While Dallas quarterback Tony Romo has been an easy punching bag in the media with his high-profile love interests and “aw, shucks, I'm just happy to be here” attitude, he quietly put together his best season in 2011
Romo's passer efficiency rating for the year was 102.5 and had an outstanding 31:10 TD:INT ratio. His 8 yards per attempt were also respectable, but questions still lingered about Romo’s ability to read defenses.
In a crucial Week 17 match-up against the Giants last season, with a playoff berth on the line, Romo was often confused by the cover 2 zone-blitz looks that the Giants showed him. He still managed 7.81 YPA and both of his touchdown passes came in the fourth quarter.
Entering Wednesday’s season-opening match-up against the Giants, it was incumbent on Romo to show poise under pressure, check into the correct plays, and show a chemistry with his wide receivers.
With tight end Jason Witten and wide receiver Miles Austin recuperating in time for the highly anticipated season opener, not much was expected of Romo against the Giants' defense: check downs tosses or inexplicable throws forced into coverage.
Romo, however, played perhaps the most cerebral game of his life. He made accurate throws, maintained proper mechanics even under pressure, and most importantly was always a step ahead of the defense before the snap.
In the first quarter, Romo made a poor decision while under pressure from a blitzing Keith Rivers. When rolling out of the pocket, Romo failed to see a linebacker dropping into coverage underneath an in-breaking route. The throw almost resulted in an interception, but Romo settled down and started playing lights-out football as the second quarter began.
His confidence spread through the team, and everything really began to click entering the two-minute drill to end the first half. Between that scoring drive and the 40-yard touchdown to overnight sensation Kevin Ogletree to begin the second half, Romo played like the quarterback he has always shown flashes of becoming.
Granted, the Giants were down to the bottom of the barrel when it comes to their cornerbacks, having lost three of their top four to injury. But the impressive combination route ran by Ogletree for his big score faked out the Giants’ best cornerback, Corey Webster, so no excuses there. Webster let his eyes wander into the backfield and Romo made him pay.
We will break that down in good time. Here is the illustrated guide to Romo’s masterful performance.
Beating the the Formerly Troublesome Cover 2
Toward the end of the first quarter, the Cowboys lined up in a four-wide formation with Witten in the slot to the left. The Giants called a cover-2 zone blitz. The man over Witten blitzed behind Osi Omenyora, who was split out uncovered in a nine technique.
The Cowboys called a double slant, a a deadly audible against cover 2 zone.
Jason Tuck dropped back into the middle zone, as noted above, and the outside linebacker could not keep up with Witten. Although Tuck was in position to block Romo's passing lane to Witten, Ogletree was open and easily snagged the pass.
Against the Giants, Witten was often used as a decoy. He commands attention in coverage no matter what his health status and he was often put in position to open up space for other receivers. It was a great tactic strategically, and minimized the hits over the middle that could have caused a setback for Witten's lacerated spleen.
Keep this first scheme in mind for later, however. We will revisit this cover-2 beater at a very crucial moment.
Dialing up the Draw vs. Inside Pressure
Romo repeatedly completed slants against the Giants' cover 2 looks. In response, the Giants began back off on the linebacker pressure in lieu of an underneath zone. At this point, however, the Cowboys had lost starting center Phil Costa to injury. The Giants defensive line was playing very aggressively up the middle, collapsing the pocket, driving back-up Ryan Cook into the backfield, and playing Jason Pierre-Paul over center on passing downs.
Romo and the Cowboys ran a few draws at the Giants in order to keep their defensive front honest. While the pass rush got upfield, the Giants linebackers read pass all the way, dropping into their coverage, wary of the short breaking routes, before they diagnosed the quick draw.
With the Giants' linebackers going backwards, DeMarco Murray was able to rip off a nine yard gain. When the run game started becoming more effective and Romo consistently beat the Giants' two-high zone coverage, Big Blue began throwing different looks at Romo.
Romo Dissecting the Giants' Cover 3
The Giants tried out some cover 3 zone coverage in order to play the strong safety closer to the line of scrimmage to disrupt underneath. The strong safety lined up the two-receiver side of the field over the tight end. With one safety in the middle of the field, lined up deep, Romo employed a cover-3 beater with Dez Bryant isolated on the weak side.
If there was any doubting the coverage, the cornerbacks, circled above, confirmed it by opening their hips to the inside and getting upfield at the snap. Dez Bryant utilized his speed to drive the cornerback upfield, then broke on a deep out. His size allowed Romo to throw the ball over the linebacker playing underneath.
With his pre-snap alignment inside the numbers, Bryant had plenty of room to work back towards the sidelines and out-run the underneath defender. Bryant found the hole in the zone, and Romo placed the ball perfectly: high and outside, guiding Bryant to a spot where only he can reach the throw.
Press-Man with High/Low Safeties? No Problem for Romo
Showing a similar alignment as their cover 3, the Giants moved their cornerbacks up into press-man coverage. Again, Bryant was isolated in a 2x1 receiver alignment.
With the high safety, circled above, opening his hips to the two-receiver side, Bryant had a green light. He used his physicality to release freely, despite the initial contact at the line, and run a go route down the sidelines.
By opening his hips to two-receiver side of the field, the free safety had another obstacle in trying to cover half the field to bracket Bryant. With his smooth release, Bryant gained a couple steps on his man and Romo dropped it in over the cornerback before the safety could arrive.
Ogletree Runs Past Zone Coverage to Score
As the Cowboys drove down the field in their two-minute offense, the Giants continued to play mainly with one centerfield free safety, the strong safety playing over coverage. But when the Romo and Ogletree showed outstanding chemistry to score, Romo had to find a way to beat the Giants' flat zone.
The play called for the outside receivers to set up in the flats, but the Giants' off coverage neutralized them. At the same time, it also neutralized the two outside cornerbacks, whose assignments forced them to sit and watch two unmoving receivers.
Miles Austin was the middle receiver in the trips alignment to the left and ran a corner route, taking the safety with him to the left corner of the end zone. Wittten mirrors him with a corner route on the other side, escorting his man to the opposite corner of the end zone.
Ogletree, who is lined up as the inside man on the trips side, ran a crossing route and settled in the middle, where he was covered on either side.
As Romo starts to feel pressure, he rolled to the right side of the pocket, as indicated above. The linebackers on either side of Ogletree had their eyes in the backfield at this point, anticipating a scramble from Romo.
Ogletree split the two almost unnoticed, running upfield to the freshly vacated real estate after Austin drew the free safety away.
Romo recognized Ogletree's scramble adjustment, set his feet and threw to the open middle of the field for a touchdown. The score was made possible by Romo's trust in Ogletree's awareness.
Romo to Ogletree: Beating Cover 3 for a 40 Yard Touchdown
This is a play that is bound to keep cornerback Corey Webster up at night: another illustration of defensive players letting their eyes wander to the quarterback when in coverage. Webster lost track of his man and was scorched by a double move.
Before the ball is snapped, Romo recognized the blitz indicated above and killed the original call. The Cowboys often run an outside zone play or power off tackle out of the I formation, both of which would have been shut down by the blitz.
Again, the Giants are playing a cover 3 defense, and the single high safety is shaded towards the two receiver side in a 2x1 formation. Ogletree was left isolated against Webster.
Romo began to feel pressure from the right and rolled out to buy himself some time. Ogletree ran a stop route and Romo pump faked to him when he reached the top of his route stem. Webster and the linebacker in coverage, indicated above, had their eyes glued on Romo in the backfield and were frozen by his pump fake.
In this great shot above, Webster reacts to the pump fake, while Ogletree makes an outside move to get behind Webster, who has taken the bait and has to swivel back around and try to play catch-up.
As shown below, with all that open field and the safety forced to cover too much ground, Romo hit an open Ogletree for a score. Again, this is an example of excellent awareness by Romo, reading the defenders while keeping his eyes downfield while he scrambles away from pressure.
3rd and 10 Coversion to Put the Giants Away
This is a re-hashing of the first scheme we looked at, and the 3rd and 10 conversion that put the Giants away looks almost identical. The difference here is the reason that this quick-hit on the slant was able to go the full 10 yards for a first down.
As indicated above, the same man over Witten was shooting in on a blitz. Again, Romo's pre-snap recognition allows him to diagnose the coverage and check into something more...comfortable.
Checking into the double slant yet again, the safety, Kenny Phillips, was responsible for Witten this time. Tuck was once again dropping into coverage on the same zone blitz, but he got a terrible jump off the snap.
As Phillips set up at the first down marker with his eyes fixed on Witten, Ogletree worked the outside corner.
As Ogletree releases, the cornerback, Justin Tyron, opens his hips much too early, allowing a large cushion for Ogletree. When Tyron throws his hips wide open to get upfield, Ogletree breaks off the slant. Romo, reading the coverage like it was Harry Potter, hits Ogletree as he comes out of his break and converts the third down.
With that play, Romo takes the team into victory formation. On the national stage, Romo made a strong case that he should be taken seriously as a top-tier quarterback in the league.
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