Dissecting Tony Romo's Game-Changing Interception Against Denver

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistOctober 8, 2013

It's the score everyone's talking about: Denver 51, Dallas 48. So many points, with "America's" Team falling just short of an upset over the unbeaten, red-hot Broncos

That's the game everyone's talking about. Here's the play everyone's talking about: 

After completing 25 of his first 35 passes for a team-record 506 yards, Tony Romo's final attempt was his only major mistake. The interception to Danny Trevathan set the Broncos up for a go-ahead field goal, and Romo and the Cowboys' offense never saw the field again.

Let's break down Romo's costly error. 

Following a Shaun Phillips sack, Romo and the Cowboys face a 2nd-and-16 from their own 14-yard line with 2:04 on the clock. They're in "12 personnel," with tight end Jason Witten lined up right and tight end Gavin Escobar playing inside of wide receivers Terrance Williams and Dez Bryant to the left. Romo is in the shotgun with running back DeMarco Murray flanked right. 

The Broncos are essentially in a prevent defense with seven defensive backs and only one linebacker. They aren't showing anything resembling a blitz on what is sure to be a passing down. Here's a look at the routes Dallas would run on the play:

Against zone coverage and a three-deep quarter defensive look, Romo's first read is, predictably, to his left. Bryant and Williams are covered well by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Kayvon Webster, with help over the top:

DRC is giving Bryant plenty of space at the top of the picture, but Romo can't throw there this early in his route. It's well-defended. 

At the bottom of the picture, Witten is pretty much a non-factor against that coverage from Duke Ihenacho and Tony Carter. The only decent matchup at the outset is the athletic Escobar vs. linebacker Trevathan, who is less than 100-percent due to a knee injury: 

As you can see, Trevathan and Escobar make contact as Escobar makes his cut at the 22-yard line. With Witten, Bryant and Williams now taken out of the play, that's the only deep or intermediate option Romo has, but it's not a particularly good one. Witten's route will pull Carter over, but there's still a lot of zone traffic. 

Another problem is that Escobar's route isn't very crisp. 

"I probably should’ve flattened it off more, be more friendly to the quarterback," the rookie admitted after the game, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "…When I saw it coming out, I was trying to break it up. It was a seam route. I was trying to get over to the other side. I should’ve flattened it off more."

Plus, the pocket is now collapsing on Romo, which is unfortunate considering it's only been about 2.3 seconds since the snap, and Denver only utilized a three-man rush. If he had an extra half-second, he might have kept going through his progressions and noticed how much space Murray gained underneath: 

But he doesn't have that time. Why? Well, left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick are being pushed back by Adrian Robinson and Derek Wolfe in one-on-one matchups. That's not all on them, though, because left guard Ronald Leary is comically slow lending a helping hand:

As a result of that pressure, Romo's footing is out of whack. He stumbles on Tyron Smith's right foot while winding up...

...and then he runs into Leary on his release...

Thus he didn't get quite as much on the ball—something he admitted after the game, according to the Dallas Morning News—which may have been the difference. Keep in mind that Trevathan made one hell of a diving play. If the ball arrives a tenth of a second faster, it's probably a catch. 

The red line is where Romo threw it. The black line is the ideal path the ball should have taken:

Of course, considering that Rahim Moore is also breaking in from above and Ihenacho is approaching after peeling off of Witten, this was a risky throw regardless. Escobar was supposed to be a little more open, and the throw wasn't perfect. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't perfect.

It had to be perfect.

“I wanted to put it another two feet out in front,” said Romo, per ESPN, “and I didn’t put it exactly where I needed to. It’s frustrating and disappointing.”

Ultimately, a lot of small factors contributed to the turnover, but Romo deserves the majority of the blame. Pressure happens, and you don't always get to follow through flawlessly. He took a chance, and it backfired. 

I think he was just filled with confidence based on a red-hot performance and thought he could squeeze in one more big throw. Even if he had led Escobar by throwing it a yard ahead and with some extra zip, keep in mind that Moore was there, either to break up the pass or make the tackle. 

So even if it was completed, it would have been about an 11- or 12-yard gain, leaving the Cowboys with a 3rd-and-4 or 3rd-and-5. There's little doubt that Murray couldn't have caught that pass at the 18 and picked up at least a half-dozen yards after the catch. 

"He probably should have come down and thrown the ball to the back (to Murray)," said head coach Jason Garrett, per the Star-Telegram. "It’s a play that we know. We’ve seen him make throws like that, in between defenders in the zone, a lot. He made a few of them in this ballgame."

The risk wasn't worth the reward.

"He certainly would like to have that decision back, but you've got to move forward," added Garrett. "You've got to learn from it."