical device that doesn't account for the improvisational genius of Tony Romo.
There were other obstacles, too. Since 2010, Seattle has given up first down conversions on third-and-15 or longer 6.2 percent of the time. Opposing teams have gotten four first downs in 65 tries, substantially lower than the 10.6 percent league-wide average.
And from the snap, this play seemed headed for catastrophe. DeMarco Murray blocked Tyron Smith more than he blocked Bruce Irvin, before slipping out of the backfield. Romo was spinning away from Irvin within two seconds of the snap. But that's when the magic started.
One can only hope that this play and Sunday's game will at least count on the plus side for future debates about Romo. His defense played out of its mind on Sunday and it will be hard to repeat that performance for a defense that was last in the top 15 five years ago. Romo's excellent play is his norm. Across his nine seasons, Romo has ranked no lower than 11th among quarterbacks and as high as fourth. It's not just about the numbers. I don't think I'm the only one who, as Romo stepped up to throw, was thinking he would complete that almost impossible pass.