Monday, September 27, 2010

The Morning After: Dallas 27, Houston 13

As Seen Here and here

There are moments in a football game where you get a sinking feeling that bad things are on the way.

For me, Sunday had a major moment like that with 14:24 left to play in the 2nd Quarter. The Texans were driving on their 2nd drive of the day, but because of a few negative plays and a penalty, found themselves in a 3rd and 19 hole. They knew, as every coaching staff knows, that there is no play for 3rd and 19 in the NFL. And, if the circumstances are not dire it is best to call a nice, conservative delay handoff, and punt the ball deep.

But, as you know, that delay draw play to Arian Foster caught the Cowboys. Somehow, on 3rd and 19 when they were attempting to concede, Foster was able to out-flank Bradie James and turn the corner up the left sideline. 17 yards down-field, he leapt Mike Jenkins and was able to get the 1st Down. The stadium went bananas. It was a true "are you kidding me" moment for the defense.

2 plays later, the Texans again attacked the pursuit side of DeMarcus Ware with a WR Screen to Andre Johnson. Johnson and his friends outnumbered Cowboys pursuers and he carried Gerald Sensabaugh for 5 yards down to the 6 yard line. The Texans were rolling.

But another Texans False Start helped the Cowboys to only give up a Field Goal. And despite the sinking feeling that Dallas was in for another long day, the Cowboys only trailed 3-0.

On the ensuing drive, Dallas thought they had their first "explosive" play of the day - a 33 yard screen play to Felix Jones that was designed and executed perfectly - until Miles Austin was called for an illegal block. Suddenly, a 80 yard field becomes a 90 yard field as the team is marched back to the 10 yard line, and 1st and 10 becomes 1st and 20. Back in a hole, and the stadium is growing even louder.

And then, the game turned.

It turned when the Cowboys offense - led by their QB who was coming off a week where he certainly was out-played by Jay Cutler - started stepping up to the task of making a little extra out of each play.

Curiously, in what could be called "the drive that saved the season", the Cowboys did all of their damage on 3rd Down. 47 yards on 3 pass plays - all on 3rd Down for Tony Romo. We mentioned last week that 3rd Down was his poorest against the Bears. Well, that apparently was fixed, because Romo dominated on 3rd Down in the big moments of this game:

Examples from the 2nd Quarter Drive:

* 3rd and 8 at Dallas 22 - Romo buys time as the pocket is collapsing around him, steps up, and finds Roy Williams for 20 yards in the gap behind the corner and in front of the safety that he loves so much. First Down.

* 3rd and 9 at Houston 44 - Sometimes a guy just has to make a play, and on 3rd and 9, Romo hits Dez Bryant at about the 39 yard line (which will be 3-4 yards short if he gets tackled). Brice McCain and Glover Quin have Dez bottled up it appeared, but Bryant spins between them and finds 5 yards after the catch that didn't seem to be there. Strength and elusiveness are two traits that the new #88 seems to have in great supply.

* 3rd and 10 at Houston 18 - Yet another 3rd and long, but Romo again is comfortable in the pocket and again attacks McCain who this time has Miles Austin to deal with. Austin catches a simple stop route at the sticks and then drives McCain another 5 yards after contact to the 1.

3 throws to 3 different receivers on 3 crucial 3rd Downs. Marion Barber punches it in on the next play, and the Cowboys never turn back. What did they do differently on that drive? If you say run the ball, you would be wrong. If you say, get timely throws and moments where the receivers are determined to move the chains by any means necessary, then I agree. They needed for someone to make a play yesterday, and thankfully for the Cowboys, several Cowboys stood up.

By the way, to pound home the point about Romo being so good on 3rd Down, here is one more 3rd Down moment in the 2nd Quarter that will not go in the stat books as a 3rd Down conversion, but it was a massive play in the game.

* 3rd and 20 at Houston 45 - :07 left in 2Q, no timeouts. The Texans rush only 3 men, dropping 8 into coverage. The Cowboys cannot stop the clock, so Houston has to protect the sideline. And yet, Romo finds Jason Witten at the 31 yard line in a perfect pitch and catch that allows David Buehler to prove he is worthy of his uniform. Another big 3rd Down throw - to a 4th different receiver, and the Cowboys go to the halftime locker-room with great confidence and self-belief.

And let's not limit the credit to that offense, of course. 3rd Downs were big on defense, too:

* 1st Q, Houston faces a 3rd and 3 from the Cowboys 32 - DeMarcus Ware is the beneficiary of some fine Cowboys coverage in the secondary as he is able to work past Rashad Butler and get to Matt Schaub for a large sack back at the 43 - out of field goal range.

* 2nd Q, Houston has 3rd and 7 from their 37 - And this time, because the Cowboys send Keith Brooking on a blitz, the LT slides down to take him. This leaves Joel Dreessen to attempt to block Ware. That is what we would call a mismatch as Ware walks the TE right back to Schaub and kills another drive all by himself.

* 3rd Q, Houston is back in Dallas territory out of halftime, but faces a 3rd and 12 at the Dallas 40. Again, there appears to be great coverage by the Cowboys as Schaub initially has time. But, again, he cannot find an open man and the pocket collapses around him. Ware gets the credit for this sack, too, but he pretty much just had to touch the Texans QB who had already gone to the ground rather than deal with Anthony Spencer's wrath.

* 4th Q, Houston has 3rd and Goal at the Cowboys 3 - A TD here, and we have a game again. Wade Phillips dials up the "fire zone" blitz from the left - bringing Brooking and James from Schaub's front-side, but dropping Ware into coverage on the back-side (so the LT has nobody to block). Because of the confusion, nobody touches Brooking and the play is over before it starts.

8 different plays - 4 from the offense, 4 from the defense - all on 3rd Downs. It seems like each situation had different guys stepping up to make plays. Sure, Romo and Ware had their fingerprints on many of them, but this is the team effort that had many of us believing that this team could go places a month ago.

Did they finally wake up? Or did they only play with urgency and desperation because they really were desperate?

Some other observations from the big win in Houston:

- 2nd guessing "draft day" decisions is a favorite past-time of those of us who love football talk, and there is certainly room for our 2nd guesses most years. But, after watching Dez Bryant play in live NFL games for a few weeks, there is hardly a discussion to be had in my mind about the wisdom of drafting him. No, the Cowboys didn't need another Wide Receiver. Yes, they had larger needs elsewhere (OL, S). But, sometimes a guy falls in your lap that is just too good a football player to pass up. When they say "take the best player available" and "don't draft for need" this is what they mean. If this is how good he is when he lacks polish, I cannot begin to wonder what he will be like when he has 30 games under his belt. He looks really special.

- Now, about that running game: Full marks to the play caller for determining to make it a priority. I wondered how much they were going to try to get the ground game going in this circumstance because I saw the Colts and Redskins fail to run the ball with any success against this Texans' front. But, the Cowboys did a very nice job in 2 particular ways; 1) Jason Garrett and the offense had 8 real drives on Sunday. And all 8 drives started with a run on 1st and 10. 8 runs in 8 plays is not a coincidence no was it lip service. I don't recommend they try that again next game, because Tennessee will have this film and see what the Cowboys did. and 2) they ran effectively out of pass formations, while passing out of run looks. This is key to having a proper balance on your offense. Give those linebackers and safeties headaches. Every pre-snap read they get is counter-intuitive to what they know. It causes uncertainty in the defense and that breeds big play opportunities.

- I wish I knew the rationale in not running David Buehler out to kick a 47 yard FG on the games opening drive. Surely, you cannot afford to start a game with a long drive like that and then simply not score any points. The Cowboys got away with it, and then Buehler hit 2 other Field Goals that will steady everyone's nerves for now, but do they know that their actions speak louder than their words on this issue when they pass up a standard NFL Field Goal distance each week?

- That is the type of game that the Cowboys need from their offensive line. 0 sacks. 100 yards on the ground. Not the most dominant effort ever, but more than enough to hold their own in a match-up against a defensive front that has been very salty. I did not see too many busted blocks yesterday, and the only times the Texans got pressure it was with the blitz.

- I don't think we can understate the job of the defense when it was determined that Owen Daniels did not get into the end-zone early in the 4th Quarter. The ball was spotted about a foot outside the endzone and with Arian Foster with the ball, I was not expecting a stand like that. If you watch that sequence again, you simply must watch Anthony Spencer and his amazing 3 play sequence. On 1st Down, 93 blows up Vonta Leach as the lead blocker and the play is ruined. On 2nd Down, 93 destroys Joel Dreessen and then nearly brings Foster down himself. And on 3rd Down, he is held by Eric Winston as he turns the corner on the pass into the endzone. The next play was Brooking's sack and the Cowboys held. But, Spencer was the hero on this stand.

- I still think the Texans are very good. But, there is something to be said about understanding the mental switch from being the doubted underdog to the favored power in the NFL. I cannot point to a particular moment where I feel that bothered them on Sunday, but with raised expectations for the first time ever, it will be interesting to see if that group of talented players who have never won at this level can put it all together.

- Takeaways! Takeaways! Takeaways! Isn't football easier when the defense takes the ball? I was asked what they did differently to generate them in Houston and I am sure that Wade and Jerry are asking themselves the same thing on the airplane. It is one of the great questions in football, "how can we generate more takeaways?" The answer is never simple, or Dallas would have solved this issue years ago. But, there is no question that the game of football makes much more sense when you are a "+3" rather than a "-3".

- I cannot predict Cowboys games to save my life. I know this, and it helps explain why I have no interest in gambling. The NFL is wonderfully unpredictable and each Sunday we see that the uncertain results are what makes us addicts to the sport. And the worst part is the more data you consider and the more you study the upcoming game, the worse the predictions become. And yes, this is my way to rationalize being 0-3 in predicting Cowboys games this year.

As an emailer pointed out, it is a strange weekend when the heroes of DFW sports are Jorge Cantu and Roy Williams. But, regardless of how the Cowboys saved their season, the fact is that they did - and in emphatic fashion. They did not need a call or a fluke play to beat a good Houston team in their backyard. This could do wonders for a team that seems to have a difficult time getting out of its own way, but when they do we see why they are thought of as a top team.

1-2 at the bye week, with plenty to work on.

But, after all of that, the NFC East has cooperated. The Cowboys sit just 1 game behind 1st place Philadelphia.


Shelby R. Gray said...

Excellent blog as always. Couple of things -

AS you review film, watch Felix on the screen that was called back. He looked AWFULLY reluctant to cut back inside toward the hashes, although the blocking was obviously there. Wonder if that was from his want to stay outside, or just poor vision?

Something that would be of interest over the last few weeks. How many offensive drives has Brooking kept alive on penalties (PI, Unnecessary Roughness) and how many have resulted in points? He got bailed out on a good holding call this weekend, but it makes you wonder. Other than the one sack, he doesn't seem to be having the same effect as last season. like Troy said - he's out there virtually every play.

Roger Light, artist said...

Dez Bryant's Training Camp

Bob, I agree with your comments about Dez. Folks, get your popcorn ready. Dez is just now wrapping up his own training camp. Now a bye week to get fully integrated into the offense. The coaches have time to assess 3 real games of film, teach him, coach him up and design more plays for him. Meanwhile, opposing defensive coordinators have a revived Roy Williams and tenacious-as-ever Miles Austin to worry about. Combine this with the "new" awareness by Romo and Garrett that they need to get these guys the ball in real pass routes, at all cost--and we have the makings for a special season, once again.

If they learned anything from the loss to the Bears, its that you win by getting the ball down-field and you don't let opposing defenses intimidate you from staying with that goal. Maybe Garret had to see Martz pull it off to believe it, but it appears he gets it now.

sjc said...

Bob -

Not to diminish Spencer's effort on the goalline stand, but a good measure of credit belongs to Jay Ratliff. On each of the running plays, he submarined his man and created a new line of scrimmage about 2 yards deep in the backfield. Just another one of the little things that makes #90 such an indispensable player.

sjc said...

Bob -

Not to diminish Spencer's effort on the goalline stand, but a good measure of credit belongs to Jay Ratliff. On each of the running plays, he submarined his man and created a new line of scrimmage about 2 yards deep in the backfield. Just another one of the little things that makes #90 such an indispensable player.

Josh said...

Regarding the takeaways:

- Late (and preferrably medium-sized) leads cause quite a few turnovers as the QB is pressing the ball into spots he normally would not. Dallas hasn't held a lead like that in a while. It's comforting to see.

- I think the first turnover is primarily caused by Schaub (and everyone else in Reliant) underestimating just how dinged up Andre Johnson was yesterday. Clearly (IMO) Schaub was expecting Johnson to be about 10 yards further downfield than he managed to be, and Jenkins is sitting in centerfield as a result. It's nice to see someone else's high-powered offense backfire for a change.

Shawn said...

Spencer was amazing on that stand.

On 1st down he used a swim move to put the right tackle in his wake, stood up the fullback, AND made the tackle! He beat two blocks and tackled the back for a loss, that is amazing!

And on 2nd down look at him rag-doll this right tackle!

That goal-line stand may be one of Spencer's best series as a Cowboy.