IRVING, Texas – Rob Ryan has taken heat for some of the issues that have cropped up with the Cowboys’ defense this season.
Maybe some of it is not entirely fair because of the injuries, but everybody at Valley Ranch has said you cannot use injuries as an excuse.
In Sunday’s 27-24 win against Pittsburgh, Ryan did a great job of mixing up looks, coverages and blitzes. In this week’s Look Back, Ryan brought pressure (five or more) 12 times, which does not sound like a lot considering his background but it was more than he had been bringing in recent weeks.
Despite the call for more blitzes, Ryan has been correct to rely on his four man pressure most of the time. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was 15 of 26 against the Cowboys four-man looks. He was sacked once and his interception in overtime came against four-man pressure.
His first touchdown of the game came against a three-man look. He completed two of three passes against three-man pressure, but was sacked once (Marcus Spears).
Against five- and six-man pressures Roethlisberger was seven of 11 with a touchdown (the slot throw to Antonio Brown) but Ryan’s five-man pressure call led to a split sack by DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer and his only six-man call of the game led to the sack by Sean Lissemore.
The Steelers had to be confused because Lissemore came unblocked between the guard and tackle and was able to smother Roethlisberger. Again, it was the only time Ryan brought six games in the game.
Let’s look at Brandon Carr’s interception that was the signature play of the game. As the Steelers lined up Carr was three yards off Mike Wallace but by the time of the snap Carr backed off to seven yards. All the while his eyes were on Roethlisberger.
At the snap he pedals back and keeps inside leverage. In the fourth quarter Wallace was able to get him on a stop route. This time he ran an out route, but it’s almost as if Roethlisberger might have been thinking Wallace would run another stop because the throw was to the inside, allowing Carr to break on the pass.
Carr made the athletic pick and was able to get down to the Pittsburgh 1 to set up the game-winning field goal.
An interesting note on that play, the Steelers chose to double Spencer with the tight end and the running back on the strong side and leave left tackle Max Starks alone on Ware.
How did the Steelers block Ware during the game?
Starks had him one-on-one on 18 pass plays, according to my count. Ware’s half sack came on a one-on-one battle. They double-teamed Ware eight times, had a tight end block him three times, but two came on quick throws to the outside. He dropped into coverage three times, went unblocked once and three times the Steelers had their guards block him by sliding the tackle down.
On to the offense …
Let’s look at Jason Witten’s touchdown first. What struck me most was Tony Romo’s fake on the play action. He and DeMarco Murray did a great job selling the run, especially with guard Nate Livings pulling. That forced linebacker Lawrence Timmons to suck up toward the line and allowed Witten to get down the field after he was untouched at the line.
It was an easy throw and catch that was set up by the run action. Since Murray’s return the Cowboys have done a lot more running out of 11 personnel with the guard pulling. Film study had them thinking it was a run on first-and-10 from their 17 but the Cowboys were able to take their shot.
On four occasions the Cowboys faced third and 1. It’s not been a kind down and distance in recent years and they were only two of four in those situations vs. the Steelers.
On the first third-and-1, Murray gained eight yards thanks to some solid work from Witten and Tyron Smith, who sealed the weakside edge, and Lawrence Vickers, who took care of the defensive back. Murray was able to fend off Larry Foote to get the extra yards with a stiff arm (or a face mask?).
On the second third-and-1, the Cowboys went with their goal line package with tackle Jermey Parnell as their third tight end. Once again Vickers did a nice job and John Phillips and Witten were able to do enough for Murray to run through Timmons for the first down.
So far so good, but to open the third quarter the Cowboys were stopped on third and 1. Once again they went with Parnell as the extra tight end, but Vickers could not get Keenan Lewis out of the way and it looked as if Mackenzy Bernadeau could not close the back side, which allowed Timmons to come through for the tackle.
The fourth third-and-1 play – a Romo bootleg - was there had Parnell and Smith blocked it correctly. On the first three plays the Steelers crashed down inside on the runs, so the Cowboys figured they would bite again and they did. But Smith and Parnell were unable to keep Harrison under control, and he made the tackle for loss.
In 2010, the Cowboys ran a similar play against Detroit in which Jon Kitna scampered home for a long touchdown.
Overall, however, the offensive line was excellent against a good Steelers front.