In order to contain a player like Robert Griffin III, a defense needs solid play at all three levels. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, on several big plays last Thursday, their line, linebackers and secondary all dropped the ball.
The problems started early on Aldrick Robinson's long TD catch. Dallas showed a Cover-2 on the play and essentially wound up doubling both of Washington's wideouts. Safety Danny McCray, though, closed on Robinson far too eagerly, allowing Robinson to blow right past him into space. Once there, he just ran under Griffin's deep ball for an easy score.
It was mostly linebackers Anthony Spencer and Bruce Carter at fault on Griffin's second long TD, a 59-yarder to Pierre Garcon. Spencer and Carter bit on a play-fake, allowing Garcon to slip behind them into a hole in coverage. Everyone later fell for another RGIII play-action on Niles Paul's uncovered 29-yard touchdown.
The underlying problem for all three TDs: No pass rush. Griffin had time to set, scan the field and find his open targets.
This is the conundrum defenses have when facing Griffin. They must account for his ability to run, plus Alfred Morris' carries out of the backfield -- and the danger presented by both makes it easy to sell out on play-action. But Griffin is capable of hitting guys downfield if he has time, thereby taking advantage of indecisiveness.
RGIII's worst game came against the Steelers, a team with a strong defensive front plus safeties that can step up and play near the line. The latter gave Pittsburgh someone to watch Griffin with, while also providing support in the run game. A passive, Cover-2-style defense can only be effective against a player of Griffin's ilk if the defensive line dominates (like the Giants might be able to do this week).
A few more observations from Week 12:
1. Percy Harvin's absence is killing Minnesota: It's not exactly breaking news that the Vikings' offense is worse without Percy Harvin. Take any elite player out of any team's lineup and there is bound to be some drop off.
But the Vikings are even less equipped to deal with that type of situation than others. Minnesota does not even really pretend to play long ball -- of Christian Ponder's 359 pass attempts this season, fewer than 30 have been attempted deeper than 20 yards downfield. Without Harvin, not only are the Vikings unable to get deep, but also they don't have players capable of turning short passes into big gains.
Sunday against the Bears, the Vikings averaged 3.7 yards per pass attempt. To put that number in perspective, the worst YPP average this season is Arizona's 4.8. The only real success Ponder found came on play-action rollouts, which he used repeatedly to find TE Kyle Rudolph, including on a 25-yard gain, the Vikings' biggest.
Without Harvin against Detroit three weeks ago, Ponder hit Jarius Wright with a deep ball very early in the game. He played it closer to the vest after that, but Wright at least put some fear into the Lions.
The Bears had no such worries Sunday.
2. Breaking down Knoshown Moreno's day: From surprise starter to unquestioned No. 1 running back? Moreno hadn't played since Week 2, but the Broncos opted for his fresh legs over Ronnie Hillman and Lance Ball.
While Moreno was far from sensational, he proved more than adequate against the Chiefs. First and foremost, he ran the ball hard -- Moreno averaged 4.3 yards on 20 carries, just shy of Willis McGahee's 4.4 average. Most of that work came off the right side (Moreno ran wide to the left just once Sunday).
Moreno also avoided any major breakdowns in pass protection, a bit of a weak spot in his game. The Broncos kept him mostly out of the crosshairs there, too, using mostly five-man protections with some occasional help from TE Joel Dreesen. Moreno wound up playing 55 snaps; Hillman and Ball combined for eight.
3. What happens when you have no passing threat: The Steelers badly needed their run game to step up Sunday. Instead, they got 49 yards and four fumbles from their backs.
Fumbles aside, it's no mystery why the yardage total was so low -- and it mainly points the finger at Charlie Batch. The Steelers' third-string quarterback hit one long pass to Emmanuel Sanders (27 yards) and drew a pass interference call on a deep ball to the end zone intended for Plaxico Burress. Cleveland opted to live with Batch taking a couple of shots downfield, though.
More than that, the Browns decided to approach Batch without committing extra defenders. Batch faced pressure on just five of his 30 dropbacks, and the Browns blitzed on less on only eight of those plays, according to Pro Football Focus. That approach allowed Cleveland to play safety help over the top on Sanders, Burress and Mike Wallace, while also keeping plenty of attention locked to Heath Miller underneath.
By playing straight up, the Browns also were able to flood seven guys in the box on most downs without worrying about getting beat deep.
4. Week 12's most impressive blocking play: There may be other nominees; my vote goes to San Francisco right guard Alex Boone, who paved the way for Frank Gore's late touchdown in a win against the Saints. The play was called back on a holding call (not on Boone), but that doesn't take away from the impressive effort.
With the 49ers up 31-21 and a little more than two minutes left, Colin Kaepernick lined up under center in as heavy a run formation as you'll see -- two tights ends, a fullback and center Daniel Kilgore as an extra blocker in the backfield. The Saints countered with a seven-man front and all 11 defenders stacked within three yards of the line of scrimmage.
Kaepernick handed off to Gore left, with Boone pulling. Boone chipped a Saints defender in the hole, freeing Gore, then picked up a second block and carried it seven yards downfield (photo evidence here).
5. Miami's fourth-quarter offensive explosion: The Dolphins' O was mostly quiet Sunday, only to explode for 17 points in the fourth quarter.
How? Give a lot of the credit to the Dolphins' line. Ryan Tannehill had five completions of more than 15 yards in the final quarter, and on all of them, he spent at least three seconds in the pocket. On multiple occasions Tannehill had enough time to step up, pat the ball several times, then find a receiver downfield. On a key deep ball to Davone Bess, Tannehill held the ball for five full seconds -- an eternity in NFL parlance. The Seahawks had 10 QB hurries in the game, but failed to get to Tannehill late.
The first was a short-yardage play (3rd-and-1) that sent Green-Ellis between his right guard and right tackle. Oakland had two linebackers crash, then brought safety Tyvon Branch off the right side, too. All three players filled the wrong gaps -- Branch being at particular fault, as he hesitated, then tried to swing wide.
The same problem occurred on Green-Ellis' 39-yarder later. Oakland employed a similar look, this time with five up front, three linebackers and Branch again wide. The Bengals ran away from Branch, and the Oakland linebackers tried to burst through the middle of the line -- leaving them helpless when Green-Ellis cut back outside. You might remember Oakland having similar problems with Doug Martin earlier in the season. The Raiders' linebackers and safeties simply have trouble finding the football.