American football is a sport of many emotions, none of which were greater on Sunday than those of the Dallas Cowboys. Following the unexpected death of linebacker Jerry Brown, the Cowboys had to lace their cleats up and battle the Cincinnati Bengals to keep their playoff hopes alive.

They pulled out a 20-19 victory with a late, game-winning field goal from Dan Bailey. But before Bailey had his shot at the winner, Dez Bryant hauled in his own game-saving play: a fourth quarter 27-yard touchdown.

The polarizing receiver has been the target of much criticism this season, particularly in his early-season failings as a route runner and pass catcher. However, his focus has been nothing short of exceptional over the last five weeks, as he’s logged at least 50 yards in each game and scored a total of seven touchdowns. On this day, he had three crucial receptions in the fourth quarter, including the aforementioned touchdown that came in the fashion that all Cowboys big plays seem to come: on a Dig route.

Dig routes have seemingly been a staple of Dallas’ offense over the last couple of years, with teammate Miles Austin running them extremely well with great success. This time, it was Bryant’s turn as he worked against the Bengals’ Man-Under coverage.

Split out to the short right, Bryant faced off man coverage from the Bengals cornerback. He was the single receiver to that side of the field, as three pass catchers made up a “Trips” or “Trey” formation opposite of him while quarterback Tony Romo stood in shotgun with a running back offset to his near right.

The Bengals were aligned with two deep safeties and were going to be playing Man-Under, which is another term for Cover 2 Man. Dallas was going to be attacking the middle of the field on this play, but before they could do so, they would have to clear out the seam defenders.

There would be three key routes that would clear out space for Bryant to get open once he completed his Dig route.

Starting to his side, the running back offset into the short side of the field was going to be running a swing route that would force the linebacker lined up across from him to run wide and outside of the numbers. This was the beginning of the end for the Bengals, whose defenders were starting to navigate away from the middle of the field.

Opposite of the running back and Bryant, the two inside receivers of the Trips formation would also be combining to attack the near linebackers. After the No. 3 receiver (closest to the quarterback) ran a Curl route just outside of the left hash to draw out the middle linebacker, the No. 2 receiver followed it up with an underneath route, running a square-in to pin down the nickel cornerback assigned to him.

With the running back occupying one defender outside of the seam, the No. 2 receiver occupying another underneath and a third defender outside of the hash, Bryant had free room to run into — that is, if he could beat the natural bracket coverage of the Bengals’ cornerback and safety duo.

The cornerback was playing man-under technique, which consists of an inside shade and mirroring of the route from underneath, while the safety played over the top. With two defenders going up against Bryant, the Bengals had the numbers advantage and should have been able to cover him. However, they failed to do so.

Bryant worked his way over the top of the cornerback, leaving him behind once he reached the top of his route, and the safety worked toward a poor angle that saw him commit too far to the outside as he watched Romo’s eyes instead of simply following his keys. This allowed Bryant to work into the middle of the field, where he caught the pass from Romo and ran into the end zone for six points.

Following a quick five plays and a punt from the Bengals’ offense, the Cowboys’ offense burned nearly the final four minutes of the clock and won the game with a kick from Bailey. After the football went through the uprights, the team poured out emotions in remembrance of the late Brown. The big win also kept the Cowboys in the playoff hunt, as they currently sit in the eighth and final spot.

More Week 14 Observations

  • Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford continues to get in his own way. His footwork is consistently poor, clearly failing to step through his throws and deliver passes on point. It’s very frustrating as he can be a more accurate passer, but he refuses to improve his pocket movement. He’s missing critical throws that are hurting his team, and he’s still turning the ball over too much. Although one of the turnovers wasn’t his fault (route conversion failure by WR Kris Durham), he had a fumble that was returned for a touchdown. That’s now at least one turnover in seven of Detroit’s last nine games.
  • There has been much debate over the potential threat of the New York Giants. Are they a contender or pretender? As always, we’re still unsure with the Giants until they get into the playoffs, but on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints they looked mighty impressive. In particular, rookie runner David Wilson lit up the scoreboard with a total of three touchdowns while showing off good vision, acceleration, and sheer speed. He’s brings a scary dimension that’s now been added to the Giants’ offense, however it remains to be seen if he can be relied on.
  • The Browns have won three in a row, and Sunday’s win against the Kansas City Chiefs was capped by an 93-yard touchdown return by receiver and punt returner Travis Benjamin. Benjamin caught the ball and ran right before cutting back left to make the first defender miss, which is the key to a good punt return. He’s still learning how to play the receiver position, where he shows good potential and he’ll hopefully form a good combination with supplemental draft choice Josh Gordon in the near future.
  • Eagles’ rookie starting quarterback Nick Foles has really improved since his collegiate days. He sees the field very well and appears to be a very quick learner, as he isn’t making the same mistakes he made in his first action, when he went up against the Cowboys after filling in for the injured Michael Vick. Amidst the dismay in Philadelphia, Foles is playing well and he appears to be the Eagles’ future franchise passer.
  • Cam Cameron was finally let go by the Ravens. I received questions on Twitter a couple of weeks ago asking when it would happen. Admittedly unsure, I stated “when things fell apart.” Well, after scoring 28 points on the road, Cameron was relieved of his duties. The point total was plenty, but apparently not enough to overcome his previous struggles as a play caller. His vanilla offense, featuring far too many isolation routes that work away from the quarterback, is officially out the door. Is Flacco next or will he step his game up? He still needs a contract extension…
  • Hats off to the Seattle Seahawks, who are flying high after thumping the divisional rival Arizona Cardinals by an astounding 58 points. Russell Wilson continues to play well beyond his years, and he should be strongly considered for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.