Posted December 17, 2013

The All-22: Packers also surprised by Cowboys’ run-averse game plan

Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, The All-22
(Tim Sharp/AP)

DeMarco Murray had one rushing touchdown against the Packers. There could have been more. (Tim Sharp/AP)

In their last four games, the Dallas Cowboys have run for 107, 144, 198 and 134 yards. They’ve executed the run-blocking scheme established by de facto offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, and that scheme has made the Cowboys a more balanced team than they’ve been at any other time in the Jason Garrett era. Yes, they’re 2-2 in that time, but that can be blamed as much or more on Dallas’ horrible defense than anything else.

In the first half of their Sunday game against the Green Bay Packers, Dallas ran for 93 yards on just 11 plays — all carries from DeMarco Murray. The Packers’ defense had no real answer for it, and it was the primary reason the Cowboys were up 26-3 at the half. The run balance allowed Tony Romo to be as efficient as he’s ever been, completing 16 of 27 passes for 250 yards and a touchdown in the first half alone. For one dreamy first half, the Cowboys looked every bit like the Super Bowl contender Jerry Jones keeps trying to tell us they are.

Then, the play-calling went sideways. Up by 23 points, Dallas ran the ball a grand total of seven times in the second half, relying on Romo to throw the ball 21 times. The results were as predictable as can be: The Cowboys controlled the ball for more than eight minutes in each of the first two quarters but dropped to 7:43 and 6:30 in the final quarters.

Romo threw two abysmal fourth-quarter interceptions that lost the game if you’re into that narrative, but the real problem was the fact that, for whatever reason, the men behind Dallas’ offensive game plan abandoned the run. Dallas’ defense reverted to form, the Packers went on a charge, and the 37-36 Green Bay win was one of the most ridiculous and painful in the Cowboys’ long history.

BANKS: Cowboys, Lions return to self-destructive tendencies

If you’re surprised by Dallas’ reluctance to run the ball in the second half, you’re not alone. After the game, several Green Bay defenders wondered aloud just what the heck those guys were thinking.

“Oh, my God,” defensive tackle tackle Ryan Pickett said, via Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “It’s the best zone scheme in the league. They say it’s old, the Wisconsin scheme.

“The last four weeks, nobody could stop it — their zone scheme. And they gave up on it. We’re just happy they did. We were, like, ‘OK, we’ll take it.’”

Cornerback Tramon Williams, who picked off the second Romo duck, was equally shocked. It’s become clear that the Cowboys’ opponents respect their running game more than the Cowboys seem to.

“That’s just who they are,” Williams said. “They run the ball really well against everybody they play, but they just never stick with it.”

Romo’s first fourth-quarter interception came with 2:58 left in the game. The Cowboys had second-and-6 at their own 35-yard line, and Romo threw an errant pass to Miles Austin that was hurried by outside linebacker Clay Matthews’ rush outside the left tackle. Romo short-armed the throw, but the real question remained — why weren’t the Cowboys, with a defense made of Swiss cheese, running the ball there? They still had a 36-31 lead at that point.

“Definitely surprised they threw the ball there,” Williams said. “I’m glad they did. Obviously, it kept us in the game.”

BEDARD: Cowboys playing blame game after loss to Packers

Of course, when the Packers scored on the corresponding drive to take the lead, the Cowboys had no choice but to try to move the ball downfield with more shot plays. They needed at least a field goal and started from their own 20-yard line. After a nine-yard pass to Cole Beasley, Romo tried to go to Beasley again … with game-ending results.

Yes, Romo added to his reputation as a “choker” on these last two drives. And yes, Dallas’ defense is still on pace to be historically bad. But when one looks at what the Cowboys were doing to Green Bay’s defensive line in the running game, there is absolutely no excuse for going away from that. None.

BANKS: Packers find new life amid a Cowboys collapse for the ages

Garrett’s second-half decisions were especially galling because the Packers presented themselves as an easy mark. They went into Sunday’s game ranked 24th in Football Outsiders’ defensive Adjusted Line Yards metric, they were averaging 4.47 running back yards allowed per carry, 77 percent of all running plays against the Packers resulted in a positive Success Rate and few defenses have been more vulnerable to opposing backs at the second level and in the open field. Against Green Bay, Dallas’ rushing attack actually averaged more yards per play (7.4) than did its passing game (6.9).

Moreover, Pickett was absolutely correct when he talked about how the Cowboys were gashing that Packers line with textbook blocking. It happened over and over, but there are few better examples than Murray’s 16-yard run with 1:08 left in the first quarter. Dallas had second-and-1 at the Green Bay 41-yard line, and the effort put forth by Dallas’ offensive line was singularly impressive.

This was an obvious run set for the Cowboys — they went max-protect, with a tight end on each side of the formation, and two receivers to the left. Green Bay countered with a single-high safety look in their base personnel, and safety Morgan Burnett (42) in the box as the eighth run-read defender. At the snap, Dallas went with zone slide blocking to the right side and executed just about perfectly. Even before Romo handed the ball to Murray, the hole created for the running back was pretty epic.

Tight end Jason Witten shoved left outside linebacker Mike Neal out of the play using his own momentum, while right tackle Doug Free and right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau bulled left defensive end Josh Boyd to the ground. Center Travis Frederick executed a two-man block, chipping Pickett before he hit the second level to deal with inside linebacker Brad Jones. Left guard Ronald Leary shot over to take Pickett as Frederick moved up, and left tackle Tyron Smith cut right end Mike Daniels out of the play. Linebacker A.J. Hawk (50) cooperated by overrunning the play outside.

MurrayPackers1

Murray had a clear and developing gap read before he got the ball, and he didn’t hesitate to work it.

MurrayPackers2

Frederick didn’t quite get to Jones, but it didn’t matter because Murray shook Jones away and was off to the races, heading out of bounds 16 yards later.

MurrayPackers3

Murray’s last run of the game came with 12:04 left in the fourth quarter and Dallas still up, 29-24. It was a 15-yard gain from the Dallas 30-yard line on first-and-10, and though it was negated by a Dez Bryant hold, the play is yet another indicator of how well Dallas’ ground game was working. The Packers had coverage to the Cowboys’ left side, but this was effectively a nine-in-the-box defense that read run right away. And it was even more telegraphed as a run play when tight end James Hanna (84) motioned from the left side of the formation to left offset-I formation fullback.

MurrayPackers4

This time, the Cowboys didn’t go with zone blocking. They pulled the left guard Leary to take care of Neal on the right edge, while Frederick single-blocked Pickett and Bernadeau did the same to mammoth tackle B.J. Raji. Hanna crossed over to block Brad Jones at the second level, and Free dealt with Hawk. Murray slipped through the phalanx of blocks from the line and burst out to the open field.

MurrayPackers5

Sadly, it was easy to see the results of Bryant’s creative “blocking” just as Murray was about to bust loose. And just like that, Murray was done for the day as a runner, and nobody seemed to know why.

MurrayPackers6

On Tuesday, Garrett claimed Callahan was calling the plays, which made little sense, as Callahan is the architect of the run game that actually works. He said the Packers were starting to load up against the run and that his team could have found more effective ways to deal with that. Here’s the thing: If Garrett actually believed that after watching the tape, he needs a vacation. It was crushingly obvious that Dallas was running well against Green Bay no matter what defense they put out there.

“We’re trying to win the football game. DeMarco knows that,” the coach said. “We want to give him every opportunity we can. He knows how much we appreciate him and how well he’s playing, and we’ll continue to give him opportunities if they’re worthwhile.”

Let’s talk about worthwhile opportunities. Murray finished his day with just two negative plays as a runner, and that gave him the highest DYAR (FO’s cumulative efficiency metric) of any back in Week 15. As FO’s Vince Verhei pointed out on Tuesday, “The average offense this season has run the ball 54 percent of the time when ahead in the second half, and 57 percent of the time when ahead by at least two scores. The Cowboys, meanwhile, had 21 passes and seven runs with a lead in the second half, and nine passes and four runs when ahead by two scores. Did we mention that over the course of the season, Murray is now second in rushing DYAR? This is the kind of guy you want killing the clock and moving the chains. Whomever’s to blame, there’s clearly something askew in the Dallas game plan.”

Clearly, and it had not shown up more obviously in any game in the Garrett era. It leads one to believe that unless the Cowboys manage a hot streak and somehow get into the playoffs, the Garrett era is about to come to an end. And as much as Jerry Jones is responsible for what ails the Cowboys franchise these days, Garrett will have nobody to blame but himself.

BURKE: Ravens’ Tucker delivers latest ‘kick to the stomach’ for long-suffering Lions

15 comments
jimmymartinez
jimmymartinez

I am a cowboy fan since i was a kid, i have never seen a quarterback from the cowboys or a coach make so many mistakes to literally shoot themselves on the foot. I  was so upset when  he through the interception and i was so disappointed also,i cant believe the organization has come so far as to basically forget all about fundamental of football, i here romo speak of improving and improving and as a leader you have to give the example, are you personally improving your game,i need you to  walk the walk and you speak of improving then do it,as  a team you need to improve., the defense needs  to improve , the defense is way to pridicatabe, you need to blitz,then drop back into zone,disguise your defense,go one on one and then go cover two,way to predicable, and your not aggresive enough,way to tidmid to laid back playing to loose instead of winning,im calling you out are you a real cowboy  can you ride,that bull comes out do you know what to do, i need cowboys with heart im calling all cowboys every where if you can here me i need you to play with a fury all of texas im calling all cowboys out there in the fields if you can tackle show up cause we need you...i  ask this  as  a cowboy fan  we got to round them up we need to unite, anyone out there that can tackle show up we need some real men. men like too tall jones who would nt  go out because he broke his nail, men like woodson who fought wars they had to drag them off the field,  guy like emmit  smith who would play with busted shoulders , not worry if there hair look good,, so im calling all cowboys out there if you need a job  show up to the party and play a boys game, no more excuses, every excuse has been exhausted if you not hungery to win then get out because i know cowboys  out there who are hungry  ,are you hungry, i remember when i played football my coach said dont you have any pride we were playing number one running back in the state, he came around on a sweep and i was just a small cornerback, he came hard around that corner i had two options one back off or two go head to head i chose head to head it was like two rams colliding i didnt win the match but at least i can look in the mirror,,, the other one is on a punt return i got a concussuon and i got 3 teeth knocked out  quess what  i played  the very next game  and we beat the team that had won many valley championships, wh en that team came in to our house they looked like giants compared to us but we stuck it them.why because we loved each other and played together as one unit no one greater then the other.....so dont talk  to me about improving some things that inprovement come from improving the heart if you want it bad enough it will happen ,,,,there is a verse in the bible and it talks about  i will take my kingdom away from saul  and give it to man after my heart and that man was not very big his name was king david,,,,,not until  you willing to sacrifice all your life not until your hungry enough...and this  is from top to bottom there are no favorites in his kingdom.......

WIFan
WIFan

Can no one do math?  11 runs divided by 38 plays is running the ball 28% in the first half...  7 runs divided by 28 plays is running the ball 25% in the second half...  1 more run in the second half makes it 28%.  If the Cowboys continue any of their second half  drives instead of failing because of a defense that FINALLY shows up the run/pass ratio probably ends close to the same in both halves of the game.  How does a 1 play differential between the first half and the second half equate to giving up on the run?  It doesn't Dallas didn't give up on the run the Packers played defense.  And yes I rounded the percentages.

Kpath
Kpath

Dallas keeps you watching until the end, that's for certain! I left the room briefly and came back seconds later, staring in disbelief with that second INT. if I were a cowboys fan, I'd be quite frustrated with these boys. Someone's got to realize that Romo is NOT the guy for the last 5 minutes of a game. I feel the same way regarding Mathew Stafford's bone-head play in Detroit, Philip Rivers late game decisions in previous years and Matt Shaub's play this year... Too many stupid throws, off balance, side armed, into double coverage late in games.....is it ego?

NeoSmith
NeoSmith

Great analysis.  If the Cowboys run the ball on one series in the second half, there would not have been enough time left for the Packers to mount that epic comeback.  It amazes me sometimes how even smart people out wit themselves.  RUN THE BALL UNTIL YOUR OPPONENTS SHOW THEY CAN STOP YOU.  It is as simple as that.

jbber
jbber

You don't have to draw it all out. They put the ball in Romo's hands in the 4th quarter

retro-grouch
retro-grouch

     It's always easy to blast the play calling if the execution stinks.

     The Cowboys were moving the ball well with a roughly 60/40 pass/run balance on two out of three of their first drives of the second half.  Yes, they had an ugly three and out with all incomplete passes but their other two drives killed almost 9 minutes and scored ten points.

     Has anybody mentioned to the two holding calls on rushing plays that cost the Cowboys 20 yards.  Oh right, those are in a different stat column.

  The mistake by Garrett appears to have been putting the game in the hands of his veteran QB.  Ultimately, if you can't trust your $100 million dollar man to take care of the ball then what good is he?

RyanWI
RyanWI

I wonder if they stopped running because they ran 8 times in the second half for a total net of 6 yards?  It isn't that complicated.

JesseGonzalez
JesseGonzalez

I agree that running the ball keeps the bad defense off the field and limits their mistakes.

Beachgrad05
Beachgrad05

Romo audibles out of runs no mater game situation dictates running ball to run clock. Not smart football player period.

BillFerguson
BillFerguson

Running keeps that horrible defense off the field longer.

Median2
Median2

Breaking NEWS!! The cowboys are a terrible football team, whoulda thunk it.

goopygeer
goopygeer

Some sources are saying Romo changed the plays a few times in the huddle and at the line...


shleey
shleey

"show up to the party and play a boys game"....I thought this was a man's game.

trolljaboy
trolljaboy

@goopygeer 

Because Romo didn't want the running game to get the credit for winning the game, so he changed it up a little and tried to get credit to his own selfish needs.