Monday, November 10, 2014

The Morning After: Cowboys 31, Jacksonville 17 (7-3)

Dallas Cowboys running back Joseph Randle (21) gets by Jacksonville Jaguars strong safety Johnathan Cyprien on his way to a touchdown during the second half of Dallas' 31-17 win Sunday, November 9, 2014 at Wembley Stadium in London. (G.J. McCarthy/The Dallas Morning News)
The main and sole objective from the oddity of a London trip in the middle of a normal NFL season was simple and obvious; to leave town and head back to the United States and the bye week to follow with a mandatory win.  Everything else that the trip generates would fall under the heading of "details that don't matter quite as much," with the possible exception of losing your QB to further health concerns.
And, on a day where bad things happened to teams from all around the NFC playoff race, the Cowboys navigated through their seventh win of the season with general ease and precision in a game that was essentially over with :19 left in the 2nd Quarter as Dez Bryant fought his way into the end zone in a play that demonstrated what that receiver is all about.  Bryant possesses a skill-set that is dominant in many regards, but the element that makes him most valuable to the team seems to be in the way he deals with those who attempt to tackle him on his way to the end zone.
Twice, yesterday, we saw such occasions on a day where his contract future was the topic du jour on the pre game shows and on both he sent a clear message to all involved that he is worth dealing with as a priority.
The first - with 7:14 left in the 2nd Quarter on a 2nd and 8 from the Jacksonville 35-yard line - was an interesting tight formation with "12" personnel balanced up with a tight end and a wide receiver both tightly bunched together off the outside shoulder of each tackle.  The idea here is to beat any man-coverage with the tight end (James Hanna) breaking outside and then running Dez Bryant back inside in a rub route that then drags Bryant across the defense at the line of scrimmage.  Jacksonville was in a rare-for-them 5-man pass rush and that left the strong safety 37-Jonathan Cyprien to have to account for Bryant from a difficult angle.  Surely, the hope was to move the chains, but once Bryant caught the ball in stride and blew by his defender, Cyprien, at the corner, he had other ideas.  First, he stayed outside and turbo-boosted past 26-Josh Evans and 57-Dekoda Watson, before cutting back inside around the 10-yard line, where he made 27-Dwayne Gratz miss, and then 35-DeMetrius McCray at the 5-yard line and 91-Chris Clemons at the goal-line where even Evans and Watson also had another shot at him.  So, depending on how you score a play like that, he beat somewhere between six and eight defenders to the end zone because that is how he plays.  He never goes down without a fight and this time his fight put him in the end zone.
That put the Cowboys up 17-7 with 7 minutes to play in the half, but it was only one of the moments in the 2nd Quarter on this day where you saw what he was all about.
The other told us a little bit about how the Cowboys personality has changed this year.  In past seasons, a 10-point lead was often met with uncomfortable and conservative play-calling from the coaching staff.  They were not used to an early lead and also didn't seem to have much comfort in how to handle it.  They would absolutely have taken a knee with :31 left in the half and go in with a 10-point lead.  Perhaps that lesson was learned in Week 1 of 2010 when DeAngelo Hall stripped Tashard Choice of the ball and then ran it all the way back in for a gutting score right before the half.  Risk aversion was the new theme of the Garrett-regime for years to follow and growing a lead was generally ignored for protecting the lead.
We don't know exactly who to thank for the newly found aggressiveness (my best guess: thank you, Scott Linehan, for your influence on Jason Garrett), but when the Cowboys took the ball at their own 32-yard line with half a minute to play in the 2nd Quarter and up 10 points, I expected a run and then a subsequent run to the Wembley Stadium locker-room.  Instead, the Cowboys decided to go all "Joe Kane" and put the women and children to be and go looking for some dinner.
Seeing Cover 2 up top, you can see Romo in pre-snap eyeballing 26-Evans who is the safety on Bryant's side.  Evans was looking away to deal with the triple threat of Witten-Beasley-Williams on his right, and the second he took a step toward Witten, Romo knew  that Evans was playing the middle zone and the corner 27-Gratz had no support over the top.  He made his read and lofted a touch pass 40-yards downfield into the path of Bryant who had run by Gratz and eluded his ankle tackle.  From there, it was a rather simple physical battle to hold off Cyprien from pulling him down inside the 10 which Bryant then switched from speed to strength and pushed his way over the goal-line again.
This, a 68-yard touchdown tied his play of similar distance in the St Louis game back in Week 3 as the second longest scoring catches of his career.  The long was a 85-yard touchdown on that ugly Thanksgiving 2012 loss to the Redskins, but the two on this day in London were the variety that were not mere details in a box score, but rather the knockout blows against a Jacksonville team that did not need too much help in digging its own grave on its way to a ninth loss in 10 tries.  To suggest that they were the perfect opponent for a trip like this and a pivotal November game is a tremendous understatement.  The Cowboys needed an easy way back on to the winning track and there is no question that everything about this performance went well.
It starts, as all things do in this league, with the Quarterback.  If the uneasy nature of the last month has taught us anything, it is again the value of Tony Romo to the fortunes of the present tense.  The Cowboys are a team with many more positive attributes than most of us thought this summer, but you can quickly see how they transition from a playoff-caliber squad to another average side with the simple subtraction of Romo and his health.  For this reason, the risk of his health to try to get this game was not something that I thought was a great idea, but for the most part he managed his appearance nicely and took a minimum amount of punishment on his way to one of his more efficient masterpieces ever.
Did he look like he was as good as new?  Absolutely not, as he clearly could not put the velocity on his passes to the outside as he might like, but he demonstrated some golfer-like imagination in using the perfect touch and loft on his passes to find targets on most occasions.  All in all it was a day that was his highest-rated in 2014 with a QB rating of 138.8, which beat the New Orleans performance of 137.4 to set the new season high.  More importantly, the decisions to use his brain to get the ball out quickly on most occasions and not risk further contact against an opponent that did not seem capable of scoring many points was evident throughout the proceedings.  Now, Romo can continue to heal over the off-week and get his body as right as it can get between now and the next game on November 23rd against the New York Giants.
Meanwhile, defensively, it was going to be time for the squad to bounce back after a few rough weeks of conceding at just the wrong time.  They would have to do so without the two best players they have had up front all season, as Tyrone Crawford would not dress at all in missing his first game of the year, and Rolando McClain would dress, but then not take off his large blue coat all day and play even one snap.  Both were hurt against the Cardinals in the late stages of that game last week, and again, if you could hand-pick an opponent where you might not feel their absence too much, it would be Jacksonville.
But, still, like Linehan, we must continue to look in the direction of Rod Marinelli for the common sense approach that seems to be hitting the target more often than not.  Yesterday, against a talented but confused young QB in Blake Bortles, Marinelli decided to give him the full "rookie's welcome."  That starts with aggressive coverages where all short routes are challenged at the catch by corners who are trying to jump all underneath routes.  There are veteran QBs that feast on that posture, but there weren't any in London yesterday.
Then, despite not liking to use it very often, Marinelli absolutely brought pressure at opportune times.  In fact, about once per drive, the Cowboys would send an extra man or two at Jacksonville's young offense and on 3 occasions that worked for a sack.  They also had an additional sack on a 4-man rush as English hero Jack Crawford was able to seize the opportunity for playing time in his homeland, and in all the Dallas defense was able to get 4 sacks for the first time in 2014.  In fact, after just 7 sacks in the first 7 games, the defense now has 9 sacks in their last 3 games as the reinforcements of Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Lawrence have certainly not hurt the cause at all.
Take advantage of a special teams blunder, a few generous giveaways by the Jaguars, and some penalties all help the 2nd half seem largely academic and an exercise in estimating when each of us thought Romo should be extracted from the proceedings.  The Cowboys decided to ride the backs of their once-again healthy offensive line, and grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck by the first snap of the first drive when DeMarco Murray plowed for 23 yards on a run play with 2-pulling guards out front.  From there, 15 of the first 23 plays went to Murray in some way, shape, or form.  He is the other physical work-horse for the offense and that grouping of RB and OL seem to give hope that they can get back to controlling the clock and the tempo of the game as this season heads down the stretch.
Besides the rather easy win that now puts the Cowboys at 7-3, the trip seemed to be free from any major injury developments, and now the next 13 days will hopefully clear up McClain and Crawford's issues as well as allow a roster full of bruises to heal.  The remaining 6 games are a pretty significant task, as we will soon commence the annual complaining about the NFL schedule makers doing the Cowboys no favors with late-in-the-season showdowns which will all have a chance to rekindle the late-season narratives we are all familiar.
But, on this day in November, the schedule makers seemed to at least have the decency to present the Cowboys with a solid when asked to travel 5,000 miles for Week 10.  They put a rather hapless offense on the schedule with a defense who had no chance against Bryant, Murray, and the offensive line.  Now, with a 3-0 record against the AFC South and a 4-0 record in "away" games, the team knows what is in front of them.
They have already exceeded the win total that most (me!) had predicted for them, but there are no trophies for exceeding blog projections.  If they truly want to do something remarkable in 2014, they have set the table nicely at 7-3, but finding enough wins to conquer their division and/or make the playoffs will have to wait for the upcoming stretch run in 13 days time.
Until then, rest up on that lengthy trip back to Dallas, and then find a warm beach for a few days.  Because after the rest week, there sure doesn't appear to be many warm days left on that  road schedule.

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