Despite preparing for what they knew was going to be quite a challenge, the Dallas Cowboys found that it is sometimes difficult to finish running the sword through a team that had lofty expectations and has been kicked like a dog for 2 straight weeks. The Green Bay Packers likely will eventually be finished off soon in their quest for the NFC Playoffs, but it won't happen yet, as evidenced by their 17-7 win over the Cowboys at Lambeau Field.
This Cowboys' offense, which at times has looked as dangerous as any offense in football, failed to make even the slightest mark on the field Sunday, and allowed drive after drive to end without ever really flexing its muscle. And, of course, on those rare occasions where they actually did get out of their own way, the Packers' desperate defense would rise up and make a play and end the threat.
We talked about the importance of patience for the offense and the OC when I laid out the Friday Game Plan :
"Patience - So, now that we all know the Packers are a wounded animal with plenty of game breaking talent on both sides of the ball, we must understand that the only recipe to handle them is patience, precision, and composure. The Cowboys showed tons of that in Philadelphia, but that doesn't carry over. They must withstand the initial burst of energy from the crowd, and weather the storm. Usually, this means high percentage passes and pounding the rock between the tackles. I believe if the Cowboys turn the ball over less than 2 times, they win this game. But, it is vital on the road (and there are plenty of stiff road tests ahead) to play a clean offensive game. That starts with a patient Tony Romo and Jason Garrett.
This team did not do that at all. The Cowboys went back to their road ways that suggest they cannot handle failing on offense. This happens time and time again in road wars: @ Pittsburgh, @ Denver, @ Green Bay; When they cannot get in the end zone early, as the game goes on, they start to get more and more impatient. They start to pass in running situations. They start to go "shotgun" and sling it around - which only invites more blitzing and more chaos from the defense. They do not stick to their game-plan of what they do well: Power Football.
You must play against your opponent, not against your expectations. Some weeks, you must win a game that is truly ugly, but to do so, you have to check your expectation-level at the door, and simply play the game in front of you.
Sunday called for grinding it out and frustrating the defense and crowd with long drives of power football. We got almost none of that.
They used "13" personnel just 3 times the whole game. "22" personnel just once, aside from the 2 attempts at the "Razorback". Marion Barber had 1 carry after the 1st Quarter, which was a 1-yard loss to start the 2nd half.
The game was 3-0 into the 4th Quarter, and Jason Garrett abandoned his successful sets because he got antsy, frustrated, and desperate - again. It plays right into the hands of the opponent (when you are in shotgun, it completely changes the posture of the defense), and it is why performances like last Sunday Night in Philadelphia are the exception and not the norm. The norm is that in road-game hostile-situations, if you punch the Cowboys in the mouth a few times (sack Romo, plug up a few run plays) they change their game plan completely on the fly and roll Shotgun set after Shotgun set onto the field.
What bothers me is we see this time and time again. Garrett doesn't learn to keep his composure and his game plan. For all of his faults of being too conservative, Bill Parcells' teams would not have allowed 2 of the biggest plays of the game (the Clay Matthews sack before halftime and the Charles Woodson sack that sealed the verdict). Why? Because he wouldn't go for risky Shotgun sets in both of those situations.
The Cowboys know how to handle a track meet. But, a slug fest? Sometimes I wonder if Garrett can handle it.
BUT. Through it all, the Cowboys accomplished their mission as stated 10 days ago before Philadelphia In the Eagles Game Plan :
I think that I am treating this 2-game road trip as a package deal. The objective must be to go 1-1, and if that happens, you can get to December at 8-3 most likely and will be in position to win the division.
So, this loss is not the end of the world. They got their split. So, let's not roll all negative.
Also, the defense did a very nice job against a desperate offense, keeping the Packers to a very low level of production, and keeping the game 3-0 for almost 50 minutes, despite the offense not doing anything to help.
Other Thoughts and Observations from a Tough Day in Lambeau:
* With 6:01 to play in the 1st Quarter, the Cowboys run of good injury fortune apparently expired. Johnny Jolly rolled up the back of Marc Colombo's left leg and broke the fibula, which would likely end his 2009. This is the first season-ending injury among the starters who left training camp, making the Cowboys about the luckiest team in the league so far. However, this is a very damaging injury. Colombo's performance is always strong, and the loss of him hurts quite a bit. Now, they must ask for Doug Free to fill in, and I fear we are not going to love the results. Back in September before the opener, I wrote my thoughts on Free :
* One thing I wanted to get a handle on in camp was to evaluate the play of the two tackles who are one snap from being in the game. OT Doug Free (4th round ‘07) and OT Pat McQuistan (7th round ‘06) could both be called into duty. And because OT James Marten (3rd round ‘07) and Jacob Rogers (2nd round ‘04) are washed out of the organization completely, Free and McQ have to be able to play if Colombo or Adams ever get hurt. So here is what I have on them: Free looks like he can move better than McQ, but he also looks a bit weaker. So, you have Free who can get to the corner but can be pushed back, and McQ who can not get to the corner, but can drop anchor a bit better. Either way, I don’t think either guy is a long-term solution at tackle.
On Sunday, Free obviously didn't get a chance to show us what he can do in the running game much, but on the 1st play of the 2nd half, Jolly shed him with ease and nailed Barber behind the line. The reality of the OL losing its continuity and its domination in the power running department may be something we must deal with at this point. The drop-off is significant, and this also demonstrates how lack of depth can be a killer in this league.
* Mat McBriar was phenomenal on Sunday. 6 punts, with 4 for fair catches. On one of the other 2, he stripped Tramon Williams for a fumble, if it was not over-turned via replay. But, the fact that my punter is trying to go for the ball when he is trying to bring a guy down can only be explained as the "Buehler Effect".
* On to Roy Williams, who had what could only be termed as "mixed results" on Sunday. It was a brilliant job to get him matched up against a safety on the long 41 yard pass that could have put the Cowboys in the lead late in the 2nd Quarter. But a tremendous strip by Woodson turned that play into a negative. The other obvious issue with his performance was the 2nd and 12 play in the 3rd Quarter in which he was quick to say the ball was lost in the lights. That may be true, but since I have seen him bail out on several occasions this season when a safety is about to lay the lumber, I couldn't help but notice Atari Bigby on the scene. I think he heard footsteps. And in doing so, helped kill off another drive. In either situation, it is once again difficult to make the case that he can be counted on to go get the ball and make the play in the most vital of situations. Miles Austin could have been better, too, with a couple of untimely drops that indicate he needs to play better in those situations, too.
* I don't believe there is a definitive word on the other injuries yet, to Ken Hamlin and a more serious looking injury to Mike Jenkins. Jenkins has just emerged as a very impressive corner, and now this could hurt if he is lost for a while. Watching him grimace in pain when the trainer touched his elbow was not a great sign. Another troubling development was that moments after he exited the field, the Packers picked on Orlando Scandrick on play after play on the drive that yielded their all-important 1st Touchdown of the day. Jennings for 14 yards on 3rd and 11 (on 32), Illegal hands to the face on Driver (32), Pass Interference on Driver (32), and Jordy Nelson for 7 on 3rd and 6 (32). All on one drive, all on Orlando Scandrick. It was like he had a piece of meat around his neck, and that is how the NFL works. Find the weak link over and over again. I can't believe that 10 weeks ago, I thought Scandrick may have been a better choice than Jenkins. Silly me.
* By the way, every week on the pregame show, we discuss the inactive list, and point out how the Cowboys love to play with fire and only dress 2 back-up Offensive Linemen. When Colombo and Flozell were both disabled with injuries, we saw the staff's worst nightmare - no more linemen. Not sure what the emergency procedure is when you need an 8th, but we almost found out what it was. These are the choices you must make when you have a 2nd kicker active every week.
* Good to see DeMarcus Ware back in the swing of things. He was very good against the run and pass for most of the day. He did miss badly on that Aaron Rodgers keeper in the 3rd Quarter when he did not wrap up (a very popular tradition around here), but 2 more sacks including 1 where the Packers decided not to block him, and a load of tackles for his ledger. I also thought Bradie James was decent, and Bobby Carpenter with a 1-hand sack should not be missed as a defensive highlight.
* Back to the offensive line, I wasn't thrilled with the fact that they were just beat by the guy across from them quite a bit. Once again, this is a characteristic of these stiff road tests. When everyone is on board, playing hard, the Cowboys are tough to beat. But, when Gurode is tossed aside by AJ Hawk, and Clay Matthews beats Flozell to the corner, then it shows that it isn't the scheme, it is the performance. Further, it is worth noting that the 2 worst days in the "sacks allowed" department were both against 3-4 defenses (Denver and Green Bay). Which is odd, because they practice against a 3-4 every day.
In his weekly column, Milwaukee Journal columnist Bob McGinn previews the upcoming opponent for Green Bay by talking to a host of NFL Scouts. The preview he produces is as complete as anything I read even though it is premium content so you may just have to take my word for it. Regardless, this week, a NFL scout had this to say about our Wade Phillips before the game ever happened:
"The only thing that happens, Wade can get a little bit full of himself when things go good and he kind of passes that on to the team," one of the coaches said. "I've coached with Wade. "He's not the greatest detail guy in the world, so you have to hold on to your (expletive) with him. They may look like they got it all going, but they might go south overnight. He's a really bright guy, but his teams have always been a little up and down."
Is that spot on, or what? I asked all week whether the Cowboys can handle being on top and told that they are good. Sadly, this result may have been too predictable.
Washington is coming to town, and the 2 games in 5 days stretch that is mandatory on both sides. Must be 8-3 when it is done. Must bounce back.