Ray Carlin/Icon SMI
Ray Carlin/Icon SMI

Sunday Slate: Analyzing Week 16

Andy Benoit
· More from Andy·

Cowboys (7-7) at Washington (3-11), 1 p.m., FOX

Not to rehash the Cowboys’ loss to the Packers last week … but let’s rehash the Cowboys’ loss to the Packers last week. Too many things need clearing up.

Wideout Cole Beasley took the blame for Tony Romo’s second interception. Beasley, however, is just being a good teammate and lying. The Packers ran a “Cover 2 trap” on that play. Cornerback Tramon Williams initially acted like he was staying with the outside receiver downfield, but peeled back and sat in the shallow outside zone. This was a specific defensive call designed to take away Beasley’s quick-out route, which had gained nine yards on the previous down. Beasley recognized Green Bay’s adjustment and correctly truncated his route. Romo didn’t recognize it.

Romo’s first interception could also be attributed to failed recognition the quarterback’s part, this time before the snap. Sam Shields was in tight press position against Miles Austin, which meant Austin would take an extra half-second to beat the jam and get off the line. The Cowboys could not afford that extra half-second because the mechanics of their particular run play left Clay Matthews initially unblocked. (Tight end Gavin Escobar was going to cross the formation to block Matthews as the play developed, but Romo checked out of the run and opted for pass when he saw eight defenders stacking the box.) Romo should have realized the timing would not work well.

Bad as the two picks were, they weren’t Romo’s costliest blunders. Four plays before the first interception, he badly underthrew a wide-open Dez Bryant on a 1st-and-10 play-action deep shot. It was a perfect play call that should have produced six points. Instead, everyone in America put on their  hindsight goggles and criticized Jason Garrett for not running the ball. If Romo had executed, Garrett would be praised for having the guts to stay aggressive in crunch time.

What’s more, imagine if Dallas had run the ball three times against an overloaded box, gotten stuffed and punted. Given the way Dallas’s injury-riddled defense was playing, Green Bay would have had to march a little farther to find the end zone but likely would have still scored. Garrett would be getting censured for being too conservative, just like he was after losing at New England two years ago.

The Cowboys hung 26 points on the Packers in the first half by calling 28 passes and 11 runs. Nobody griped about the unbalanced play-calling then. All game long, the Cowboys’ pass designs worked. There were just too many cases where Romo executed poorly—and not just in the fourth quarter. Bryant also beat safety Morgan Burnett for a would-be TD early in the second quarter, but Romo underthrew him. On the next series, Bryant got free in a Cover 2 void for a would-be 25-yard TD, but Romo overthrew him. And on Bryant’s impossible back-of-the-end zone TD in the fourth, Romo was actually making an ill-advised throw to Miles Austin.

In short, the Cowboys offensive players and coaches had a great game. Their quarterback, who has had a Pro Bowl worthy season, had a bad one. Now he must bounce back at Washington.

Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMI
Bills backup QB Thad Lewis will make his second start against the Dolphins this season. (Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMI)

Dolphins (8-6) at Bills (5-9), 1 p.m., CBS

Just like when these teams met in Week 7, Bills backup quarterback Thad Lewis is starting in place of an injured EJ Manuel. In the previous matchup, Lewis managed the game sufficiently enough for Buffalo to eke out a defense-driven victory. (Corner Nickell Robey had an early pick-six and Mario Williams beat right tackle Tyson Clabo inside for two sacks late in the fourth quarter, the second one resulting in a lost fumble that set up Buffalo’s game-winning field goal). The Bills gave Lewis a simplified game plan in Week 7 that featured throws to Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller out of the backfield. The Dolphins defended it well, holding Jackson to 49 yards on four catches and Spiller to minus-four yards on three catches. Last week the Dolphins firmly defended an even tougher version of a similar game plan in their win over the Patriots. Miami’s linebackers paid particularly close attention to Shane Vereen, which was key even if opened a few windows for wideouts Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman inside. Perhaps Lewis’s best bet this game would be to look for his wide receivers between the numbers.

Vikings (4-9-1) at Bengals (9-5), 1 p.m., FOX

Expect aggressive play-action from the Vikings, not because Adrian Peterson is back after sitting last week with a foot injury, but because Matt Cassel has been terrific throwing dig-and in-routes at the deep-intermediate level off run fakes. Attack-minded linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga can be goaded into missteps when they spot hard run-blocking action off the snap (see Chargers tight end Lardarius Green’s touchdown in Week 13), plus Cincy’s corners play a lot of off-man coverage. Both keys suggest this defense could be vulnerable to fast play-action.

Colts (9-5) at Chiefs (11-3), 1 p.m., CBS

With almost half of Kanas City’s starting defense in contention for the Pro Bowl, it’s easy to overlook right end Mike DeVito. Don’t. The 29-year-old ex-Jet has been outstanding in playside run defense, particularly with bull-rushes against zone-blocking. The Colts are a man-blocking team, but that doesn’t mean left tackle Anthony Castonzo won’t have his hands full.

Buccaneers (4-10) at Rams (6-8), 1 p.m., FOX

This game will come down to whether the Bucs can contain Robert Quinn. In the Rams’ surprising (and convincing) win last week over New Orleans, the Saints dedicated regular chip-blocks and protection-slides against the third-year defensive end. Quinn still wrecked the offense with two sacks, a fumble recovery and two drawn penalties. He did, however, quiet down somewhat in the late second half after the Saints had picked up their tempo and replaced left tackle Charles Brown with veteran Zach Strief. The Bucs, with rookies at quarterback, running back and tight end, aren’t an up-tempo offense, so they must figure out ways to account for Quinn from snap to snap. They’ll have to augment the strategized help that they’ve been giving to left tackle Donald Penn throughout this season. Penn doesn’t do well when forced to make contact early in his pass blocks; he needs about two clean drop-steps to balance his feet and get his hands in place. He won’t have time for that against Quinn, who has the league’s most explosive first step.

Browns (4-10) at Jets (6-8), 1 p.m., CBS

Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton is as creative as any blitz designer, but this Sunday, he might as well just copy what Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott did last week and attack Geno Smith with combo slot corner-linebacker blitzes. The Panthers consistently aligned their blitzers at favorable angles before the snap, sent them down paths in Smith’s blind spot after the snap and dropped an extra zone defender directly into Smith’s hot reads. They did this out of a variety of looks and against a variety of different formations. That doesn’t happen by accident, but rather, by a coaching staff noticing a young quarterback’s conspicuous habits and tendencies on film. Horton has watched the same film.

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
The Saints beat the Panthers, 31-13, in the teams’ first meeting in Week 14. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Saints (10-4) at Panthers (10-4), 1 p.m., FOX

When these teams met two weeks ago, New Orleans dominated by using chip-blocks to neutralize Carolina’s lethal four-man rush, affording Drew Brees the time and space to throw vertically. They’ll take the same approach this week, only with a new left tackle. Terron Armstead has replaced Charles Brown, who was embarrassed at St. Louis last week and has struggled in one-on-one pass protection throughout the year. Armstead, an untested third-round rookie, will be facing perhaps the NFL’s stiffest test possible: defensive end Greg Hardy, who has shown the most potent combination of every-down power and speed of all 4-3 defensive ends. Having Armstead at left tackle might mean more one-on-one scenarios for mechanically-sound-but-slow-footed right tackle Zach Strief. Fortunately for Strief, Panthers left defensive end Charles Johnson has not looked like his usual self since injuring his knee in Week 11.

Titans (5-9) at Jaguars (4-10), 1 p.m., CBS

Kendall Wright has flown under the radar but into “star receiver” territory this season. Lateral movement skills make the second-year Titan a fantastic short-area weapon out of the slot. Wright has started beating quality corners downfield, too. Last week, he caught four passes of 17-plus yards in the final five minutes, working mostly against Cardinals shutdown corner Patrick Peterson.

Broncos (11-3) at Texans (2-12), 1 p.m., CBS

If Wright is a rising slot receiver, the man at the top of the mountain he’s climbing is Wes Welker. The 32-year-old’s concussion-induced absence had a very negative domino effect on Denver’s passing game last week. Eric Decker moved to the slot, where he lacks the fluid change-of-direction prowess to thrive. Andre Caldwell (who is a wiry 6-0, 200 pounds but, for some reason, is called “Bubba”) filled Decker’s spot outside. Caldwell made some nice catches—including touchdowns of five and 15 yards—but he also ran some incorrect routes. With downgrades at two receiver spots, top target Demaryius Thomas got more attention from the defense and finished with four mostly uneventful catches on five targets. The Broncos offense never found its rhythm.

Giants (5-9) at Lions (7-7), 4:05 p.m., FOX

Detroit’s defense played well last Monday night, holding the Ravens to six field goals, including Justin Tucker’s miraculous 61-yarder with 38 seconds left to play. But the Lions didn’t make many big plays, in large part because their front four could not pierce Baltimore’s overloaded protections. That front will face more overloaded protections against the Giants this week, but it should have an easier time getting penetration, especially against the right side, where tackle Justin Pugh struggles against redirect moves and guard David Diehl continues to show marked decline in his recovery ability.

Cardinals (9-5) at Seahawks (12-2), 4:05 p.m., FOX

Seattle has a great coaching staff, but Arizona’s has been the NFL’s best this season. Click here to read why.

Steelers (6-8) at Packers (7-6-1), 4:25 p.m., CBS

Matt Ludtke/AP
Aaron Rodgers hasn’t played since breaking his left collarbone against the Bears in Week 9. (Matt Ludtke/AP)

There’s a chance Aaron Rodgers will play. If he doesn’t, let this be a final notice: The Packers under Matt Flynn have three distinct tendencies. We touched on them in last week’s Sunday Slate, but the Cowboys did nothing to stop them, so we might as well touch on them again:

1. Jordy Nelson in the slot is overwhelmingly the go-to target early in the game or on third down outside the red zone.

2. If it’s goal-to-go and Andrew Quarless is split out as an X-iso receiver opposite three wideouts, Quarless is getting the ball. Flynn loves throwing to the fourth-year tight end when he’s one-on-one against a safety.

3. If the ball is spotted inside the opponents’ 30-yard-line, a running back screen is likely on the horizon.

Raiders (4-10) at Chargers (7-7), 4:25 p.m., CBS

Speaking of running back screens, that was the play call on three of the four touchdown receptions Oakland gave up to Jamaal Charles last week. San Diego’s Danny Woodhead is tied for third among running backs with 66 catches this season. A lot of those catches have come from the slot or out wide, not out of the backfield. It will be interesting to see how much Mike McCoy tweaks his offense this week to incorporate more backfield screen concepts.

Patriots (10-4) at Ravens (8-6), 4:25 p.m., CBS

In the AFC Championship last year, the Patriots surprised people by putting Aqib Talib on Anquan Boldin rather than on Torrey Smith (who was red-hot at the time). They did that because whoever took Smith would be getting deep safety help over the top. It made more sense to use Kyle Arrington or Alfonzo Dennard, who would need the help more than Talib. That freed Talib to take Boldin, who was too strong for Arrington and Dennard anyway.

Boldin is gone now, but don’t be shocked if Talib still doesn’t match up with Smith. The Patriots could elect to double Smith the same way again and use Talib one-on-one against Dennis Pitta. Yes, TIGHT END Dennis Pitta. The Patriots took this approach against Charles Clay last week and befuddled the Dolphins for almost the entire first half. (Mike Wallace had a 39-yard touchdown, but that was a product of missed tackles, plus it came against fourth corner Marquice Cole, not Arrington or Dennard). Pitta is Flacco’s security blanket and top inside target. If the Patriots can eliminate him with just one guy, they can play two deep safeties the entire game, which is a great way to combat Flacco’s long bombs.

Normally, playing a corner on a tight end leaves a defense too light against the run. But Talib has the size to handle spot duty in traffic. Plus Pitta is a poor in-line blocker and will often play the slot. Oh, and the Ravens’ running game is nothing to worry about.

Bears (8-6) at Eagles (8-6), 8:30 p.m., NBC

LeSean McCoy might be the best outside runner in the NFL, but the Bears, somewhat quietly, have an excellent outside runner of their own in Matt Forte. The sixth-year veteran doesn’t quite have McCoy’s speed or change-of-direction quickness, but he’s sufficient in these realms and has keen patience and vision. Marc Trestman’s system does a good job at manufacturing perimeter rushing lanes, particularly by involving Alshon Jeffery on fake (or “ghost”) reverse action.


Fortunately the Ravens running game resembles a dumpster fire, otherwise the Pats would be screwed. We need to shut down Dennis Pitta, when he is taken out of the game and held in check, the Ravens offense is quite different. Ravens red zone woes would have to end this week if they were to win. On the flip side, look for the Pats to line up in 3WR with Shane Vereen and Amendola in the slot, and Ridley in the backfield to make up for the loss of Gronkowski. Aaron Dobson's return will bring some resemblance of a red zone and deep threat, perhaps that will help with the struggles in the red zone the Ravens had last week. A struggle between 2 teams that may meet again in the AFC title game, will come down to whoever makes the least mistakes.

Pats 23

Ravens 20


Andy Benoit, so your "analyzing" this game, both very good teams ???  " Seattle has a great coaching staff, but Arizona’s has been the NFL’s best this season. Click here to read why. " What happened to the game? Never let it be said that you didn't do the lest you could. Sorry but your "analyzing" the game is a let down at best.


I look forward to the next pre-season next year when the Cowboys are yet again predicted to win the division and post double digit wins despite the fact that in the offseason they won't have addressed any of their issues in the draft or free agency. You know, like this season, last season, the season before that, etc.  I don't get why the Cowboys are expected to win when they haven't in....how long? In other news I love it. I almost miss living in Dallas and hearing all the locals root for *insert winning team bandwagon*. Almost.


I doubt Jerry's boys will be going anywhere in the playoffs,

and it's likely Garrett-Top will be looking for another job for next year.

Too bad the "gm" is sticking around.


"The Cowboys hung 26 points on the Packers in the first half by calling 28 passes and 11 runs. Nobody griped about the unbalanced play-calling then."

Well, yeah, but when you have the lead in the second half you RUN THE BALL to use up the clock. Football 101. Play calling lost that game. Period.


Sad that you censor the truth but keep crap journalism like this. Truth hurts doesn't it Andy.


Do have any idea what you are talking about?  The Packers couldn't stop the run at all.  If you're up by 23 in the second half and your running game is firing on all cylinders, that is what you go to.  Grind out yardage and eat the clock.  You want to keep the Packer's offence off the field as much as possible.

Shooter McGavin 19711
Shooter McGavin 19711

Another Jason Garrett apologist.  What a joke.  Blaming Romo is laughable, and pointing out how the Cowboys put up 26 points in the first half misses the point.  Dallas was terrible on offense in the second half - and that's all about adjustments.  And the QB doesn't make adjustments.  Just like the loss in Detroit, this loss exposed Garrett once again as in well over his head. 

Yes, Tony Romo has problems - but he's not the coach in charge of the D (that's Garrett, no matter who is going to blame Kiffin).  And Garrett calls the plays.  So yeah, running all of seven times in the second half against Green Bay was another mistake.


Great Lead!  I was chuckling even before I got to the insight.  But Andy, you talk like Tony Romo makes mistakes when it matters!?!  That can't be - the Cowboys just agreed to pay him $108 million dollars.  One Hundred Eight Million Dollars. Think about that.  Professional talent evaluators disagree with you.  Apologize.


I appreciate these previews, but why do you always devote so much attention to the Monday night game? A lot of times -- including this week -- it's not particularly interesting. Why not highlight the best game of the weekend?


@Shooter McGavin 19711 

"Tony Romo has problems..."  Massive understatement.  Yes Garrett stinks and needs to go but Romo needs to go with him.

Romo reminds me of what Bill Walsh said about Steve DeBerg: "He plays just good enough to get you beat."


@morejunk @Shooter McGavin 19711 I get why you might think Romo is worth replacing, but who would you plan to replace him with? Tim Tebow? Brandon Weeden? Name one QB that can be better for the Cowboys than Romo and who is also attainable. Bear in mind too that without Romo at the helm, the Cowboys probably wouldn't be in playoff contention. 


@morejunk @kinsmen68 @Shooter McGavin 19711  First, I did read your whole post originally. You said, "This is better than Romo because Romo is just good enough to make smart people think he can get the job done but in reality he can't." 

To me, this read as though you were insinuating Tebow would be a better option than Romo. 

Second, please offer more explanation for how Tony Romo "sucks" as you eloquently put. What is your standard for good, bad, awesome, sucky, etc. Is it statistics? QBR? win percentage? My guess is that you believe wins, playoff appearances, and championships are most important, but I may be wrong about that. 

Third, I agree about the JJ problem. I think everybody does. He has been a poor GM. But, I disagree that his worst fault as a GM is that he "makes crappy deals with choker QBs." 

You even just admitted that Dallas should buy a better team (if only it was that easy) and that they could then rely on a more "clutch" yet average QB. This says to me that you agree the whole team needs fixing, not just the QB.

And finally, yes, I do think the Patriots got lucky. Do you think they plan(ned) to find their franchise, hall-of-fame, potentially greatest of all-time QBs in the 6th round? I do not think so. I agree that there is always a chance, but that is not always a viable approach for any franchise. Look at all of the teams that go years and decades at a time without ever settling on a franchise QB. The Dolphins post-Marino are a great example (and yes, I understand that poor management and evaluation can attribute to this, hence, why nobody likes JJ as the GM). 

To stick with Romo is a gamble, but so is cleaning house and trying to rebuild or to take your chances on finding a Super Bowl caliber QB in the draft. Maybe that's just the difference between you and me: I'd rather stick with the "known" than the "unknown". And, to say he could never win when it matters is a fairly bold statement (people said similar things about Peyton Manning and if you're an NBA fan, Lebron James).


@kinsmen68@morejunk@Shooter McGavin 19711 

No, as I stated clearly... THEY BOTH SUCK.  (Actually read the whole thing next time)

Dallas' problem is management.  JJ runs the show so Dallas gets crappy coaches, makes crappy deals with choker QBs, can't spot talent to save their lives and "cut your loses" must be all buzzes and pops in their ears.  They think they have to keep Romo because "who else is out there????"  And quite frankly if you're going to spend all that money (as they did for Romo) buy a good TEAM and you can win big with a CLUTCH but B-/B QB (see Flacco, Joe).

Football teams are like fish, they rot from the head.  I'm guessing you think NE just got lucky with Brady.


@kinsmen68@morejunk@Shooter McGavin 19711  

"Playoff contention", oh let's see:

2006: Romo botches the hold.

2007: Interception

2008: Playoffs?  That's funny.  Destroyed by Philly because I guess Romo just liked Philly's jersey that night.

2009: Hey! Romo wins one only to fumble the ball 3 times (and throw a pick) to lose to the Vikings next game.

2010: Nope (injured)

2011: Nope

2012: Nope

So basically Tebow and Romo have the same playoff record (though at least Tebow lost to a good team).  Now bear in mind Tebow is a terrible QB but Romo is worse.  Tebow has terrible mechanics, terrible reads, terrible pocket presence and he plays QB like a RB.  This is better than Romo because Romo is just good enough to make smart people think he can get the job done but in reality he can't.  Tebow's problems (Weeden's as well) are right in your face, nice and easy to see.

As for the replacement:  Have the GM do his job (I know HA HA HA).  Tom Brady was drafted at the low 100s.  Kurt Warner was bagging groceries in the Arena league.  Canada liked passing so much they made the field bigger.  The point is that just because there is not an OBVIOUS replacement for Romo does NOT mean that the Cowboys shouldn't replace him now and rebuild.