Breaking Down Tony Romo's Roller-Coaster Performance in Week 2
Romo completed 30 of 42 pass attempts for 298 yards and one touchdown. That's a strong stat line for any quarterback. It's also a stat line that doesn't include any interceptions, which is something that will surprise many who are accustomed to Romo throwing interceptions late in close games.
Instead of throwing an interception, Romo had a fumble that proved costly early in the fourth quarter.
As they had done so often during the game, the Chiefs disguised their pass rush with a shift after the snap. That disguise confused the Cowboys offensive line.
Doug Free on the right side of the line is blocking nobody, while Dontari Poe is occupying the attention of the right guard and the center. This means that Tyron Smith, at left tackle, and Ronald Leary, at left guard, are unable to block the three defenders that the Chiefs sent from the other side of the field.
Romo senses that pressure and is able to escape into the flat. He shuffles outside of his right tackle, while keeping his eyes directed down the field at all times. Once clear of the pocket, Romo resets his feet to throw the ball.
However, because the Chiefs only sent four defenders after the quarterback, they still had seven players in coverage. For that reason, Romo was forced to hesitate with the ball still in his hands.
Romo motions to release the ball down the field, but he pulls it back quickly. This decision allows the free Chiefs defender to hit him from behind and knock the ball free.
This was a very poor play from Romo. It was a predictable play, but not for the reasons that fit the narrative of Romo as a choker. It was a predictable play because Romo had been forced to make quick decisions and play under pressure throughout the whole game.
Romo was only sacked three times—on the play detailed above and two plays when Poe penetrated the backfield either too easily or without even being touched.
Even though the Chiefs had Tamba Hali, Poe and Justin Houston on the field, they didn't dominate the Cowboys offensive line by just rushing four defenders and relying on their talent advantage. Instead, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton used a variety of disguised rushes and blitzes to pressure Romo.
With a rookie center starting for the Cowboys, it was no surprise that these disguised coverages and blitzes repeatedly sent free defenders at Romo.
After the first two drives of the game, drives that featured two big plays to Dez Bryant, this is how the Cowboys offense ran on nearly every single play. Without a running threat, DeMarco Murray averaged just over two yards per carry and his longest run went for just six yards, the Chiefs were able to be as aggressive and as creative as they wanted to be.
Romo either recognized or reacted to every single one of those plays from the defense, but it did impact their offensive output. Romo averaged less than 10 yards per completion because he was being forced to get rid of the ball quickly, but on his most impressive play against the blitz, he found Terrance Williams deep down the sideline.
On 3rd-and-3 early in the third quarter, the Cowboys spread the field with three wide receivers. Two of those receivers lined up to the left of the center, with Jason Witten at tight end to that side also, while Romo was in the shotgun with a running back to the opposite side. Bryant, the Cowboys' first option in this situation outside of Witten, is lined up to the top of the screen.
The Chiefs are showing press man coverage across the board with two safeties in position to drop deep or attack the line of scrimmage.
At the snap, the Chiefs send their slot cornerback after Romo, while Houston from the left side of the front comes across the formation. This overloads the left side of the Cowboys offensive line, leaving three Cowboys blocking nobody on the other side of the field.
Romo immediately recognizes this and understands where to go with the ball.
Hali, No. 91, is running across the field toward Bryant, so he is in position to intercept any quick pass to the receiver. The Chiefs also keep the safety to that side of the field on that side of the field, while rotating the other safety down to cover the Cowboys' slot receiver.
This leaves rookie receiver Williams in single coverage at the bottom of the formation. For the Chiefs, forcing the ball to the rookie is a victory because they don't want to let Bryant beat them.
Before Williams is even fully released into his route, the Chiefs rushers are in Romo's face. This forces Romo to release the ball very early. Importantly, his throwing motion allows him to release the ball at a very high point without losing any of his velocity or accuracy.
Despite the fact that Williams wasn't even in his route before Romo let the ball go, the quarterback throws a perfect pass to the receiver, who is tightly covered down the sideline. A 20-yard gain on 3rd-and-3 is a phenomenal result from the situation that Romo faced when he released the ball.
During the offseason, there were two major storylines surrounding the Cowboys that directly affected Romo. The first was the change in play-caller, as Jason Garrett relinquished that responsibility to offensive coordinator Bill Callahan.
It's impossible to perfectly judge a play-caller in the NFL, in spite of how often they receive blame for things that happen on the field. We can't see the full route tree, at least on the broadcast tape we can't, we don't know the adjustments and we don't know what decisions the players make on the field. However, there are always ways of getting an impression of the play-calling, and the impression from this game won't reflect well on Callahan.
The Cowboys' two best drives were their first two, which could point to a reliance on the initial script. One of those drives was ended by an extremely conservative screen call on 3rd-and-long, something that ended multiple drives during the game. Calling screens on 3rd-and-long is not playing to the strengths of the quarterback on the field, Romo.
However, maybe the most condemning issue was that the Cowboys didn't appear to have any hot routes to deal with the Chiefs' blitzes outside of the drives when Romo was calling the plays. When Romo was running the hurry-up, no-huddle offense, he was neutralising the pass rush with quick throws. On many occasions, he even gestured to the receivers he ultimately would throw to before the snap.
When the offense was slowed down and Romo received play calls from the sideline, there were no quick passes out of the backfield, forcing Romo to hang in the pocket or improvise.
The other storyline from the offseason surrounded emerging star receiver Bryant.
At 24 years of age, it appears that Bryant's career is finally on track. The former first-round-pick struggled early on in his career because of issues off the field and mental lapses on it. However, during the second half of last season he was arguably the most dangerous player in football.
In this game, Bryant finished with nine receptions for 141 yards. He and Romo were consistently on the same page, and the receiver's two biggest plays were born of excellent work from Romo.
Those two plays came late in the first quarter on the same drive.
On 1st-and-10 just inside Chiefs territory, Bryant was lined up wide left of the formation. As he did throughout the game, cornerback Brandon Flowers was lined up across from him. Flowers typically hasn't drifted away from the left side of the defense throughout his career, but he did in this game.
He is a very talented player but couldn't handle Bryant's physical prowess in this game.
At the top of his drop, Romo isn't looking at Bryant, but he is wary of him. Romo is staring directly at the Chiefs' deep safety, who isn't pictured above. The Chiefs are playing man coverage on the outside with a single-high safety (one deep safety in the middle of the field).
Romo is trying to manipulate the defense by not immediately looking at Bryant.
The quarterback holds the ball long enough and keeps his eyes on the safety long enough to create space for Bryant to run into. If Romo had looked directly at Bryant, then the safety would have already closed off that space and would be in position to make a play on any attempted pass.
Ultimately, Romo and Bryant are able to connect on a deep ball down the sideline. Romo slightly overthrows Bryant, who is in acres of space, but the receiver does enough to at least make the officials think that he has caught the ball.
Bryant didn't definitely catch the ball, but it was ruled a reception on the field and Romo immediately recognises the ambiguity. He ushers his offense forward so that they can quickly snap the ball even as the officials are still setting themselves, meaning that Chiefs head coach Andy Reid never gets an opportunity to challenge the play.
The Cowboys ultimately score a touchdown on this drive, so that moment of quick thinking from Romo proved to be very important.
A few plays later, Romo and the Cowboys were facing a 3rd-and-2 at the goal line. Bryant was lined up wide to the top of the screen, again with Flowers covering him. The Chiefs appear to be leaving the Cowboys receivers in single coverage, while crowding the line of scrimmage.
At the snap, Romo immediately looks at Witten to the left of the formation. The Chiefs have two defenders watching and reacting to Romo's eyes, with two other defenders focusing on Witten. This means that Witten is essentially covered by three defenders.
As Romo was looking to the other side of the field, the Chiefs sent two players to cover Miles Austin and left Flowers on Bryant in single coverage.
Romo quickly comes off Witten, instead looking back to Austin. As the offensive line is giving him good protection, he doesn't need to escape the pocket and has plenty of time to scan the field. As he stares at Austin, he draws a third defender, Houston, toward the slot receiver.
This creates a small spot of space for Bryant to run into at the back of the end zone.
It initially appeared that Romo threw the ball high unnecessarily; however, the replay showed that he had to put the ball that high in order to avoid Houston, and he actually made a perfect throw. Romo put the ball in a spot that only Bryant could catch it.
Bryant and Romo didn't only make positive plays together.
With roughly nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, Bryant dropped what would have been a huge gain and a first down before the Cowboys were forced to punt the ball away. Romo made a perfect pass, despite the pocket preventing him from properly stepping into the throw.
This performance wasn't unfamiliar for fans of the Cowboys. There were big plays, positive signs, plenty of individual brilliance from Romo and one or two bad decisions all wrapped up in a close loss. If fans are looking for comforting signs, however, they don't have to look beyond Romo and Bryant.
For a long time Romo was like a life jacket trying to keep a sinking ship afloat. With Bryant impressing, there may not be enough between the two of them to keep the sinking ship afloat, but it does ease the pressure on the rest of the crew and provide some hope for a successful season.
You can follow Cian Fahey on Twitter @Cianaf.
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