This week, the Xs and Os study will focus on the rare 90-yard Cowboys drive. This, as of right now, is the longest drive of the season from a yardage standpoint - Dallas' previous long drive of the year was the 87-yard drive, also in the 4th Quarter, that gave them a 48-41 lead over Denver - and also, maybe the most vital drive of the year based on what was at stake.
And that drive, while open for debate, put a game in the Cowboys' win column, and kept optimism somewhat alive for a divisional crown and a playoff berth. Surely, a loss to Minnesota and a very difficult game in New Orleans might have put them at 4-6 at the bye week. Even in a lousy division, that would have made just getting back to 8-8 a tough haul.
Now, thanks to a 9-play, 90-yard drive that had to be successful, they are still in a spot where they are in control of their own fate.
What makes the drive more impressive to me is that they were down 23-20 when it started. Years of NFL research show us that when a team is down 4, they play with aggression to score a touchdown. But, when they are down 3, they often settle for a FG by getting far more conservative once they arrive in field goal range. Home teams often think they can get the game to over-time and "take their chances." The fact that they remained in attack mode and were willing to trust their offense not to do anything silly and risk the tie for the sake of the win, speaks loudly on their behalf.
Yes, it was only the Vikings and yes, that defense can't stop very many, but the Cowboys needed 90 yards and a touchdown, and they got it done.
Let's examine the drive:
11010 2:44 3underneathright to Witten 11 FD
Starting with Romo standing in the shadow of his own goalpost, the Cowboys put in the Shotgun 01 crew, with 4 WRs (Harris, Beasley, Williams, Bryant, and TE Witten). This means lots of 5 man protections, with Witten staying in to make it 6 if Romo audibles. On this first play, the Cowboys line up with the 3 targets on the right (2 on the left) and throw a pass underneath at the line of scrimmage to Witten with Harris and Williams out wide blocking down the field for Witten who races behind them. This is the bread and butter play of any spread attack, with the throw basically targeting the TE racing down the 10 yard-line and then he cuts up field with a convoy. The Vikings open with just rushing 3, and asking their DT 97-Everson Griffen to drop into coverage against Witten if 82 runs the hookcurl, but since he doesn't, Witten is unaccounted for and gets a very easy 11 yards and a first down. Romo had the ball gone in 1.05 seconds, so protection is not an issue.
110212:18 4 Harris on hook 6
Here, on a new 1st Down, the Cowboys have Harris and Beasley sit down on companion routes to 5 yards down the field, with Witten running a seam route to clear out the linebackers and give them space. Romo can read deep to shallow with Witten on the seam, Bryant on the dig, and then Harris on the short stop. Doug Free is struggling with 96-Bryan Robison at RT on this pass rush and Romo feels it and unloads in 2.28 seconds. Harris catches and tries to get a little more yardage and is stopped by 50-Erin Henderson at the 27 for a gain of 6, as the clock ticks down to the 2-minute warning.
24272:00 3 left to Beasley 18
This is what I really like to see here on the first play after the 2-minute warning. The concept on this play is the the 3 inside receivers are going to all sit in the zone at a similar shallow depth (Harris, Witten, and Beasley) and Romo is going to hit the open receiver and quickly eat up yardage (at least enough for a new first down with ease). This play, the Vikings start sugaring the double A-gap blitz with their two inside LBs. This is something that gives the Cowboys fits as it is basically the Vikings 2 LBs 52-Greenway and 50-Henderson bluffing (maybe, but you don't know for sure until the snap) that they are blitzing off each of Travis Frederick's shoulders. The good news is that they are usually also responsible for the shallow zones, so especially to the edge receivers, you can get Cole Beasley to his mark before Greenway can get back to him. That is where Romo goes, in about 2.00 seconds and the ball is out. Then, Beasley shows his great elusiveness and gets the ball to the 45 by getting past Greenway and moving up the field until Henderson and 34-Sendejo corral him.
110451:35 6 INC to Williams Drop
The clock continues to run and although they have moved the ball 35 yards, they still are not to midfield. This time, the Vikings have decided the 3 man rush is not working, so they show blitz and then bring 6 as the Cowboys leave Witten in to block. Romo takes 1.78 to release the ball quickly and decisively out to Terrance Williams on the right flank at the 1st Down marker. It is the right read, but Cole Beasley was available in the middle without much cover either had he had time to look over the blitz. Instead, Williams with a very poor drop of the ball on the sidelines in front of 24-AJ Jefferson who was full of confidence from his interception on the last drive, and the good news is that the clock stops at 1:30.
210451:30 5 slant in to Dez 34 FD
This is great work here. The Vikings show a 6 man rush but only bring 5 (Greenway peels off and takes the middle zone). Meanwhile, on the left, Beasley and Bryant work with a nice route combination that is sold by a Romo pump to Beasley underneath and because of the way this drive has gone so far - with Romo throwing to the safe underneath options, everyone on the Vikings defense is worried about Beasley. This leaves a real opportunity to Dez Bryant on a square-in at 10 yards right behind the out by Beasley, and then Dez splits the safeties and is off to the races. Witten stayed in again for pass protection and the ball is away again at 1.86. As you notice, the ball is hardly in Romo's hands for 2 seconds on this drive. Quick hitting stuff right down the field. And, when one guy can break a tackle, there is lots of yardage after the catch - another big attribute of S01 with spreading out your defense and then making them tackle well after short, high-percentage passes.
Play 6 11021 1:01 4 stunt out to Beasley 9 0:55
Now, with the Cowboys at the 21-yard line, you can see how they are now quite in rhythm and have confidence with 1:01 to go. This is where they can either get conservative and take the Field Goal, or they can continue to act like they are on the attack and are going to make them prove they can defend. This is the great truth of the slot receiver in this league - and the Cowboys appear to have a nice one that they have developed in Beasley - that no matter how good a LB may be, he is not going to run with a tiny, elusive WR underneath. The Cowboys see 52-Greenway lined up over Beasley, and Romo is instantly going to go there. 1.83 seconds before the out to Beasley is gone and despite the Vikings deciding to throw end-tackle stunts at the Cowboys protection, they are not getting close. On the last 4 plays, the Vikings have rushed 3, then 6, then 5, then 4. Nothing is slowing the Cowboys offense down finally. Where has this been all day? Gain of 9 and now they are at the 12.
Play 7 2112 0:55 3 down to Witten 5 FD
The Cowboys go back to the same play that started this drive, except over on the left rather than the right. This is the TE horizontal route behind the 2 blocking WRs and try to get the convoy going down the sideline. It does not look as smooth, but Witten does move the chains and gets the ball down to the 7 yard line on a pass that takes 1.34 and is as high percentage as it gets. The Cowboys then take their 2nd timeout and now prepare to get 7 points with 4 shots at it and plenty of time. Both times they have run this, the Vikings have called their DT - 93-Williams to drop into Witten's hookcurl spot, but each time the Cowboys have seemed to know it and sent Witten wide. Would love to know how they sniffed it out because those drops by DTs on that route can lead to the most untimely of turnovers if the QB doesn't see it. Romo is seeing just about everything on this drive.
Play 8 1G7 0:47 3 INC OB as Romo avoids the rush 0:42
Here is a play where things could have gone wrong. The Vikings again show a massive blitz, but then were bluffing. But, in doing so, they pretty much took the entire Cowboys OL out of the play aside from Tyron Smith on Jared Allen and then isolating Jason Witten on Robison. By bluffing and bailing, the Vikings are trying to trick Romo into a short pass to Beasley that isn't open. But, they also have Free out of position to help Witten and once Romo pump fakes to buy time, Robison nearly blind sides him after wearing out Witten on an edge rush (don't expect your TE to handle that for that long against a good pass rusher). This was 4.07 with the ball for Romo, and it nearly cost him. But, he got out of trouble and was able to send the ball out of bounds rather than throw it into trouble.
2G7 0:42 4 Romo steps up and Touchdown to Harris 7 yards
And now, the final play of the drive. Romo has 3 on the right and 2 on the left in a stack with Beasley and Bryant attracting attention on that short side. This appears to be a combo read for Romo with Witten running the up and out and Harris back underneath against a 3 over 2 defense. This means that the linebacker goes with Witten and then Harris takes the nickel corner 35-Marcus Sherels behind him and whichever draws the safety is going to send Romo to the other guy. Witten draws the safety and you can see Romo waiting and then when Harris cuts back inside, he steps up and finds him. This is happening as the coverage is closing in, so Romo needs all 2.78 to keep this play alive and give it a second to work. But, it does, and then Harris does a great job of finding a crack between his man and Greenway at the goal-line.
Spread em out and slice em up. Where was this all day? They went into S01 for the entire drive which left Romo with an empty backfield and then worked it like a charm. That is a 2-minute drill to frame and remember.
Video for the full drive is here:
Romo drive from Bob Arnold on Vimeo.