How about them Cowboys? Even the most optimistic among us–and I wasn’t as negative as most–could not have foreseen what happened yesterday. In Seattle, a team won with aggressive, in-your-face, sure tackling defense won by dominating the line of scrimmage. And it wasn’t the Seahawks.
The final score doesn’t do that game justice. Conventional wisdom would be that you can win in Seattle, if you get the breaks and avoid the big turnovers that get the crowd rocking. Dallas had a punt blocked for touchdown, had a muffed punt that set Seattle up for another short touchdown at the Dallas 12, and on the very next drive, had another fumble by Tony Romo that put the ball at the Dallas 20.
Those kind of outcomes would normally sink any chance a team had of winning at what may be the most difficult place to play in the league. How dominant was the performance setting aside those turnovers? It’s pretty rare to see a team as good as Seattle get dominated at home on a play by play basis.
The last time a defending Super Bowl champ lost a game at home, while being held to less than 250 yards and giving up more than 400? You have to go back to December 16, 2001, Pittsburgh at Baltimore. Before that, get your fur coats on because it is all the way back to November 30, 1969 with the Oakland Raiders at the New York Jets.
We could talk about the offense, and the offensive line is clearly the best in the NFL, but let’s instead talk about the defense. That’s the truly unexpected part. Russell Wilson had a 53 yard pass to Jermaine Kearse on the first possession. He had a total of 66 passing yards after that.
Dallas’ team pursuit and collective aggressiveness in rallying to the ball was impressive, and you might want to get to know the name Justin Durant. (Orlando Scandrick also had an outstanding game.) The wrinkle plays, particularly those to Percy Harvin on jet sweeps and quick swing passes, were completely shut down. Here’s a play that is similar in concept to one where we saw Wilson throw a touchdown pass in the season opener against Green Bay. This time, when Wilson kept the ball on the read option, the outside receiver tried to take the corner down field, and he had the option to pitch the ball outside to Kearse.
Barry Church, who was in man coverage, came off and forced Wilson to make the throw to Kearse. Orlando Scandrick made the key play here, avoiding the block downfield and coming up to force, allowing Justin Durant to blow up Kearse for a short gain.
So the gadget or wrinkle plays didn’t work. Other than a 32 yard run by Lynch in the third quarter that made up more than half his yards for the game, the Cowboys did a good job clogging the running lanes. And the most important thing is that they kept Russell Wilson in the pocket, and uncomfortable, when he looked to scramble. He had one clear break away on the first drive, and proceeded to fumble the ball untouched and lose the opportunity for a big gain. He was officially sacked twice for zero yards lost (those might not stand as sacks). The Cowboys, though, must have listened to Jon Gruden on Monday Night Football. Don’t over pursue for sacks, take something off the pass rush, and keep Wilson in the pocket.
Here’s a play that illustrates how they did this.
The outside rushers generally did a good job off rushing upfield to contain his escape route, rather than try to take a path directly toward Wilson. The interior linemen were reading Wilson, rather than rushing full force, ready to react when he tried to break underneath the outside rush. Wilson thinks he sees a hole, then “whoops” sees the lineman slide right into it and he does a reversal. From that point on, the play was ruined as Wilson then tried to move to his left.
It has to be concerning that for a second time this year, a team has beaten the Seahawks by dominating the time of possession and methodically moving on the defense. In the San Diego loss, Seattle had the ball for only 18 minutes; yesterday it was 22.
Wilson was pretty bad for most of the game when forced to throw from the pocket, and when he tried to throw early out of the pocket, they were made were into such tight coverage that the ball was knocked out. With the game in the balance, Wilson finished the game 2 for 10 for only 14 yards passing, with the final interception. The game plan for containing him has been put on film, but did you ever think you would say, “yeah, but can other defenses successfully do what the Cowboys just did?”
RIVERBOAT RON KICKS FOR THE TIE
Carolina and Cincinnati played the highest scoring tie game in NFL history (though there were two AFL games that were higher scoring), thanks to an exchange of field goals in overtime, followed by Mike Nugent’s missed 36 yard field goal to end the overtime period. But let’s talk about the interesting decision that Ron Rivera faced.
On third down with less than three minutes left in overtime, trailing 37-34, Cam Newton completed a short pass to Kelvin Benjamin and he was tackled short of the first down. It was officially a 4th and 1, though it was toward the longer end, a full yard short. Rivera immediately sent out the field goal unit to attempt to tie the game.
I thought at the time–and still do–that the way this game had played out and the time factor dictated going for it. Coaches are still coming to grips with the new overtime, and it would have certainly been a far more criticized move to go for it and come up short.
The problem, though, is that the Panthers were an underdog once they chose to kick. With a few exceptions (fumbled kickoff, interception return, or immediate 3 and out and long drive with no timeouts), they were more likely to lose than win, and so a tie was going to be a “good” result but not a given.
Now, I’ll note that Advanced NFL Analytics supports the decision to kick. That perplexed me, but I think it comes down to how likely you think the Bengals were to score compared to the Panthers with only 2:19 remaining. If there were six minutes left, I would probably feel different, but the time factor made it more likely that Cincinnati would score, and Carolina would not have a chance to respond even if they did not. Advanced NFL Analytics lists the Panthers WP (win probability) at .475 after a successful kick, and that’s where we disagree.
There aren’t really any similar circumstances to this one, because until recently teams wouldn’t have a chance to match in overtime this late, then face one last opportunity for the opponent. However, we can compare to end of fourth quarter situations, and just treat games that go to OT as ties. Going back to 2009, there were 36 times a team had the ball with a 1st and 10 between their own 15 and 35, and were tied with between 1:45 and 3:00 minutes remaining. The team with the ball (like the Bengals) won 12 times in regulation, lost 5 times, and ended regulation tied 19 times (including two missed field goals). That would put the WP at .61 for the Bengals. Coincidentally, the WP calculator puts a team with the ball at their own 22 with 2 minutes remaining in a tie game with a WP of .61 also.
Take into account the chance of a missed field goal, compared to the chance of the Panthers going on to win (with a touchdown) or tie (with far less time remaining for a Bengals’ response), and the break even point for going rather than kicking is around a 50% chance of conversion to extend the chance of winning.
For what it’s worth, the conversion rate on all 4th and 2’s (and remember, this is a long 1 yard) is 54% over the last five years. Add in that in this game both teams had moved the ball and only punted twice, and that you have Cam Newton in short yardage, I would have gone for it. (The Panthers have converted 64.2% of 3rd/4th down and 2 yards or less to go over last two years, better than average).
We’ll never know, though. Nugent’s kick made Rivera half-right, and we’ll see if it turns out to be a moral victory or lost opportunity by season’s end thanks to tiebreakers.
[GIFs by Michael Shamburger]