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Upon Further Review: Breaking Down Atlanta’s Last Drive
Defensive football is never easy, and against an offense with playmakers like the Falcons have, it’s especially difficult. Did I expect Rob Ryan and his defense to completely hold Atlanta in check? No, I didn’t. But with that said, when it was time to make a stop and get off the field in the final 5:21 of the game, I did expect better results and I am sure Ryan did so as well.
On that final Atlanta possession, the Falcons go with a bunch formation to the right with receiver Julio Jones to the wide side left, one-on-one with cornerback Morris Claiborne. At the snap, Claiborne begins to carry Jones up the field from a press technique. What you have to know about Jones is that he is not a great route-runner and he likes to grab and push to try and buy himself space. In this case, Jones uses his right hand to push off Claiborne, knocking him to the ground as the ball sails out of bounds. The official calls offensive pass interference, which was a huge break for the defense.
The penalty now makes it first-and-20, so the Cowboys go into their nickel package, with six in the box. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan makes a check and hands the ball to running back Michael Turner, who starts inside, on the front side (the right side of the Cowboys defense) with Anthony Spencer, Ernie Sims and Kenyon Coleman all blocked. On the backside, defensive end Jason Hatcher gets cut off and guard Justin Blalock gets on linebacker Bruce Carter, knocking him inside, although he is able to adjust back to his right to disengage off the block. Turner now has the ball on the second level with safety Danny McCray trying to fill from the inside, but his angle is poor and off balance. Turner runs through his arm tackle before Carter can make the tackle 10 yards down the field.
After the run, on second-and-10, Matt Ryan puts his offense in 12 personnel as Rob Ryan keeps his nickel package on the field. At the snap, tight end Tony Gonzalez runs into the flat with Orlando Scandrick in coverage. The ball from Matt Ryan is high to Gonzalez, thanks in part to pressure from Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware, but Gonzalez makes a nice adjust on the play for a 4-yard gain as Scandrick is there to make the tackle.
Atlanta is now facing a third-and-6 with 4:15 on the clock with the Cowboys holding all three of their timeouts. The Falcons are in 11 personnel, with a bunch look to the right side, which was a similar formation to what they were in on the deep pass to Jones that was called offensive pass interference. Ryan counters with his dime personnel, which he has been showing throughout the game.
At the snap, the Cowboys are playing zone, so when running back Jacquizz Rodgers crosses the pocket from left to right he’s in space to Scandrick’s side. Ryan sends a four-man rush with a twist stunt that gets Spencer inside and nose tackle Jay Ratliff outside. Matt Ryan flushes to his right to avoid Spencer while dumping the ball to Rodgers in the flat. Scandrick doesn’t tackle Rodgers square, hitting him low and on his right side, and Rodgers is able to shed the tackle and work up the field before safety Gerald Sensabaugh brings him down after a big 31-yard gain and a third down conversion.
Garrett immediately burns his first timeout with 3:45 left. The Falcons run another play with Turner for two yards, causing Garrett to use his second timeout with 3:39 remaining, leaving him with only one timeout and the two-minute warning to stop the clock.
The Falcons then do the Cowboys a favor. Instead of calling another run, they throw the ball two straight times, allowing Garrett to keep his last timeout. But, it was the second pass, on third-and-8, that once again kept the drive alive.
The Falcons send their 11 personnel on the field and Rob Ryan counters with his dime package, putting Scandrick inside on the slot against Roddy White, who was working on a monster game. On the snap, Scandrick engages White with his hands, but he can’t slow the receiver down, White able to work the right side of his body around a reaching Scandrick. Matt Ryan sees what is happening as White has put Scandrick in a bad spot, causing the cornerback to grab him as he is going up the field. Matt Ryan does the smart thing by throwing the ball in the direction of White, the side judge having no choice but to throw the flag for defensive holding. First down, Falcons.
Atlanta then calls a running play on first down, which forces Garrett to use his final timeout with 3:23 left, leaving him only the two-minute warning to stop the clock. But on second-and-5, the Falcons did something that I thought was very questionable: They threw the ball to White with Claiborne in tight coverage.
From the tape, it appeared offensive pass interference could have been called because as Claiborne was reaching for the ball, White grabbed his left arm, keeping him from a possible interception. It’s a flag that should have been thrown after what we had seen called on Scandrick.
Fortunate to get away with one, the Falcons again stay aggressive with their play-calling on third-and-5, using 11 personnel but putting twins to both sides with some nasty tight splits. With Rodgers offset to Matt Ryan’s right, they catch the Cowboys in man coverage with McCray playing inside on Rodgers. At the snap, Rodgers sprints for the flat, as Gonzalez crosses McCray’s face, which makes McCray for a split second take his attention inside, allowing Rodgers to get to the outside. With Mike Jenkins in man coverage going inside, there is no one in the flat, which opens up an easy pitch and catch for Rodgers for a first down, thus killing the ball game for the Falcons and giving them the victory.