IRVING, Texas – The Browns took down quarterback Tony Romo seven times Sunday after averaging just 2.2 sacks per game entering Cowboys Stadium. They would have finished with eight sacks had defensive back Sheldon Brown not been penalized for illegal contact in the first quarter.
Every sack that counted occurred after left tackle Tyron Smith left the game with an ankle injury, which could keep him out for an extended period of time. Unless Kevin Kowalski works in at center or one of the centers can return from injury to allow Mackenzy Bernadeau to shift back to guard, this is the likely starting group again Thursday against the Redskins.
Eight different Browns players recorded at least half a sack, and none of those players had more than two sacks on the season at the time. Romo still threw for 313 yards despite, not because of, the amount of time he had to throw.
With the Cowboys’ offensive line in a state of flux, it would be easy to simply blame the entire group for the constant pressure from the Browns’ defensive line and linebackers.
But that’s not the reality. Every play, only one or two players missed their assignments.
There were a few trends in the sacks. Four of them occurred in the second half or overtime, when Romo threw the majority of his passes. Five of them occurred in shotgun formation. They weren’t always the fault of the backups, though rarely could guard Nate Livings be pinpointed as the problem.
Both tackles struggled and Doug Free was partially responsible for four of the seven sacks, but no one lineman can shoulder the entire blame. Sometimes, the sacks weren’t on the offensive line at all.
Here’s a breakdown of the seven sacks on Romo:
First sack (9:53 left in second quarter):
On a third-and-12, Romo sets up in shotgun with Jason Witten and Lawrence Vickers to either side of him. Romo sends Kevin Ogletree in motion and the receivers all go deep. They’re all 30 yards downfield before any of them get open. Backup tackle Jermey Parnell gets burned inside by Juqua Parker and doesn’t get any help in the backfield, as Witten and Vickers both ran routes. Romo could have dumped it off to Vickers to avoid the four-man rush, but he didn’t have much time to think before Parker hits him.
Second Sack (5:07 left in second quarter)
It’s the first offensive play since allowing the sack on the previous drive, and again the only routes run fewer than 10 yards were by Vickers and Witten, who were both covered. Dez Bryant ran a deep in, Miles Austin ran a go route and neither of them were open. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard got outside of tackle Doug Free, forcing Romo to move up in the pocket. John Hughes worked around Bernadeau and right guard Derrick Dockery was too late to help. Even if the receivers did get open, Romo wouldn’t have had time to deliver a pass before Hughes got to him.
Third Sack (1:51 left in second quarter)
Later on the same drive, the Cowboys faced a crucial third-and-10 while trailing by 13 points at the Browns’ 41-yard line. In a three-receiver set, Romo took the shotgun snap with Witten and Lance Dunbar to either side of him. Everyone got their blocks except for Free, who Sheard went right around. No receiver got open and Romo was hit before he could even begin his escape attempt. The Cowboys had to punt after driving 32 yards.
Fourth Sack (6:08 left in third quarter)
The Cowboys put themselves in prime position for their first score with a second-and-6 on the Browns’ 19 yard-line. The play was busted from the get go as running back Felix Jones moved left and Romo faked right on what appeared to be a play action pass. Jones couldn’t get over to his right to help in blitz pick up against incoming linebacker Kaluka Maiava and safety Usama Young. Free was also slow to get to Maiava near the line of scrimmage. Romo had some choice words for Jones afterward, as the Cowboys were forced into a third-and-long. Parnell was called for holding on the next play, and the drive resulted in a field goal.
Fifth Sack (7:21 left in fourth quarter)
The sack occurred immediately before Bryant’s go-ahead touchdown reception, and again, it happened at the Browns’ 19-yard line. Romo looks to his left in the shotgun with three receivers on the outside. Had the throw been there, the protection was good enough initially to get a pass off. After his pump fake, he was toast. Free’s man got free inside, forcing Dockery to help. Defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin, the lineman Dockery was blocking initially, went right around Free, who stayed on his man. Rubin then took down Romo on a wide open shot, though the Cowboys salvaged the drive shortly after.
Sixth sack (5:10 left in fourth quarter)
This was the sack most people will remember, causing the Cowboys’ lone turnover of the day on Romo’s fumble.
On a first-and-20 on the Browns’ 28-yard line, Austin got inside his defender down the middle of the field, while Bryant beat his man on a go route by about two or three yards. By the time any of those routes opened up, Romo was in the process of being sacked and stripped.
Seven Browns defenders stayed near the line of scrimmage, matched by seven Cowboys blockers. Parnell didn’t block anyone on the play. Livings stayed with defensive tackle Billy Wynn, while Parnell let defensive end Frostee Rucker move inside untouched on a stunt. Bernadeau was ready for such a move, but he let Rucker go straight by him. Rucker forced the fumble on Romo, allowing linebacker Craig Robertson to corral the football.
Seventh sack (13:53 left in OT)
Nobody was within 10 yards of Witten down the middle of the field on a first-and-10 pass at the Dallas 40-yard line. Romo could have hit the tight end to get near field goal range had he had a split second longer, but the Browns beat Free on the blitz for the sack. Sheard, the defensive end on Free’s side, crashed inside on the play and was picked up by Dockery. The blitzing linebacker, Robertson, then blew past Free on the inside to get to Romo.
These sacks don’t include Robertson’s takedown of Romo in the first quarter after Jones failed to pick up the blitz, as Brown was called for illegal contact on the play.
In addition to Free’s troubles, Dockery and Parnell each had their share of issues in their first extended look of the year and Jones was shaky on a couple blitz pickups. The same crew of linemen will most likely face Washington on Thursday.
The Redskins aren’t one of the best teams in the league at reaching the quarterback, but then again, neither were the Browns. Offensive line coach Bill Callahan might be the busiest man in Dallas with a short week and limited time to figure out what to do to ensure Romo won’t be gobbled up on Thanksgiving Day.