This play’s actually going to be a pretty poor read by Prescott. Tennessee’s going to be playing a variation of a cover 2 man. Since it’s a red zone situation, there’s no reason for the Titans to have 2 safeties deep, so they’re going to have a safety and linebacker play zone right at the goal line.
If you look at the back of the middle of the endzone, Cowboys wide receiver Michael Gallup’s going to be wide open. However Prescott’s not even looking Gallup’s way. Now, this play ended up being a touchdown, so I know it probably seems silly to blame Prescott for this play. However it took a great play by Cooper to score on this play. If Malcolm Butler didn’t get beat on this play (or if he wasn’t playing man) Cooper wouldn’t have been open, and by the time Prescott realized it Gallup wouldn’t have been open anymore either. Granted this isn’t really a huge mistake by any means (after all, they scored a touchdown off of it) but I thought it was interesting.
Well, I criticized Prescott when he threw an touchdown, and now I’m going to explain why I think this interception wasn’t really his fault. While he did get fooled on this play, it was mostly due to a great play design by Tennessee. On this play Tennessee’s running what’s similar to a delayed safety blitz out of a 5-2. However what’s interesting about it is that linebacker Kamalei Correa is going to blitz as well, and safety Kevin Byard is going to be playing what’s essentially a cover 1. This means that 6 men will be rushing Prescott, and 1 will be playing zone, leaving just 4 left. Obviously there’s 5 eligible receivers, meaning a Cowboy will be left unguarded. That’s a pretty big risk to take, but it becomes less of a risk when you look at who’s being left unguarded. It’s tight end Rico Gathers. Gathers has been in 10.7 percent of Dallas’ plays, which is 49 total snaps. He’s made a catch twice this season, which is 4.1 percent of the plays he’s been in. Gathers isn’t a great receiver, and he mostly is in to block, so the Titans feel they can leave him unguarded.
Kenny Vaccaro (circled in blue) waits just a second for a hole to open up. It’s essentially the defensive version of Le’Veon Bell’s running style, it let’s him wait for an opening, and he can get a clean shot to Prescott. So Prescott doesn’t have a ton of time to make a decision, however he reads the defense almost perfectly. He sees that 6 men are rushing him, and he likes the route his best receiver Amari Cooper is running. If this was a standard man coverage, Cooper would’ve been open. However since Tennessee put Kevin Byard in a cover 1, Cooper ended up being double covered, and Byard was able to intercept the pass.
This is another fun play design by Tennessee. It’s a run pass option, but with the primary target for the pass being a shovel pass to tight end Jonnu Smith. While it is technically an option play, this was almost certainly not going to end up being a run.
What really makes this play work is how long Mariota held onto the ball. Dion Lewis basically becomes bait on this play, Tennessee’s offensive line intentionally leaves Demarcus Lawrence unblocked, and because he went after Lewis it essentially took Lawrence out of the play. Meanwhile Dallas’ linebackers both break towards Lewis’ direction, leaving Smith with plenty of room, and he was able to score a touchdown.
On this play, Tennessee’s receivers are running route’s designed for man coverage. However Dallas is playing a cover 3 zone concept. This is bad news for Tennessee, as they’re really not going to have any of their receivers open.
At this point Mariota’s reading the defense. It’s worth mentioning that there’s only 40 seconds left in the half, so Mariota’s really looking for someone who’s open downfield. Knowing what we know now, the best move would be to pass the ball to Dion Lewis, let him gain a few yards and then run out of bounds. Neither one of Tennessee’s tackles do a great job blocking on this play, and the pressure gets to Mariota. It’s fair to say Mariota probably could’ve been quicker with his read and gotten the ball to Lewis (or even just thrown the ball away) but it’s also a tough situation when he doesn’t have much time to throw, so I think several players deserve blame on this play.