Regardless of whether you believe DeAngelo Hall’s profane rant following the Washington Redskins‘ 18-16 loss to Dallas on Monday night was an acceptable manifestation of passion or an unprofessional outburst, perhaps he was right about one thing.
Hall fumed after Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant set up the game-winning field goal by converting an improbable third-and-21 on a 30-yard gain with 2 minutes, 20 seconds remaining and the Redskins protecting a one-point lead.
The Redskins, for the third straight play, showed an eight-man front with defensive backs isolated on receivers and no safety help. The defense known as Cover Zero can be high-risk, high-reward. Washington experienced both sides of that at different points, but it was burned on the third consecutive play it ran it on Dallas’ final drive.
“You don’t have to be a [expletive] rocket scientist to figure it out after a while,” Hall so memorably said.
Indeed, Dallas coach Jason Garrett, his staff and quarterback Tony Romo figured out how to beat the Redskins‘ all-out blitz with the game’s result in the balance. In the chess match that is NFL game coaching, the Cowboys achieved checkmate.
But to understand how the Cowboys did it, you first have to look at how that defensive alignment earlier produced safety LaRon Landry’s forced fumble and cornerback Kevin Barnes’ interception.
When the Redskins blitzed eight defenders on second-and-14 from Dallas’ 22-yard line in the first quarter, Romo threw a quick pass to receiver Kevin Ogletree in the right flat. Ogletree was close enough to the line of scrimmage that Landry rallied to the ball and jarred it loose.
On Dallas’ first possession of the second half, the Redskins again played Cover Zero on third-and-18. Romo lined up in the shotgun formation with four wide receivers and tight end Jason Witten on the line of scrimmage. There was no running back in the backfield to help with pass protection.
The Redskins blitzed six when the ball was snapped, and the other five defenders covered receivers downfield. Faced with a six-on-five protection disadvantage, Romo quickly lobbed the ball down the middle of the field. Barnes ran under it for an easy interception.
Now fast forward to Dallas’ final drive. Knowing how successful the defense was earlier the Redskins” coaching staff dialed up the Cover Zero, eight-man front three times in a row.
On first-and-10 from Dallas’ 41, the Cowboys lined up in shotgun with only a running back next to Romo. They botched the snap, however, creating second-and-21.
The Redskins showed an eight-man front on the next play but blitzed only seven. Landry dropped into coverage with Witten. Still, Romo was outnumbered in protection and threw a quick slant. Dallas had five linemen and a running back blocking seven blitzers. The pass was incomplete.
Then came the call - and the adjustment - for which the game will be remembered.
Facing another eight-man blitz on third-and-21, the Cowboys added a tight end to the backfield to help the running back with protection and used only three receivers. So Romo was flanked by a running back and a tight end.
On the snap, the offensive line blocked to its left. That created a free path to the backfield for Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and safety Oshiomogho Atogwe. But Dallas’ tight end and running back slid to their right and blocked them. The adjustment - the tight end in the backfield - allowed the Cowboys to pick up the blitz.
“Their protection bought them a little bit of time the way they slid the line to our right,” Fletcher said. “Then they took the tight end and back to the left to max protect the edges a little bit.”
“It was a good job by Dez continuing to play on,” Romo said. “I could see kind of the angle he was taking, and I could see where the corner was. I gave him a little air and let him go run under it.”
Hall, Washington’s Pro Bowl cornerback, gave up the middle of the field. Bryant beat him inside, and Romo’s throw led him into open space for the catch.
“He ran a little ‘now’ route - I thought I had that pretty well covered,” Hall said. “And then he kind of just backyard-routed [me] and ran away from me.”
Redskins coach Mike Shanahan after the game stood by such an aggressive call on third and long.
“You can second-guess everything, but at the end of the day, [we] had a chance to have a sack there,” Shanahan said. “He did a good job scrambling, made a play. That’s the nature of this game. The first two times we blitzed, too, and got them in third-and-long. But, hey, it didn’t work.”