Because the more you look at the Dallas Cowboys’ 1st half 2-minute drill last Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, the more you wonder how it a team with so much time on the clock can sabotage themselves.
Near the end of the first quarter, Dallas was trailing New Orleans 21-10. The Saints had just scored a touchdown but there was plenty of ballgame left and the Cowboys had 1st and 10 at their own 20 yard line after the ensuing kickoff.
In order to fully set the stage, you need to know a few other details.
At this point in the half, quarterback Tony Romo had thrown for 12 yards on six attempts. Running back DeMarco Murray had been much more effective with 11 carries for 80 yards and a touchdown.
Also, the Cowboys would get the ball back at the start of the second half.
While the Cowboys trailed by 11 points, there was ample time to get going.
You wouldn’t have known it by what happened on this drive.
(1:32) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass short right to J.Witten to DAL 28 for 8 yards (C.Lofton).
Now, as announcer Chris Collinsworth mentioned in the broadcast, the formation Dallas is in here is the one they used to beat the Minnesota Vikings the previous week.
The thing is, the Saints’ defense is much better than the Vikings this season and more than likely they’d watched the tape of that drive. Also, there should be a different mindset driving 80 or 90 yards with 2 minutes to go in the game versus less than 2 minutes to go in the first half.
Still, the play is a good start. The receivers on the right run vertical routes, which clears out the underneath for Jason Witten, who cuts outside and away from his defender for a nice 8-yard gain (highlighted in green again).
Now the flipside to this—and the staff should have seen this—is that every receiver is well covered. With an empty backfield, the Saints can just lay back and wait for the inevitable throw and what’s more, the safeties can hover and wait to see where Romo is looking. They don’t have to worry about the running back eating up yards.
This will come up again shortly.
(1:09) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass incomplete short middle to T.Williams (C.White).
The Cowboys set up for second down in the exact same formation, including the empty backfield.
Now, with the time left, you can understand not using Murray out of the backfield on a run. Dallas has no time outs and can’t burn much clock.
By the same token, not having Murray back there at all once again opens things up for the secondary, especially the safeties.
Dez Bryant is up top and runs a “go” route, while Witten is lined up off the left tackle and runs a “post.” In the slot between them is Cole Beasley who just runs a short hook.
On the right side of the line, receiver Dwayne Harris also runs a short hook.
The green highlighted route is rookie Terrance Williams, who is lined up on the far right outside. Williams had been targeted twice to this point, but had no catches.
Unlike the first play, which utilized the outside receivers to clear traffic away for the underneath route, Williams’ route takes him right into the middle of the defense.
There are no receivers clearing out the area and because there is zero run threat, the safety is just hanging out there waiting on the pass.
The above screen grab has the defenders general area of coverage in red, with the relative area of effect for the receivers in yellow.
Romo has a great option—two in fact—but either has predetermined Williams is the guy to go to or completely misses both Witten (wide open just past the 40 yard line) and Beasley (open short).
It’s possible he saw Beasley and opted to not go short, which given the time is understandable to a point.
How he missed Witten is a mystery—until you look at the All-22, particularly the end zone angle.
At most, Romo throws a cursory glance towards his left, more of an attempt to look the safety off than a check to see if anyone was open.
Going back to the previous screen grab, you can see that Bryant is perfectly covered up top (with one safety in place to help) and Harris is equally covered on his short hook.
Williams is not open either and is bracketed by cornerback Corey White low and a safety over the top.
That doesn’t stop Romo who is lucky he isn’t picked off by White or the safety, Rafael Bush.
Even if Williams had made the catch, he’s in the middle of the field with no time outs.
Witten is open along the side and could have easily made the catch and continued out of bounds. Or you might as well have run the ball, picked up the first and hurried up to the line. Just like you would have if Williams had caught this ball.
(1:04) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass incomplete short middle to C.Beasley (C.White).
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
An empty backfield, five wide receiver set. The defense is once again able to allow their safeties to hang back and allow the play to form before needing to react.
Keep in mind that at this point, not even thirty seconds has elapsed. The Cowboys have no timeouts, sure, but the Saints do and the Cowboys are not managing the clock.
An efficient offense could move the ball, including runs and short passes, without timeouts. We see guys like Drew Brees, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers do it all the time and sometimes they even run the ball.
There is no efficiency in this drive, no working the sidelines, no moving the chains. So here they are on 3rd and 2, and in this situation they chose to just try to get the first down on a short slant to Beasley.
As they were clearly not trying to hit a home run, why not have Murray in the backfield to give Romo more options, give the defense more to think about it or perhaps even give the ball to your running back, who has been averaging 7.3 yards-per-carry.The play itself features three deep routes, Witten on an “in” route and Beasley on his slant.Once again though, the routes of the other receivers don’t help clear the way for Beasley and, in point of fact, Witten’s route brings up a defender into the area Beasley is going into.Theoretically, the idea might have been that Witten pulls coverage with him in the opposite direction Beasley is going in while the vertical routes open up the sideline.Witten doesn’t run his pattern quick enough or Romo hurries the play. He certainly had time to let Beasley get a bit further on his route, enough time for Witten to pull his defender away.Either way, the pass is deflected by White again and the Cowboys are forced to punt.Not even 30 seconds have elapsed. The Saints get the ball back on their own 31 yard line with 53 seconds left and then show the Cowboys how to run an efficient offense.Sure, they have timeouts to burn, but they attack the inside, don’t get cute and concentrate on picking up yards.If you give Brees a minute and three timeouts, you get this.If you want to know what the tipping point for this game was, folks you’re looking at it.Although there is a strong argument to be made that poor playcalling and obvious formations by the Cowboys in the plays leading up to the Saints’ last first half possession played their part.Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com, the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com and an NFL Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.