Not every single NFL game turns on one play, but quite a few of them do. And without question, Dallas' first Monday Night win in their new stadium absolutely turned on one play and one play only.
2nd Down, 10 yards to go for the Panthers at their own 22 yard line with 5:15 left to go in the 4th Quarter. They have been badly outplayed in the 2nd half, but now own the football and only trail the Cowboys by 6 points. This is the ultimate opportunity to steal a game with a touchdown, and get that win that Carolina needs so badly.
ESPN, after Jake Delhomme takes a deep shot to Steve Smith on 1st down, shows a montage of Terrence Newman up in tight and aggressive coverage on Smith in the 2nd half, frustrating Smith to a point of a temper tantrum on the sideline.
The Panthers are flooding the right side of the line on this 2nd and 10, with Muhsin Muhammad, Jeff King, Donte Rosario, and DeAngelo Williams all running routes to the offensive right. Steve Smith is split to the left, and the Cowboys counter with Newman tight, and Hamlin over the top. The Panthers have to be thinking that since they took a deep shot to Smith on 1st down, chances are that Newman would be leaning back on a deeper route and conceding the slant.
It didn't happen. Newman was tight on the line, and tried to take the slant away. Delhomme was committed to throwing the pass to Smith, regardless of the coverage (which is his reputation - to force the ball into Smith) and Smith quit on the route. This resulted in Delhomme looking silly, and Newman with a ball that hits him between the "4" and the "1" on his chest. 27 yards later, Newman secures a win for the Cowboys by putting a sword in the Panthers with a huge takeaway.
If you go back and look at the first drive the Panthers had in the evening, when Smith caught 3 of the 4 balls he caught all night, you will see Newman is playing well off the line of scrimmage. This allows Smith to make a catch at the line, and then asks Newman to race up and make a tackle (which did not end well for #41). Credit the Cowboys coaches and Newman for changing that at halftime. Because as the 3rd Quarter begins, nearly every single snap of the 2nd half, Newman is right in Smith's face with press coverage. This does not allow for a free release, and makes Smith fight for the first few seconds of every play to get open. You may recall this as the technique that gives Terrell Owens so much trouble, too. It is an aggressive defensive strategy that can end up burning you deep (and it also often results in many more defensive penalties), but the results from last night are impossible to mistake.
So, the Cowboys move to 2-1, behind a very impressive 2nd half from the defense, and another game where the team dominated by running the ball. This time, it wasn't turnovers that sabotaged the offense, it was the untimely drive-killing mistakes - often times it was a penalty, but a few sacks didn't help much either.
Take a look at the drive killers from last night:
1st Drive - Thomas Davis sack forces a FG
2nd Drive - Jon Beason sack forces punt
3rd Drive - Martellus Bennett holding penalty halts drive
4th Drive - Felix Jones leg whip penalty ends drive
6th Drive - John Phillips False Start forces FG, rather than TD
9th Drive - Tony Romo grounding penalty ends drive
Add to this, countless more penalties and drives that might have also had sketchy play-calling (we will get to that in a moment) and you see why the Cowboys needed Terrence Newman to win the game for them, despite outgaining the Panthers 449-271. Too many points were left on the field.
A decent win, but much to work on. Here are some other observations about the first win at the Death Star:
* Felix Jones offers much to say, doesn't he? He is absolutely, positively electric. The guy seems to have a chance to break a huge Touchdown every time he touches the ball. In his career, he has 51 carries for 478 yards - this is an absurd 9.4 yards per carry! That is all good. But, we asked last night during the pre-game show the question of whether or not Felix Jones can handle a large work load. But, 9 touches into his night, during one of his amazing plays, he hurts himself again. And, this is what keeps him from being the steal in the 2008 NFL Draft. We can debate who has better highlights, but I would suggest to you that Chris Johnson (picked 2 spots later)can stay on field more often than not when he is providing his electricity. Of course, when he did get hurt, the Titans were bounced from the playoffs last year. Anyway, back to Felix, his blitz pick-up is also quite an issue. Will he ever be able to be the top RB? Or will he always be one play away from both a touchdown and an injury?
* Jay Ratliff is a monster. He is a value at his price. He is a gamer. He is a guy who was picked low and has exceeded expectations. If you follow my post-game notes, you know all of this already, but I just wanted to make sure everyone recognizes Ratliff as the dominant force that he is.
* Speaking of Jones, How about Charles Godfrey almost blowing out his knee trying to stay with Felix? If you missed this - Check this out . I am convinced that Godfrey was so shaken by the play that he took it out on Witten later with that odd and uncalled for roughness penalty.
* Jason Garrett critique of the week is an easy one. After running for over 250 last week, the Cowboys run for 212 this week. So, nearly 500 yards on the ground in two weeks, right? So, in with 3 plays from the 1 yard line, the Cowboys never went to a power run? Really? The first play was the very obvious shot-gun draw early in the 3rd Quarter to Choice. I know that has worked in the past with Barber, but by now, the whole league has to know that the Cowboys love the draw out of the shotgun inside the 2 yard line. Then, in the 4th Quarter, the sequence that resulted in about 30 emails in 3 minutes from my readers - the back-to-back fades from the 1 yard line on 2nd and 3rd downs from the 1. Why? Why not go 2 TEs, and a FB and run the ball right down the throat of the Panthers 3 straight times from 36 inches away? I don't understand Garrett sometimes.
* Patrick Crayton has the ability to be a very useful punt returner. Nothing spectacular, but you also seldom have to worry about him doing something silly. But, um, Pat? Please don't run out of bounds so you don't have to take on the punter again, ok? Jason Baker should not be confused with Julius Peppers, even though they have the same colors on. But, Crayton should be credited with turning the field position game in the 3rd Quarter.
* How many weeks/years will it take for the announcers and cameramen to resist the urge to discuss the video board EVERY punt? The cameramen feel compelled to tilt way up to show the punt in relation to the board even when it is not even close. I know it may become an issue some game very soon, but man, I am already beaten by this.
* Romo's game was reasonably solid. Nothing too amazing, although I was impressed with his ability to keep plays alive by avoiding sacks that would have certainly swallowed up Drew Bledsoe. He also found Roy Williams often enough to provide hope in that direction. But, mostly, when things were in doubt, he just played pitch and catch with Jason Witten 9 times. Romo-Friendly equals easy passes for first downs.
* Who leads the NFL in Touchbacks? David Buehler with 7. Seriously. Ok, he is tied with 2 other guys, but the Cowboys have 7 more touchbacks than they did in 2008. Special Teams are vastly improved this year.
* I know it isn't a great night to compliment a LB group that gets run on that badly, but Jon Beason and Thomas Davis really impress me. Those guys are looking for scalps everytime they hit someone. I think a couple DTs could make that Panthers defense above-average very quickly.
* One week after holding the Giants to very little on the ground, the Cowboys again shut down one of the NFL's better running games. Carolina has a team that moves the ball with their backs, and they hardly got a sniff last night. Clearly, this is a bigger and bigger issue as the season goes on, but so far, the Cowboys can run the ball with ease, and stop the run (after Tampa). So, at the point of attack, the Cowboys are getting very good grades. I thought Keith Brooking did a great job in that role last night.
* I won't even mention Bobby Carpenter's night. The 3rd and 16 especially. Nor, the sideline play late in the 4th. Not one mention. Promise.
* Nor will I dwell on that horrendous kill shot effort from Ken Hamlin on Muhammad. But, if you have the chance, go look at the long offensive pass interference play on Muhsin with 4:20 in the 3rd Quarter. After he pushes Mike Jenkins away and catches the pass, Hamlin does his best Roy Williams shoulder tackle and fails miserably. You would think he swore off that technique after the Ravens debacle of December. But, alas. You must see it. If that call goes the other way and that is a 79-yard Touchdown, then Hamlin will be a target all week, but he survived the blame because of the call. But the video doesn't lie.
* Pass Rush update: 3 sacks, and 2 by the new edge rusher, Victor Butler. Very nice! Jeff Otah is no slouch, and Butler went right around him on his way to the QB twice in the final drive, including the strip on the 2nd. Perhaps the 2009 draft has some hope after all. Butler immediately runs past Anthony Spencer in the pass rush department, and that is both good news and bad news. In case you are not familiar, Butler was quite a sack man at Oregon St as this evidence will show from his Sun Bowl last winter ...
So, now the prospect of playing the Broncos with both Marion and Felix already banged up. This is why you don't even consider dealing a RB in the summer like some readers suggested. You can never have enough depth at that position. Let's hope those are the real substantial health concerns.
A win. Take it, enjoy it, and prepare for two stadiums that can provide some noise in the next 2 weeks, but 2 teams that should be able to be defeated in the Broncos and Chiefs. Get to the bye week at 4-1, with reasonable health and this season will be right where it needs to be.