The game of football is all about matchups. Each week, we will use the Xs and Os to highlight some critical showdowns on the upcoming schedule.
Arizona at Dallas: Blitzing Tony Romo
There was a ton of discussion on Monday night during Washington's upset of Dallas about the Cover-0 blitz (or "all-out blitz", as Jon Gruden called it) that the Redskins used against Tony Romo.
For anyone who might be unfamiliar with the concept, here's a good look at it from the All-22 film out of that game:
Seven defenders on the line, man coverage everywhere else and no deep safety help -- hence the "Cover-0" tag.
It is as aggressive as an NFL defense can be, counting on the heavy pass rush to force a quarterback's hand while at the same time asking the coverage guys to lock down man-to-man matchups. When it works, as it did Monday night for Washington, the benefits are rather obvious.
In Washington's case, not only did the approach by defensive coordinator Jim Haslett lead to five sacks (including one that briefly knocked Romo from the game), it kept Dallas from leaning on RB DeMarco Murray and all but eliminated any deep shots in the passing game.
Dallas never adjusted to the constant pressure or the various ways in which Washington presented those blitzes. As a result, Romo often found himself confronted with untouched pass-rushers.
In the next shot here, guard Zack Martin and RT Jeremy Parnell double team an inside defender, leaving Ryan Kerrigan free off the edge. Ignoring Kerrigan is a colossal mistake under any circumstance, but double teams are a total waste of resources when a team is blitzing six or seven players -- there simply are not enough remaining blockers.
Also notice OLB Trent Murphy (circled). He peeled off his pass-rushing course to defend Murray as the Dallas running back slipped out of the backfield, taking away Romo's safety valve.
The Cowboys tried to use Murray as an extra blocker against a few of those blitzes. He completely botched protection on one play, leaving Brandon Meriweather with a clean shot on Romo. And by keeping him in the backfield, Murray obviously was not available to run a route.
That same problem popped up with TE Jason Witten on the game's final drive. The aftermath of that first screenshot above was this:
Washington showed the all-out blitz, then wound up dropping two extra defenders back into coverage. The Cowboys called a play meant to counter the all-out blitz: five very short routes. But when Romo looked for Witten, there were two defenders on him and the resulting pass was an incompletion.
Dallas then initially went with five wide on the subsequent 4th-and-3, which wound up being the game's last play. Romo saw the Redskins showing another all-out blitz, though, and brought Witten into the backfield as an extra blocker. Washington again sent five and dropped six, and the pre-snap alignment had taken Witten out of the play for Romo.
The result: Romo panicked a bit with no one open.
Count on Cardinals D.C. Todd Bowles to utilize the zero-man blitz this weekend, as well, especially after seeing Dallas struggle so mightily against it. Bowles changes up the look of his blitzes more effectively than just about any coordinator in the league.
A favorite of his is the double A-gap blitz, in which a pair of Arizona linebacker rush off either should of the offense's center.
But in Arizona's Week 8 win over Philadelphia, Bowles also turned to the Cover-0 blitz, most notably on a do-or-die play with one second left. The setup there, with the Cardinals stuffing seven defenders up near the line and playing man coverage on Philadelphia's four receivers.
The blitz nearly backfired on Arizona, because Jordan Matthews eventually found some open space in the end zone. Safety Rashad Johnson peeled back to save the game, shoving Matthews out of bounds before he could get two feet down -- a game-ending incompletion.
The blitz still paid off, even if Foles managed to get the ball away and nearly delivered a touchdown pass. How so? Take note of where Foles was when he let go of that attempt: back at the Arizona 30-yard line, more than 15 yards from the original line of scrimmage. He also had to throw falling onto his back foot because of the defenders in his face, causing the pass to sail wide.
This is the goal of the all-out blitz (other than the obvious aim to sack the quarterback). It's a call meant to fluster the offense enough so that it either settles on quick patterns or has a difficult time hitting downfield.
Arizona will show some variations on the Cover-0 blitz, as well, like it did here. This starts off looking like a Cover-1 man blitz, with seven Cardinals rushing Foles. The difference was that Arizona's deep safety crashed down toward the line after the snap in case LeSean McCoy released out of the backfield.
So it wound up essentially being a zero blitz with a robber look from the safety.
How Dallas responds to Arizona's pressure will tell us whether Monday night was just a setback or if Washington unveiled the blueprint for stopping Romo & Co.
Jacksonville at Cincinnati: Revisiting Blake Bortles' pick-six problem
Blake Bortles has thrown 12 interceptions already in his rookie season, four of which have been brought back for defensive touchdowns.
So what's going on here? Let's take a quick look back at the quartet of pick-sixes to see if any themes develop. (Spoiler: The answer is yes.)
This is what it looked like from the end zone behind Bortles as he uncorked his first of two pick-sixes Sunday vs. Miami:
The defender who actually came away with the interception, safety Louis Delmas, is just off the screen to the left -- it's fitting, really, that you cannot see him because Bortles was 100 percent unaware that Delmas was there.
First thing's first, then: We have a misread. That mistake was compounded by the play call, one that asked Bortles to roll on a naked bootleg to his left (opposite his throwing arm). By doing so, he was off-kilter as he threw, so the ball sailed on him much as it did on Foles in that incompletion we just covered above.
The footwork and mechanics are an issue throughout the pick-sixes, as is evidenced by Brent Grimes' touchdown later Sunday. Bortles had time here, but he's also throwing from his own end zone against a blitz -- speeding everything up. He doesn't step all the way into his throw to Cecil Shorts, thus coming up well short of the intended target.
And again here on the first pick-six he threw this season, to Indianapolis' Greg Toler. The read, again, is just awful -- look at all the traffic between Bortles and his intended receiver. He failed to square up on this pass either, throwing the ball while his body was parallel to the 25-yard line.
We're going to be 4-for-4 checking off the two boxes: poor read and poor mechanics. Pick-six No. 2 on the season occurred against Pittsburgh, as the Steelers brought a blitz from Bortles' right.
Initially, his reactionary thought process was correct -- he audibled into a short pattern on the same side as the blitz. Unfortunately for Bortles and the Jaguars, the rookie quarterback waited too long to get the ball out, then did so while trying to generate power with just his arm. The ball had no zip on its way out wide.
Better analyzing opposing defenses should come in time for Bortles, and that learning curve is one of the reasons why it's smart to have a rookie QB in the lineup. The issues with his throwing motion, on the other hand, could take more work to fix.
Indianapolis at New York Giants: Dwayne Allen's breakthrough
Colts tight end Dwayne Allen has hauled in six touchdown tosses this season, with scores in five of his team's last six games. The uptick in his production has occurred in large part because the Colts have started using him as a primary receiver within their offense, in much the same fashion that San Diego does with Antonio Gates.
For his touchdown Sunday against Pittsburgh, Allen lined up in a traditional tight end spot -- just off the tackle's outside shoulder, as opposed to split out wide or in the slot. He wound up in man-to-man coverage against James Harrison, a tough assignment for the veteran linebacker.
Andrew Luck wanted Allen downfield all along on the play, even though he looked to his left first. The glance pulled Steelers safety Troy Polamalu to his right, freeing up Allen over the top vs. Harrison.
Moving a safety with his eyes seems like a simple play from Luck, but it's one of the things NFL quarterbacks -- and especially young NFL quarterbacks -- can have major issues accomplishing. Luck's ability to do so makes the job easier for Allen.
Allen has had to work a little harder for a couple of his other touchdowns. The next two we're looking at occurred as the Colts other receivers ran deeper patterns, clearing out space underneath for Allen's crossing route.
Here, vs. Baltimore, Allen held his block for a split second and then released across the formation. By the time C.J. Mosley found him, Allen was open at the goal line.
Similar pattern on this next touchdown vs. Cincinnati. Allen was alone to Luck's right before the snap, a trips formation to Luck's left. T.Y. Hilton (No. 13) ran a deep route up the left sideline, while Indianapolis' other receivers cut across the field. Allen then slanted underneath them, made a tough catch, then turned upfield to find no defenders remaining in his path.
Allen's scores are not simply coming on fade routes off play-action at the goal line. The Colts are asking him to run patterns within the regular context of their offense, thereby taking advantage of his athleticism.