Winning On Third Down:
The numbers after the game told the story. The Saints converted third downs at 58 percent and the Cowboys just 20 percent. It was going to be a challenge for this Cowboys defense to get off the field and the film only confirmed what we all were able to observe Sunday afternoon.
Whether it was a missed tackle by Mike Jenkins on Pierre Thomas short of the sticks, or Michael Coe and Morris Claiborne not reacting quickly enough on a screen pass to Darren Sproles to prevent him from gaining 14 yards, or Claiborne playing zone coverage and Lance Moore running an out to his side while he is looking in the backfield, allowing Moore to catch the ball for seven yards and secure a first, it was a game of missed opportunities for the Cowboys.
There were times on third down where even the alignment caused problems. Third-and-5 from their own 5, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan tries to match the Saints personnel group and puts a bunch formation to his right side. The defense matches it all right except they do it with five defenders against three and no one picks up Thomas, who is lined up to the right of Drew Brees. At the snap, Thomas goes through the line uncovered for a pitch-and-catch touchdown.
It was simple situations like that which hurt the Cowboys on Sunday. The longest play of the day for the Saints took place on a third-and-8 from their own 37-yard line. The Cowboys are in zone coverage as Marques Colston runs a route in between the linebackers and the safeties. Brees has plenty of time as he is able to deliver the ball to Colston on the move for what is going to be a 17-yard gain and a Saints first down. The problem here for the Cowboys is that safety Charlie Peprah drives on Colston and instead of making a wrap-up tackle and keeping the damage down, he misses, allowing Colston to run the ball all the way to the Cowboys' 3-yard line, which the Saints were able to punch in on the next play.
When the Cowboys defense has been good on third down the last several weeks, the unit has been able to get a stop when they needed it the most by being technically sound. With the Saints facing a third-and-10 from their own 26, Brees finds Colston near the marker but Jenkins, who earlier in the game missed a tackle, was able to drive Colston out of bounds a yard short from the first down, which forced the Saints to punt. By making that tackle, it gave the Cowboys offense the opportunity to drive for the game-tying touchdown.
We always talk about how the third-down offense and defense affect how the game is both won and lost. For the Cowboys, all they have to do is watch the tape and that will tell them that they succeed on third down nearly enough.
When you have a big, physical target like Dez Bryant you find ways to get him the ball where he can make play after play. I have spoken and written a great deal about the development of Bryant as a route runner. It is clear that he and Romo are starting to develop an understanding of what needs to be accomplished for this offense to successfully advance the ball. For as outstanding as Bryant played in that game against the Saints, there were a couple of routes that bothered me, and again, these are development issues.
When Troy Aikman knew he had off-coverage against Michael Irvin and he was going to throw him a slant, he had a pretty darn good idea where Irvin was going to be on the break. Slants are routes of trust; they are not for the weak or the scared. A receiver knows when he runs inside there is a good chance that he is going to be a highlight on the NFL Network. Men like Irvin and Jerry Rice ran those routes because if you hit it right, you can make huge plays for your team.
Bryant has that same type of attitude but he doesn't quite have the technique down in the way he needs to consistently run the route. There is some uncertainty, not because of fear but where Romo is going to put the ball on him. Just from my press box eye and then later studying the game, it appears that Romo is having some of the same issues.
When you get off-coverage or even tight man coverage, the receiver has to get inside in a hurry. There can't be moments of delay or hesitation. I am not talking about just this game, but in other ones as well. The slant is not the cleanest route that Romo and Bryant run together.
Am I surprised that they went to it during the overtime period? No, not at all, especially after how far Patrick Robinson was playing off in coverage. The problem is that Bryant didn't fire it inside as hard as he could have with the coverage being the way it was. Romo threw the ball where he thought Bryant was going to end up, which made Bryant's adjustment look awkward.
There have been times during the season where Romo has not been perfect with his throws, which causes problems for Bryant, who tends to slow down to make sure he can adjust to the ball. On this particular third-down play, Bryant slowed down and didn't get through to the ball and thus the connection was missed.
When the game is on the line, Bryant has more than proved his worth as a receiver, but as he and Romo grow together, this is an area that he will need to improve on like the player that wore his number before him.