Defensive sets and film observations: Week 9 vs. Cowboys
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Welcome to another installment of 'Defensive sets and film observations,' this one brought to you for the Minnesota Vikings-Dallas Cowboys.
Every Wednesday after a game, we'll take a look at what the Vikings defense looked like, bring you five key takeaways from film study and hand out a proverbial game ball and name the goat(s). Click here for the offensive analysis and breakdown from Vikings-Cowboys.
The Minnesota Vikings defense held an opponent to a season-low 20 points, but failed to hold on a game-ending drive for the third time in seven losses.
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo orchestrated a nine-play, 90-yard drive in just over two minutes, capping it off with a seven-yard touchdown pass to receiver Dwayne Harris to take the 27-23 lead with 35 seconds left.
Outside of running back DeMarco Murray's 27-yard run, the Vikings held the Cowboys to nine rushing yards on eight attempts. But even with Romo dropping back 55 times, the Vikings' zone scheme grabbed just one interception, courtesy of cornerback A.J. Jefferson, and the defensive line was unable to sack Romo in the second half.
Like many opponents prior, the Cowboys executed a short passing game that involved a slew of screens, curls and slants that mostly got the ball out of Romo's hands in three seconds or less. Defensive coordinator Alan Williams dropped a defensive lineman into coverage at least eight times on 55 passing plays, including four times on the final drive, but failed to make the necessary stop as Romo went 7-of-9 for 90 yards and a touchdown in 2:09.
After allowing 350 yards and 27 points, the Vikings now allow 395 yards/game (29th, +1) and 31.5 points/game (30th).
Base: 8/28 [29%]
Nickel: 20/28 [71%]
Base: 8/35 [23%]
Nickel: 26/35 [74%]
Dime: 1/35 [3%]
Base: 16/63 [25%]
Nickel: 46/63 [73%]
Dime: 1/63 [2%]
1) Similar to Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford before him, Romo followed their blueprint by executing a dink-and-dunk style offense that involved a little misdirection, screens and curls/slants. Romo's longest throws only traveled 20 yards in the air to tight end Jason Witten for a 26-yard touchdown and receiver Terrance Williams for a 29-yard gain. His 34-yarder to receiver Dez Bryant on the final drive went about 10 yards before missed tackles led to the big gain. With the Vikings' defense in nickel 46-of-63 plays [74%], which re-set the season high from 72% last week, Romo picked on linebacker Chad Greenway and cornerback Marcus Sherels in the slot the most. Combined, the pair allowed 18 receptions on 24 targets for 155 yards, 83 after the catch, and a touchdown.
After a dismal performance on third downs last week, the Vikings held the Cowboys to a 5-of-14 [36%] conversion rate. In fact, the last third down the Cowboys converted came in the third quarter as the Vikings held on the final three attempts. That also means they didn't force a single third-down situation on the final nine-play drive for the game-winning score. On the day, Romo was held to 3-of-8 passing for 52 yards and an interception on third downs. On one particular failed attempt, Romo attempted to move the ball with his foot after the referee called for a measure. Cornerback Josh Robinson had stopped Murray behind the line on the previous 3rd-and-1 attempt.
2) Williams dialed up the blitz 10 times on 55 dropbacks [18%], but Romo felt pressure on 22 plays [40%], according to ProFootballFocus.com. Defensive ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison, along with defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, combined for 18 of the 22 quarterback pressures. Allen (8) and Robison (7) pressured Romo the most as Robison accounted for back-to-back sacks in the first half that forced the Cowboys' second field goal. Allen forced the issue on the team's third sack, but defensive end Everson Griffen got credit as he cleaned up. Floyd had arguably his best performance of the season as he got to Romo at least three times, but could not bring him down. Floyd also drew a face mask penalty that was declined in the second half.
Alan Williams seems to be calling more zone drops with his linemen, which could potentially be a product of poor coverage in short yardage. Whether it's defensive tackle Kevin Williams, Griffen or Allen - the Vikings' linemen in coverage seemed to hardly have an effect. Kevin Williams got Murray for a loss of seven on a screen in the first half, but that was off a stunt not a zone drop.
3) Every week we'll breakdown a sequence in the game that helped decide the outcome. Clearly, Romo's nine-play, 90-yard drive capped off with the game-winning touchdown is this week's subject.
With a clear game plan and only 2:44 left, the Cowboys went four- to five-wide on all nine plays of the drive. Even with the green light, Vikings' pass rushers could not get to Romo as he started off with an 11-yard screen to Witten, followed by a six-yard dumpoff to Harris. The following play on 2nd-and-4, the Vikings rush three as Griffen drops into coverage. Receiver Cole Beasley catches an eight-yard curl route and Greenway looks out of position as he leaps at Beasley's feet, but misses as the Cowboys gain 18 yards on the play.
Receiver Terrance Williams dropped one of Romo's two incompletions on the drive the next play as Greenway and linebacker Erin Henderson brought pressure.
The back-breaking play came on 2nd-and-10 from the DAL 45. With 1:30 left, safety Andrew Sendejo jumps the wrong route as Romo pump fakes to the flat. Bryant then came free on the post route and caught the pass in stride. Safety Mistral Raymond missed the tackle and Sherels chased him down 34 yards later to the MIN 21. Coach Leslie Frazier said afterward that this was the one play he would've changed the call, but it appeared to be on Sendejo, who put himself out of position trying to make a play on the wrong route.
Romo would complete passes of five- and nine-yard gains before Allen forced him to miss an open Bryant in the endzone on 1st-and-goal from the MIN 7. After Romo threw it away, he came back and connected with Harris on the seven-yard touchdown for the win. On the play, Kevin Williams' spin move leaves an opening for Romo to step up. In coverage, Sherels hesitates as if Romo was going to run for the score. That hesitation is enough for Harris' separation and the score.
4) Henderson's unnecessary roughness penalty in the third quarter was rather unnecessary in itself. The Cowboys' receiver is down and Henderson comes in a little late, leading with his arms, not his helmet, but the majority of time you don't see that called. The penalty was rectified later as Bryant killed his team's drive with two penalties on one play when he was called for offensive pass interference and unsportsmanlike conduct.
Overall, the linebacker corps' struggles in pass defense continued on Sunday. Henderson and Greenway excel at playing downhill, but when back pedaling for the majority of 55 dropbacks, they looked out of their element. Linebacker Marvin Mitchell played just 16 snaps, but allowed three catches on four throws for 39 yards. Despite the Cowboys abandoning the run, linebackers still bit on play action, including Witten's 26-yard touchdown catch right down the seam of the Vikings' Cover-2. The Cowboys sent double vertical routes with Harris alongside Witten, which froze the safety help as shallow linebackers made it an easy pitch-catch.
5) Sendejo and Raymond showed flashes, including Raymond's hit that jarred the ball loose on receiver Terrance Williams in the second half. Sendejo has impressive closing speed, but little control so far. He closed in and popped running back Joseph Randle after a gain of three on sixth defensive snap. However, Sendejo missed multiple tackles and was the main culprit in Bryant's 34-yard reception on the final drive that put Dallas at the MIN 21. Raymond also missed multiple tackles, including Bryant on that very play. Murray's 27-yard run in the first quarter should've been more like 10-15 yards had Raymond made the initial tackle. Both safeties will start on Thursday against the Washington Redskins.
Safety Robert Blanton, along with defensive tackle Chase Baker, made their debuts on defense. Blanton will continue to rotate with Raymond as he did on Sunday during Thursday's game. With defensive tackle Letroy Guion likely out, Baker should be in for an increased role as well.
Game Ball: Brian Robison, Allen and Floyd along with honorable mention A.J. Jefferson. Robison's season-high eight quarterback pressures also came with two sacks as he abused Cowboys right tackle Doug Free, mainly with his spin move. The trio of defensive linemen combined for 18 of 22 quarterback pressures as Floyd worked against rookie center Travis Frederick and right guard replacement Mackenzy Bernadeau. Allen could've been credited for a 0.5 sack on Griffen's takedown, but he finished with one tackle and eight pressures. Romo is one of the best in the NFL at evading pressure and making plays on the run, but the Vikings corralled him for the most part.
Jefferson's interception is the Vikings' first since the Sept. 29 win in London.
Goat(s): Andrew Sendejo + Mistral Raymond. Witten's 26-yard touchdown catch was set up by another 26-yard catch on the previous play. Romo's pass traveled six yards, but Raymond whiffs on the tackle as Witten galloped for 20 yards. Raymond also missed Murray before he took off for his 27-yard gain in the first quarter. Again, Sendejo jumped the wrong route off Romo's pump fake and left the post to Bryant wide open on the final drive. Raymond would miss the tackle as both combined to allow the crippling 34-yard gain just plays before the game-winning touchdown.