Even after watching the play a hundred times, it's hard to tell exactly what went wrong.
Miscommunication? Maybe. But you don't often see a connection as good as Romo-to-Witten simply falter at a critical moment.
The score was tied with less than two minutes left, and the Cowboys faced a second-and-8 from their own 17-yard line. The momentum, the Pittsburgh crowd and one of the best defenses of all time was suffocating Dallas, and the Cowboys desperately needed some air -- a few completions, a first down, anything positive. Instead, their final breath was sucked out by Steelers nickel cornerback Deshea Townsend, and the Cowboys left Pittsburgh cold, homesick and 8-5.
Much of the country was watching, and those who weren't raising their hands in celebration were scratching them. What the heck happened?
After close inspection, the conclusion we drew in our Anatomy segment is that Witten, Romo and Marc Colombo each earn a share of the blame and the Steelers' defense deserves all of the credit.
Let's start with Witten. His mistake was a physical one, slipping as he came out of his break on a short hook route. Even without the slip, Witten still would not have caught the ball, but he might have gotten a hand on the high-and-outside throw, preventing the ball from sailing directly to Townsend.
Anatomy of a Play
Columbo was given the difficult assignment of blocking Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who ranks third in the AFC with 11.5 sacks this season. He's not a player who deserves a single block. However, Dallas was forced to choose between doubling Woodley or Pittsburgh's other dangerous pass rusher, James Harrison, who's second in the AFC with 15 sacks.
The Cowboys decided to double-team Harrison with Flozell Adams and Tashard Choice and leave Columbo alone with Woodley. Woodley first attacked upfield with the look of an edge speed rush. As Columbo overset to the outside, Woodley cut back underneath. Romo's comfort level was clearly impacted by the quick appearance of Woodley in his face.
Romo is normally one of the fastest readers of defenses in the NFL, but he was slow in processing the Steelers' defense in this critical situation.
It might have been the disguise -- Pittsburgh rotated from a pre-snap "Quarters" look to a post-snap "3-Deep" coverage. Maybe it was the appearance of a blitz before the snap -- defenders were in a position to blitz but instead dropped into coverage. It might have been the accumulation of pressure that Romo had faced all afternoon, hit after hit, subconsciously taking their toll on him.
Whatever it was, only Romo can tell you. But something had him franticly scanning the defense in a state in which he rarely is -- panicked. To unlock the mystery of the interception, it might be beneficial to dive into the rabbit hole and examine Romo's career passing numbers in December and January. The Cowboys are only 4-8 in those months when Romo starts at quarterback, and eight of his 10 worst statistical performances have come after Thanksgiving.
Note the level of competition -- Dallas faces pretty good defenses late in the season. But it remains a mystery: Why would a quarterback who's 26-4 as a starter in September, October and November, with well over a 100 passer rating, all of a sudden become below average when the temperature drops?
Whoever can answer that question will be close to unlocking the mystery behind the easiest interception and touchdown of Townsend's career -- and might be the next consultant on Jerry Jones' payroll.