1. The Lions’ run/pass reads
Early in the 2nd quarter, there was a play where Spievey and Houston both bit on a play action (Spievey bit really hard on it) and Laurent Robinson flew right by them both for a 44 yard gain. I couldn’t find a video of it, so here are a few freeze frames that help illustrate my point.
The 1st frame is the pre-snap alignment. I’ve circled Robinson in yellow and the two responsible for covering the route in red. In the 2nd frame, you can see Spievey coming in about 3 yards on the play fake, while Houston is just frozen, trying to deicde which to cover. In the 3rd frame, you can see that Houston has decided to try to stay on Robinson’s hip, while Spievey is just realizing that it’s not a run when Robinson is 4 yards past him and at full speed. In the 4th frame, Robinson has outrun Houston and Spievey is almost completely out of the frame.
While this play garnered a lot of attention (at least on twitter, where all of my interaction with real people comes from), the Lions’ run/pass reads were actually very good by their safeties and linebackers. This was about the only one that hurt them and a good read lead to the Carpenter interception. Justin Rogers described that play as a poor play action fake by Romo, but if you watch it and compare it to the next two plays (essentially the same formation, but with run rather than play action), the linebackers reacted so quickly that I don’t think they were reading the handoff by Romo at all. I think they were reading something else—possibly reading whether the offensive line was run blocking or pass blocking (in pass blocking, if the linemen pass the line of scrimmage before the ball does, it’s a penalty for ineligible man downfield).
2. Predictable Playcalling?
Going into this game, I read a lot about Jason Garrett’s offense being called predictable at times. In this game, it was far from predictable. Here are a few of the creative plays that he called on the day. On the 2nd play of the game for the Cowboys’ offense, he dialed up a play action screen. The play action actually allowed the linebackers to drop deeper away from the line of scrimmage because they correctly read pass and it also drew the linemen to the running back. The screen pass went to the tight end (away from the RB), who rumbled for 15 yards before someone brought him down. On the 3rd play of the game, Garrett called an end around, which has been a weak spot for the Lions defense through the first 3 weeks of the season. With 5:24 left in the 1st quarter, the Cowboys pulled a play from the Lions playbook that they used last week against the Vikings. Romo dropped back and faked a screen to his running back on the right side of the field. This drew the linemen and linebackers to that side of the field, after which he wheeled around and flipped it to his fullback on the left. If Louis Delmas wasn’t a guided missile, the play would have gone for more than the 4 yards they got out of it.
The other play that really caught my eye was a pass play at the start of the 2nd quarter. Here’s another slideshow type of thing since NFL.com doesn’t have videos of any of the interesting plays, apparently.
On this play, Romo faked a handoff to the running back, while the Ogeltree, the wide receiver on the right side started circling around like it was an end around. As soon as Chris Houston (who was lined up across from him) saw this, he started sprinting to the left side of the field (which had saved a touchdown on an end around in a previous game). Before he got back into the backfield, the wide receiver stopped his path toward the QB and turned back upfield toward the endzone, where Romo hit him in stride with a pass. With Houston committed to get to the other side of the field and not looking back at all, Ogeltree was left wide open. Again, if Delmas wasn’t a guided missile, he would have had a touchdown.
3. Running Out the Clock
Watching the game, I could tell that the Cowboys were going into tighter sets in the 2nd half, usually with 1 WR, 2 tight ends, 1 RB, and 1 FB from under center and trying to mix a power running game with the occasional passing play against the resulting man coverage. Splitting the data into the two halves, there wasn’t a big difference between any of the stats for formations and the run percentage actually went down in the 2nd half. Then I remembered that the last drive was full of 3 WR sets and shotgun passing, which weighed down the stats. So when I take out the last drive, I get wildly different results. In the first half, the Cowboys used shotgun 37.8% of the time, used 2.32 WR, 1.18 TE, 1.03 RB, and 0.46 FB per play, and gained 7.03 YPA. They ran 37.8% of the time, and their average down was 1.81 and their average distance was 8.35 yards (a lower number for both is good, meaning they got more first downs and made their later downs more manageable). In the 2nd half (excluding the last drive), they used shotgun only 26.7% of the time (down 11.1%) with 1.67 WR, 1.7 TE, 1 RB, and 0.63 FB, and gained 4.73 YPA. They ran the ball 43.3% of the time (still lower than I would have thought), their average down was 1.67 and their average distance was 7.37 yards. So although they didn’t get as many yards per attempt, they had better down and distance the entire 2nd half and got more first downs. It killed the clock and led to sustained drives, exactly what you want with a big lead in the 2nd half. However, because the Cowboys brought all of those extra guys in close to the line, the Lions went from an average of 7.5 men in the box to 8.3 men in the box. Against the run, not much changes there because there are more blockers and more defensive players up close to tackle the running back, but in passing downs, 4 or 5 guys in short zones can spread out better across the field in short zones (and the mismatch isn’t as bad with a LB on a TE or FB as it is on a WR). In the first half, we would see the three linebackers dropping into zones between the hash marks on the field, but with 4 or 5 defenders, they can spread from sideline to sideline, which is exactly what happened on the Carpenter interception. 5 linebackers each took 1/5th of the field and Carpenter ended up underneath the route that Dez Bryant was running. Here’s a couple of schematics to prove my point.
4. Costa’s Block
The best block of the day for the Lions was thrown by…Phil Costa. What? The Cowboys center? Yeah, that Phil Costa. On Romo’s first interception, Carpenter started running down the sideline where he intercepted the pass. Dez Bryant was quick to follow him to try to make the tackle. As Bryant was just catching up to haul Carpenter down, Phil Costa comes in to make the tackle and instead throws a devastating block on Dez, wiping out his chances to make the tackle. Carpenter reversed field, avoided the entire 53 man roster on his way to the endzone and punched the ball in to start the Lions comeback.
5. Pressure on the Interceptions
For all of the talk of the Lions defensive line not getting enough pressure on Romo, they were instrumental in two of the three interceptions that Romo threw in the 2nd half. On the 2nd interception of the game, Chris Houston was in man coverage with Laurent Robinson. Robinson stutter stepped to the outside and got Houston to flip his hips toward the sideline before turning back to the inside on a quick slant. However, Houston showed some great athleticism by staying to the inside of the receiver, getting flipped back around, and fighting off the wideout to make the one handed pick. The pressure plays into it because that stutter step to the outside and cut inside took some time to develop. Another split second and the WR would have been past Houston, shielding him from making the pick. However, Avril was collapsing the pocket from the right side of the field, getting pressure right in Romo’s face. Instead of waiting for Robinson to get past Houston, Romo took his chances and the result was another defensive TD.
By now, I’ve talked a lot about the first 2 of Romo’s picks, but the 3rd one is directly tied to the pressure. On the play, Suh and Vanden Bosch were both blowing by their blockers on the way to the QB while Romo was sitting back to let the play develop. The blockers were holding both Suh and KVB, which allowed Romo to be scared, but they couldn’t get free to finish off the sack.
With 8 men in the box and Wendling (the single high safety) biting on a route that Laurent Robinson was running, Witten was running down the seam with Tulloch in single coverage and Levy trailing behind them both. Had Romo been able to throw it deep, Witten would have been off to the races, possibly scoring a touchdown, but with the pressure in his face, he had to throw off his back foot and left it short where Tulloch could make a play on the ball. If you can see the clock in the picture, you’ll notice that there was only 4:20 left on the clock in the 4th quarter, and a first down would have been devastating to the Lions’ chances of a comeback. While the first two interceptions got the scoring going in the 2nd half, the 3rd pick was maybe the most crucial because the Lions weren’t going to get very many more chances.