Cowboys in Review: Can’t Keep a Legend Down

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The game book suggests a pedestrian evening — 2 catches for a mere 10 yards.  It was one of Jason Witten’s poorest statistical games in some time.

Greatness cannot always be quantified by the box score.  Pre and post-game reports from the Cowboys locker room spoke to the mental boost Witten provided.  By starting a mere 23 days after fracturing his spleen against the Oakland Raiders, Witten fired up his teammates and the Cowboys fan base.  Witten again demonstrated the toughness and preparedness that will see him in Canton five years after he eventually retires.

A closer look at the game also shows that Witten’s presence on the field had a definite effect on the Giants’ thinking.  He was far from his best, but the Giants defensive coaches and players had to prepare and play as if Witten were his regular, superlative self.  This helped the offense produce at its expected level, whether the ball passed through Witten’s hands or not.

In Thursday’s piece, we down the Cowboys’ final completion of the evening, a 3rd-and-10 conversion that let them keep the ball away from a Giants offense that had closed to within a touchdown in the final three minutes.  It’s a variant of  Dallas’ basic spread package:

 It’s a three-receiver, one tight end set, with a single running back flanking Tony Romo in the shot-gun.  Because Witten is such a vertical threat, the Cowboys almost never use four wide-out sets.  Instead, they’ll move Witten around the field.  Sometime’s he’ll play the classic Y, on the line next to an offensive tackle.  Other times, he’ll play the F-back, lining up next to Romo in the backfield, assuring a clean release up the field against a linebacker.

Here, he’s flexed left, meaning he’s still on the line, but in a much wider position, like a slot wide receiver.  New York kept a LB over him in nearly every critical situation.  What’s more, Witten regularly held S Antrell Rolle’s attention, giving Kevin Ogletree the room to get free and convert the down:

Four times in Wednesday night’s contest, Dallas faced 3rd-and-long, and called the double slant combo for Witten and Ogletree.  Each time, Tony Romo completed the pass to Ogleree, because Witten drew safety coverage or double coverage.  The one time Ogletree failed, shown here, he was stopped inches short of the marker.  Each time, the Giants expected the Cowboys to target Witten, and Romo’s faith in Ogletree let them adjust effectively.

Here’s another play from the regular package which shows how much respect the Giants secondary had for Witten.  It’s Dallas’ opening drive of the 3rd quarter.  The team has just crossed mid-field and wants to threaten New York’s secondary with a deep pass.

The Cowboys are in a regular package, a straight I formation with DeMarco Murray as the tailback and Lawrence Vickers the fullback.  Jason Garrett wants to buy time for Romo to look down the field so he keeps both backs in to block off a play-action fake:  

New York rushes five on the play, with weak-side OLB Keith Rivers coming off the left edge on a delayed blitz.  Vickers (47) spots him and shadows him around LT Tyron Smith.  Murray is stepping forward to assist LT Nate Livings.  The C and RG Mackenzy Bernadeau double the other Giants tackle.  This was a theme of Dallas’ pass protection for the evening.  The Cowboys did not want to allow pressure inside and frequently double-teamed the Giants inside rushers:

In the secondary, the Giants are playing man-under, dropping safety Kenny Phillips into the deep middle.  Note how the two Giants linebackers nearest the line of scrimmage react when they don’t see Vickers or Murray release.  MLB Chase Blackburn drops towards Witten, who is running up the left seam, just outside the left hash.  Phillips is also cheating in Witten’s direction, as he’s the only one of the three Cowboys receiving targets apparently running a vertical route…

Still two of the play shows all 22 players on the field.  Witten has a defender behind him and Blackburn closing underneath, while Phillips’ hips are aimed in the TE’s direction.  Phillips is ready to break on a pass up the seam.  Tony Romo, meanwhile is looking towards Ogletree, who is playing the X on this play for Dez Bryant.  Ogletree runs a stop and go, and Romo has room to drift to his side when Osi Umenyiora runs a counter rush move inside RT Doug Free:

When Romo releases the ball, Ogletree has broken behind LCB Corey Webster and is free up the right sideline.  Phillips has lingered too long in centerfield supervising Witten’s route and cannot get to the sideline in time to present Ogletree from scoring:

Playing off of Witten helped Ogletree have a huge night.  This trend could continue, so long as Miles Austin and Witten remain healthy.

Not everything went well for Witten.  He’s usually a strong blocker, but he lacked the power and push he normally demonstrates.  I blame the injury.  Again, Witten injured his spleen a mere 23 days before this contest.  He suffered internal bleeding and was advised to do as little activity as possible for the first ten days or so, while doctors conducted regular scans and blood counts, to track his recovery.  This means no running, and no lifting.  Witten lost some of his physical edge, and while he was still in shape to play a full contest, he was not up to his high standard.

Here’s a stock Cowboys run from the 1st quarter.  Compare it to the Jason Witten you’re used to seeing. It’s 1st-and-10 and the call is lead draw left, from an I formation, with Witten again flexed wide of LT Tyron Smith:

Garrett’s call is perfect for the defense.  The Giants are expecting a pass.  They’ve dropped both safeties into deep halves of the field, and one DT is taking a hard rush to LG Livings’ (71)  right.  Livings simply rides the Giant farther upfield.  Tyron Smith has turned Umenyiora wide and a large hole is opening in the left-side B-gap:

You can see in play still two that the middle of the field is wide open; if Lawrence Vickers can execute his block on MLB Chase Blackburn (93) and Witten can stand up WOLB Keith Rivers (55) DeMarco Murray will run far.  Vickers does his part, cutting down Blackburn:

Witten, however, is struggling. He’s supposed to get across Rivers’ face and turn the LB outside.  Rivers has instead maintained inside leverage and has pushed Witten back on his heels.   Murray tries cutting wide, then breaks back up the middle, where Rivers wraps him up:

The play gained a respectable five yards, but it could have gone for much more, were the healthy Jason Witten making this key block.  Witten struggled on other backside blocks, failing to cut off Giants pursuers.  Yet, the Cowboys did not scale back his duties.  As I mentioned earlier in the piece, Dallas’ pass protection schemes frequently called for the inside rushers to be double-teamed.  This sometimes meant an offensive tackle would slide inside to help a guard, leaving the tight end to block a Giants end one-on-one.

This backfired on Dallas’ 2nd drive of the 3rd quarter, where Jason Pierre-Paul beat Witten around the left edge to sack Romo inside New York’s red zone.  The sack forced Dallas to settle for a field goal, and drew some snap criticism from viewers.

The bigger theme was sound.  The Cowboys coaches had seen Romo take too much heat and abuse from inside rushes in 2010 and 2011 and were not going to let the Giants do it in this game.  While Witten missed on that key down, he did succeed on others.  Here’s a similar protection scheme from Dallas’ last touchdown drive of the night:

The Cowboys are again in a regular set, the 21, with Vickers the F-back in an off-set I with Murray the tailback.  Dallas runs a slot right, with Witten tight on the left side.  At the snap the WRs break upfield, while Witten again blocks right end Pierre-Paul.  LT Smith slides down to help Livings, while C Ryan Cook and RG Bernardeau run another double-team.  Murray is running a delayed flare towards the right sideline and Vickers is running a delayed route to the left.

The Cowboys are, in effect, sending three men out on routes up the right side, running a hi-lo game.  Bryant will run a post pattern from the outside, while Austin will run a corner route after Dez makes his in-break.  Murray’s wide and shallow route will pull the safety Kenny Phillips up and create a throwing lane for Romo to Austin:

Vickers gives Witten a little chip help, throwing a shoulder into Pierre-Paul’s armpit.  Still, the TE has done a fine job by himself, as has RT Doug Free.  Look at the deep pocket Romo receives.  He pump fakes Phillips into the right flat, and then throws a dart to Austin for 20 yards:

These sequences show the heavy responsibilities Witten carries week in and week out, and why it meant so much to the Cowboys to get him into the lineup.  You won’t find another big-name tight end who has so many blocking duties in his game plans.

Witten didn’t always carry them out, but he did more than enough to help Dallas win.  He may have been 80% of his normal self, but that was 100% trouble for the Giants.

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Rafael Vela

Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ TheBoys.com in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for SportsTalkLine.com