Dallas Cowboys vs. Tampa Bay Bucs Game Notes: Dallas Regains Lead of NFC East
With a win over Tampa Bay on Saturday night, the Cowboys have now regained control of the NFC East and can clinch the division with a win and a Giants loss on Christmas Eve. The G-Men have an “away” game against the Jets, and I think they will have trouble getting the ‘W.’ The Jets are coming off of a humiliating defeat against the Eagles (who are still alive in the playoff race, which hurts Dallas). Nonetheless, I think they are going to give their crosstown rivals some trouble in what is a near must-win game for both squads.
Luckily for the Cowboys, the NYC battle starts at 1pm ET, so the ‘Boys will know if their 4pm game “means anything.” If the Giants go down, both the Eagles and Cowboys have a huge matchup ahead, with an Eagles win meaning they need just a Week 17 win and a Cowboys loss to clinch the division, and the Cowboys obviously being crowned NFC East champs if they take down Philly.
This was all set up by a relatively well-played game by Dallas on Saturday. Here are my thoughts. . .
- Jason Garrett is still a long way away from being an effective manager of the clock. Although it didn’t hurt the team due to their fast start, Garrett’s clock management just before halftime was horrible. On a 2nd and 1 at the 4-yard line and 50 seconds left to play, the Cowboys called timeout. Why? With a full stash of timeouts, let the clock run down before you run the play. Even if the offense gets the first down but doesn’t get into the end zone, you have enough timeouts to stop the clock (with around 30 seconds left, maybe) and still run any three plays you would like. Garrett was so worried about letting the clock run down (again) that he called a timeout way, way too early.
- The Cowboys got stopped on their 2nd and 1 run and Garrett called the team’s second timeout on third down with 40 seconds left to play. Again, this was a mistake. Same reasoning as above. This isn’t a huge deal against the Bucs, but if the Cowboys score a touchdown with 40+ seconds left against a team like Green Bay, for example, the chances of giving up a field goal right before halftime are pretty good. Garrett does a good job making sure the players pay attention to details. He should do the same himself.
- Anthony Spencer has always been tremendous in pursuit, and he was rewarded for it with a forced fumble on the first drive of the game. How many times do you see Spencer fly down the line of scrimmage and make plays on the opposite side of where he lined up? He and DeMarcus Ware also do a really nice job of stripping the football, especially when a ball-carrier is already wrapped up. I know it is frustrating to watch defenders miss tackles on occasion because they are going for a strip, but I actually think the extra yardage is worth the exchange for an occasional takeaway. Of course, it depends on game situation. A missed tackle at the line of scrimmage on 3rd and 1 is debilitating, while a missed tackle in the backfield with other defenders around doesn’t hurt much. If nothing else, Rob Ryan seems to have improved the defensive intelligence of his unit.
- I liked the early play-calling by Garrett, particularly as it related to the usage of Felix Jones. The first play was a screen pass and the first running play was a toss. Those sorts of plays should help Doug Free, who played fairly well after some early struggles. He was nowhere near as good as Tyron Smith, though, who was absolutely dominating on tosses and counters. He’s a future Pro Bowl player.
- Tony Romo’s “Kill” calls are getting too easy to read. I’ve explained how “Kill” calls work in my analysis of Romo’s audibles. A kill call is a form of an audible in which the offense simply “kills” the first play which was called in the huddle and runs the second. We have seen less of these checks since Garrett started calling just a single play at a time (something I urged him to do just a week earlier).
- Still, when Romo makes a “Kill” call, it is really easy to see whether the offense is going to run or pass. It is based primarily on the depth of the linebackers. If they are off of the line and/or the safeties are in a Cover 2 look, Romo will “kill” the first play (if it was a called pass) to a run (Garrett usually calls two plays–one a run and the other a pass–in situations when either a run or pass might come). If the defense shows blitz, Romo “kills” to a pass (or simply runs the first play if it was called a pass in the huddle).
- If I was a defensive coordinator, I would call a whole lot of feigned blitzes with safe coverage behind (or blitzes from Cover 2 looks), particularly in situations like 2nd and 5 when the ‘Boys could either run or pass. If the defense shows a Cover 2 look pre-snap, for example, Romo will almost certainly make sure the team runs. With a run blitz called alongside that safe alignment, the defense could gain an advantage. Similarly, a fake blitz should force Romo to “kill” to a pass, at which time the defense can drop seven-plus men into coverage.
- On top of all that, I have showed multiple times that Romo plays best when he “knows” what the defense is going to do, i.e. he really struggles when teams fake blitzes or blitz from regular looks. From my article on Romo’s blitz numbers:
I think Romo’s failures stem from the importance he places on pre-snap reads. When defenses show blitz but then don’t come, Romo’s original read is usually taken away. He can then sometimes panic, and although I truly believe Romo is a tremendous talent and a Championship-level quarterback, he does not possess incredible accuracy. He makes a lot of his plays by buying extra time to allow receivers to become wide open.
This would explain why he still does well when teams do not show blitz but then end up coming after him. What he sees post-snap may differ from his pre-snap reads, but he possesses not only a quick release, but also the athleticism to make good things happen that may not have been designed in the original play.
Overall, it seems clear Romo performs much better when he “knows” whether or not a blitz is coming. When teams do not blitz, his passer rating is 181 percent better when teams do not show it as opposed to feigning a blitz. When defenses do send extra defenders, Romo’s passer rating is 24.1 points better if the defense “shows” it as opposed to disguising their intentions.
So you want to stop Romo? Well, don’t blitz often, but feel free to act as if you will. When you do blitz, you better disguise that as well.
- Rob Ryan did a really nice job of getting Ware isolated on Donald Penn. Ware lined up in a number of places on Saturday, including middle linebacker at times. Most of the time he shifted to his normal seven-technique location just before the snap, but it was a creative way to make sure the offense cannot anticipate from where Ware will rush. Look for it to continue.
- Another improvement I saw from Ryan was the late-game pass-rush. The Cowboys lined up in a variety of creative alignments in passing situations, including Psycho (shown below) and Cloud (zero down linemen).
- Despite this, the Cowboys generally sent just four (sometimes three) defenders. This allowed them to play safe coverages but still confuse the Bucs’ offensive line. It is also in contrast to the blitz-heavy calls we saw in the Cowboys’ loss to the Giants in Week 14. I love the chaotic looks Ryan throws at offenses, and they are even more useful when the defense does not always blitz from them.