Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Morning After The Morning After: Cowboys 24, Redskins 23 (8-7)

I will spare you the speech about how difficult it is to win in the NFL – especially on the road in the division against arguably your most hated rival.  By now, if you read what I write, either you disagree and offer a customary “meh, they are a 3-win team” or you agree with me that horrible things happen on the road for merely every team in pro football.  The Cowboys have had to scratch and claw this year for anything and everything this season and you wouldn’t expect things to change at this point, right?

Clearly, my holiday schedule has burned me this morning, as I planned on writing about the game against the Redskins and leave a look at the Eagles for those who are not snowbound in a Wisconsin town, but the events of Monday are certainly front and center now.  Tony Romo’s status for Game #16 is now a central plot line that must be addressed as well and we will attempt to visit about both this morning before my wife scolds me for not really being on vacation if I am still typing about football.

Let’s start with Sunday.  I did not expect the Cowboys to win on Sunday going into the game because I know that Jim Haslett and his defense has given the Cowboys fits over the last several meetings with his endless array of blitzes and exotic pass rushes.  It isn’t just about the blitzes in numbers, but it is the constant mental gymnastics that are caused with his linebackers rushing from such close starting points that you often have 7 players lined up across the line of scrimmage at the same distance.  Then, many times, 3 will drop off, but you never know which 3 and this is what can allow for free rushers to come through because of assignment confusion and they can still drop up to 7 players in coverage which willl occasionally have a QB throw hit them right in the numbers as he never expected them to be where they are.

If pass protection and blitz pickup is still the number one kryptonite of this offense and Haslett seems to tailor his attack perfectly to upset the Romo/Garrett attack, well then you can understand that once I factor in the ineptitude of the defense – especially when Sean Lee is unavailable – it seemed rather easy to offer some pessimism about this team’s ability to push the season’s stakes ahead to the final week with a road win in Washington.

And, offensively, it did appear that the Redskins troubled the Cowboys throughout the affair with a combo-platter of blitzes and pressures that limited the Cowboys yardage to another pedestrian total that just barely topped 300 yards on the game’s final play.  But, that final play – all 10 yards of it – meant so much that you can understand the team not caring about only 309 yards when they hopped on the plane with 1 victory to show for their hard work.

If you consider that the first TD drive was just 3 yards after a lovely Christmas gift from new and temporary return man Michael Spurlock on his first touch with the organization, you really can see how things were not very good for the offense from that point until the 4th Quarter. 
The 2nd drive ended because a free rusher was bearing down on Romo and he had to unload the ball on 3rd and long.  The 3rd drive was the rare 8 man blitz (something we have not seen in several years of tracking the opponent’s blitz plans for the Cowboys) for a sack that brought on the punt team again.  Dallas then answered the bell in the 4th drive with all heavy lifting performed by Romo, DeMarco Murray for his huge run of 43 yards and then one of the best plays of Romo’s career to stay alive under duress for long enough to deliver a touchdown on a post to Dez Bryant late in the 2nd Quarter.

From there, the opening drive of the 2nd half brought more pressure and shorter time in the pocket for Romo who then hit new fullback Tyler Clutts in the flat for his first opportunity to touch the ball as a Cowboy when a hit from Josh Wilson knocked the ball loose and the ball was turned over.  It was the worst possible way to start the 2nd half by giving Washington life with a short field and they immediately cashed it in for touchdown and the game was back on. 

Then, the very next drive showed promise until a back shoulder fade to Dez appeared to lose all hope when Bryant slipped and the ball that likely shouldn’t have been thrown anyway was now easily received by Cowboys’ nemesis DeAngelo Hall for another giveaway.  This, as expected, was also cashed in for a short-field Touchdown and now a game that the Cowboys were steering all afternoon was flipped with 2 turnovers and 2 touchdowns for Washington. 

They had life, the stadium was rocking, and the Cowboys were in trouble, down 20-14.

And now, with a 2nd half with composure slipping away, the very next drive also would be marked under the failure heading as it included an incompletion on 1st down to Dez against a blitz, an incompletion on 2nd down to Dez against the blitz, and finally a Ryan Kerrigan sack on a blitz that included a stunt and a big hit on Romo to end the drive with a demoralizing punt with the game slipping away. 

This, of course, is where you have to recognize that this is very much a team sport that requires both sides of the ball (and special teams) to pull their own weight and sometimes the weight of the other sides that are underperforming.  The much-maligned defense has been struggling to do anything for the last several weeks and now are in a spot where getting a stop is a rare occasion and worthy of celebrations.  The Redskins, with a steady diet of Kirk Cousins to Pierre Garcon and Alfred Morris on the zone runs were getting way too comfortable against the accommodating Dallas defense.

From the mid point of the 1st Quarter until early 4th, the Redskins had the ball 6 timed and scored on 5 of them with the only unsuccessful drive being a missed throw to Santana Moss in the red zone that Jeff Heath intercepted.  But, all 6 drives either ended with points or with a trip to the red zone.  That is more of the same from Chicago and Green Bay and when JJ Wilcox inexplicably piled on Moss late in the 3rd to extend a Redskins drive that was dead, the unraveling was underway again.  A few plays later, Washington kicks another field goal, and now, with the 4th Quarter left, they are up 23-14 and the heartbeat of the season was certainly lacking strength in Dallas.

But, the 4th Quarter contained many, many talking points of note.  First, on a 3rd and 4 play to start the Cowboys 9th drive (and first that would be successful since the Romo to Bryant TD way back in the 2nd Quarter), Terrance Williams made a wonderful catch before being hit hard by Brandon Meriweather on the sideline to move the chains.  But, the big moment here is that Brian Orakpo injured his groin as he pushed against Tyron Smith with little success and was lost for the remainder of the contest.

Orakpo is a fantastic pass rusher and someone who is not always available due to injury to Haslett, and I found his response to his absence to be interesting.  From that injury until the end of the game, Haslett almost completely stopped blitzing.  In fact, on 9 of the last 11 passes, there was only 4 men rushing and this is where the Cowboys were successful through the air. 

In fact,  Romo went 7 for 11 on those final 2 drives for 125 yards and a touchdown all with an injury that occurred on the very first throw of that sequence.  Romo was clearly hurt and unable to move very well, and yet Haslett stopped blitzing him when his mobility and perhaps his mental resolve to hold the ball and make a play would have been at its worse.  This combination of events really requires explanation from a Redskins’ coaching staff that has befuddled on a regular basis this season. 

The best moment on the drive that ended with a Dan Bailey chip shot was the play to Cole Beasley on 4th and 6 that went for 20 yards.  Beasley has really developed this season for a QB who has a history of only trusting those who he believes has earned it, and Cole clearly has that trust to get opportunities on so many big 3rd and 4th down situations.  Dez and Romo just missed on a replay of the 2nd Quarter Touchdown as the ball could have been better delivered and better received so they settle for the kick and it is 23-17 with 6 minutes to play. 

The defense has had very few moments to scream about in December, but their stops late are worth mentioning.  Alfred Morris scored a touchdown with 3:41 to go in the 3rd Quarter and at the moment had 19 carries for 83 yards for a powerful 4.37 yards per carry.  But, in the 4th Quarter as the Redskins are trying to kill the game with the ground and pound approach, they limited Morris to 5 carries for 5 yards.  This was an unexpected and impressive stand over the final quarter that saved the game for the Cowboys, mostly due to forcing repeated 3rd and longs in the final quarter.  One was extended by JJ Wilcox’s poor judgment, but the others were all longer passes that resulted in one conversion and 2 stops for the Dallas defense that all started with run stops on early downs, with particular credit going to Nick Hayden who has not had much nice said about him this season, but crashed through at a few critical times late.  Orlando Scandrick’s play on Garcon on a 3rd and 6 brought on the punt team and set the table for another do-or-die drive for Romo and his troops.

The best way to stay out of 3rd Downs when you are very poor at converting them is to convert early, and on 2nd and 10 Romo hit Williams for 15 and then on the next 2nd and 10, it was a double move and a huge 51 yard pass to Williams again over the top as Romo and Williams went to work on Josh Wilson again and his slip made it all possible.  From there, a quick pass to Dez Bryant put the ball inside the 5 with a 1st and goal with 2:16 to play. 

1st down showed DeMarco barreling down to the 1.  But, after the 2:00 warning, 2 consecutive plays showed that while the offensive line is improved, they are not bullies and the interior of the Redskins DL, led by Chris Baker and Barry Cofield, pushed back Ron Leary and Travis Frederick on consecutive plays – the 2nd of which caused the incredibly rare 9 yard loss as Murray was perhaps too eager to fight and not accept his moderate loss in exchange for a gigantic loss. 

So, now it was down to one play.  4th and goal from the 10.  Again, Haslett, with the game on the line allows Romo to only face a 4-man rush, perhaps playing the scenario out that he cannot let Dez or Witten find any space on this 1 play that will decide the game.  And, dropping 7 worked well for those targets in the endzone.  Lucky for Romo, it did not account well for DeMarco who was in a check-and-release posture and after chipping Kerrigan on Doug Free, Murray received the ball at about the 4 and beat DeAngelo Hall to the pylon. 

The play, like the 4th down to Beasley earlier, was a play that required perfection or the game and season was over and Romo delivered in a situation that took some intestinal fortitude and determination with the cynical football world watching and waiting for another wave of judgment on his entire body of work. 

It was a very big win and like I said, one I didn’t really expect.  They now set themselves up to play for the entire divisional title in a home matchup with the Eagles that will also allow them to complete a season with divisional sweeps of all others in the NFC East.  The rarest of divisional sweeps that would certainly determine the best team in this rather mediocre division.

However, the complications of Monday make this a bit more difficult to decipher as the status of Romo has been declared “out” by many respected media members (with their inside sources).  Now, I cannot help but be skeptical because I know Romo’s reputation of staying in the action even when in intense pain and because the media assured us Dez Bryant was out last year and he played through it.

I have no idea if Romo can play, but I certainly want him to do exactly that.  Kyle Orton should provide reasonable play, but this team needs Romo to function at their best and he needs this moment as well.

But, with the wildcards of Jerry Jones and Cowboys drama swirling all week, we will have to wait all week to find out who is under center on Sunday night with the world watching Arlington, Texas. 

It certainly is never dull around here.  Why would it start now?

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