Cowboys GameChangers: Deep Inside Big Plays

In order to defeat the Saints, Dallas had to put together several quality plays. Here's our take on the best of the bunch, with a inside look at how each of them worked to perfection.

An NFL football game is one of momentum swings, ebbs and flows. The success or failure of one play, leads to how both teams react on the next play, how each will respond to similar situations when faced later in the game. However, in the grand scheme of a 120+ play contest, there are always going to be a handful of plays that stand out. These are the Game Changers, and here’s a look at three of them from Sunday night’s dominating victory by the Dallas Cowboys over the New Orleans Saints.

The included vines and screen captures are via NFL Game Rewind, which can be purchased here.


3rd Quarter, 1st and 10 for Dallas from NO 28 yard line, 6:55 remaining: Icing on the cake. Tony Romo had just escaped pressure, climbed the pocket and sauntered downfield for a 21 yard scramble. The run was the largest gain of Romo’s career and set the Cowboys up in the green zone (inside the opponent’s 40 where points should be inevitable).

The Cowboys deployed the 12 personnel set, with Hanna inline right in a three point stance and Jason Witten in motion right to left Y receiver. Dez Bryant was the X receiver at the top of the play, with Dwayne Harris playing the flanker on the right side. DeMarco Murray was lined up deep, nine yards behind the line of scrimmage.

The Saints countered with eight in the box; a 3-4 alignment with both outside backers at the line and a safety joining the inside backers at normal four yard depth. On this play, the Cowboys eschewed their zone blocking scheme and employed a power man-on-man technique.

On the snap, James Hanna (who has improved his run blocking a great deal as the season progresses) stands up OLB Paris Harralson while Witten engages OLB Junior Gallette. LT Tyron Smith initially assists Witten before turning his attention to the right inside backer. These two blocks seal the left wall of the alley that Murray will attack.

Ron Leary engages Cam Jordan and turns inside to his right, effectively creating the right wall of the alley. Travis Frederick punches NT Brandon Deaderick before handing him off to RG Zack Martin. Frederick then gets to the second level to wipe out the left inside backer.

This combo block along with Doug Free tying up LDE Akiem Hicks and then getting enough of Kenny Vaccaro to slow his rush, created enough time for Murray to reach the LOS creates one of the most fascinating dominance of run blocking one will see all season.

The one free rusher of the eight at the line of scrimmage, the up safety Kenny Vaccaro, simply doesn’t have the speed or the jump off the snap to get to Murray before he makes it into the alley.

Murray starts to the left, then cuts inside the Witten-Smith blocks and sees nothing but daylight. Including the nine yards behind the line he started from, he runs 31 yards, all the way to the six yard line before a single finger is laid on him. The move Murray put on Jarius Byrd at the six was criminal, and sent the safetly flailing. CB Cory Moore, who was covering Dwayne Harris is able to knock him off his feet at the two as Murray flew into the end zone for a score.


2nd Quarter, 2nd and 2 for New Orleans from their own 27 yard line: Effectively, this was the final play of the game when the Saints were still in striking distance. After missing a field goal on their last drive, the Saints saw Dallas move into field goal range and have Dan Bailey successfully kick a 51-yard field goal. It was Bailey’s 29th consecutive made attempt. After getting Jimmy Graham involved for the first time, the Saints faced 2nd and 2.

New Orleans is in an 11 pistol formation with the running back offset left and two receivers stacked on the left side. TE Jimmy Graham was inline with a sole receiver on the right.

Dallas countered with a Tampa 2 look, with slot corner Orlando Scandrick up on the line until snap when he retreated back to the zone.

All five eligible targets ran patterns, with the RB flaring out to the left. The two left receivers ran curl routes of 6 and 9 yards and settled into empty spaces in the zone. Graham floated out into the right flat while Meacham attempted to run a post.

The protection for the Saints was good on this drive, as Brees wasn’t forced to get rid of the ball early. What didn’t happen though, is he didn’t fool Bruce Carter. Carter initially dropped into a zone, then started to move forward as Brees looked in Graham’s direction. As Brees’ focus moved to Meachem, Carter used his immense athletic ability to retreat into the new passing lane.

Carter made a diving lunge, tipping the ball into the air where Mike LB Justin Durant was able to snare the ball mid-air. Dallas would go on to score a touchdown just two plays later, stretching their lead to an insurmountable 17-0.


1st Quarter, 3rd and 2 for Dallas from their own 43 yard line: This play was big for multiple reasons. First, it was the first third down conversion attempt that Dallas would face in the game. They ended up converting 8 of 14 chances (57%). Also, quarterback Tony Romo had turned in three drastically different performances on the young season. This play alluded to the fact he was going to be much more of the guy that played against the Rams, then against the 49ers or Titans.

Dallas is in P11 (pistol depth for Romo, 1 running back, 1 tight end) with Jason Witten slightly flexed right, Murray offset left and Cole Beasley slot right. Bryant was in his usual X role as the split end, this time to the left, with Terrance Williams lined up as the flanker, or Z receiver. Cole Beasley comes in motion, then reverses back to the right slot, as the corner following him allowed Romo to diagnose that the Saints were in man coverage.

The Saints countered with a single-high nickel formation, with their linebackers four yards behind the line of scrimmage and the up safety eight yards deep. All three corners were in press coverage and waited to catch their respective receivers as they moved into their routes.

At the snap, Romo was allotted three seconds before the protection began to break down, with NT Broderick Bunkley using a bull rush to get an advantage over LG Ron Leary to Leary’s right.

After climbing the pocket, Romo retreated back and to the left to avoid Bunkley and stepped up to the left of Leary inside of Tyron Smith who was engaged with Junior Galette. Galette had tried a swim move and failed, and then was being man-handled when Romo approached him. Tony quickly stepped up then back, causing Bunkley (who had looped around Leary) to go flailing to the ground as Romo escaped the pocket to the right.

While all of this was happening, Jason Witten was being run over in the middle of his route by free safety Jarius Byrd. Witten got up from the ground, threw his arms in the air to campaign for the illegal contact flag (which he got) and then realized that Romo was still working his magic. He then maneuvered his way into Romo’s line of sight, and hauled in the 16 yard completion.

Honorable Mentions

Romo’s 21 yard scramble that preceeded the Murray touchdown described above. The Rolando McClain forced fumble on Jimmy Graham inside the red zone that was recovered by J.J. Wilcox, fumbled again, then recovered by Brandon Carr. The back shoulder fade to Dez Bryant to ice the game. The Sterling Moore “should-have-been-a-TD-but –refs” fumble recovery. For a full look at the entire game breakdown, make sure to check out Cowboys Comprehensive; exclusively on CowboysHQ!

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