Monday, November 23, 2015

The Morning After - Cowboys 24, Dolphins 14 - (3-7)

Finally, a Sunday afternoon where it all made sense again.  The Cowboys roster seemed to look like it complimented itself from offense to defense as it took a lead and played just like you have come to expect.
The Cowboys, for lack of a better analogy, have built up a fantastic bullpen.  If they were a baseball team, they might be the Kansas City Royals.  If you don't get to them in the first six innings, you likely are not going to get to them because they have the arms in the bullpen to feed you nothing but gasoline in the final three frames.
That is the Cowboys.  We saw it last year and on Sunday in Miami it was happening again.  They had taken a lead early in the 4th Quarter with a long, balanced, and impressive drive that grounds and pounds the opponent all the way down the field with first down after first down logged and the clock ticks while the opposing defense tries to dig in.  Tony Romo hits Dez Bryant for a Touchdown and the Cowboys now call on the bullpen as they have a save situation.
The Dolphins then commit a few really silly special teams errors, including the very odd Jarvis Landry kick return to the 4-yard line.  The Dolphins must punt a few plays later and the Cowboys get wonderful field position at the Miami 21 after an equally brain-dead punter personal foul on the Lucky Whitehead return.  This put the Cowboys up 10 with just under 10 minutes to play.
Goodnight, Miami.
You played right into the Cowboys strengths.  This entire roster has been designed to kill off games in the 4th Quarter with the lead.  Unfortunately, they have played the last 7 games backwards and you can imagine how little sense it would be for a baseball team to have the best bullpen in the sport, yet never be able to use it because they never have the lead in the late innings?   Well, that is why the Cowboys have looked "backwards" all season long.
They didn't have the right man to make it all fit together.  Trust me, we will get to a more full and thorough review of Tony Romo's day in just a bit, but I wanted to make sure we start at all of the dominoes that fall late in games in both 2014 and yesterday in Miami that have nothing to do with any passes that he throws.  Romo helps get the lead, but in the 4th Quarters of these games, he is merely a small part of this bullpen. 
First, let's look at the defense.  This defense has looked like it was the wrong style for Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel for a reason.  It was.  If you knew you would be playing with a QB that might not get you too many leads, you would stock your roster with more run defenders and stout bodies to win 4th Quarter battles in the trenches.  But, this team was not designed for that.  This roster was designed to play with leads and to pin the ears back and go get sacks.  That is why they have a roster populated with pass rushers. 
It takes two things to produce sacks.  The 1st is easy - you need a bunch of pass rushers who can rotate in and cause chaos and eventually wear down protection.  Yesterday wasn't much of a day for pass rushing as the Dolphins would try to get the ball out quickly, but once the Cowboys put the lead up in the 4th Quarter, something changed.  And that is the 2nd thing you need.  You need to put the opponent in a position where they must pass and they must pass down the field quickly to get big chunks of yardage.
If you look at the teams that get the sacks and takeaways every year, there is a direct correlation to this plan and putting your opponent in the 4th Quarter vise.  Yesterday, the Cowboys had no sacks on Miami's first nine drives.  But, those nine drives came in rather neutral situations.  The final two drives yielded three sacks.  This is where urgency is high, Ryan Tannehill is trying to get some big chunks so he hold the ball an extra moment or two, and pow!  Here comes a sack from Jack Crawford.  Then, Another sack from Greg Hardy and David Irving.  And finally, on the last snap of the game a sack from DeMarcus Lawrence. 
The defense of the Cowboys was designed to be at its best in late game situations where they could go after QBs.  They decided to try to build a Super Bowl team this year and while a lot of their plan looked silly at 2-7, yesterday it followed the blueprint perfectly on defense with 3 sacks in the 4th Quarter.  They only have 19 sacks on the season through 10 games, and that is a disappointment.  In camp, I thought the targeted total for sacks should be 2.5 sacks a game and that would get the team total to 40 on the season.  As you know the plans went off the rails when the team would not play with too many leads in the 4th Quarter from September 20th to November 22nd, but now, perhaps it is time to resume the goals and at least make a run at 35 or so.  They have a rotation of pass rushers where this should be possible if the offense can do what it does.
And what is that?  Magical throws all over the field?  "Everything in moderation", dear Cowboys' fan.  This team was not an aerial show exclusively last year.  Yes, 2014 had some wonderful plays from its franchise QB to his various weapons, but the bread and butter was built on the foundation of moving the ball with a balanced attack. 
This would employ multiple tight end personnel groupings, a QB that spent a lot of time under center to sell that play-action passing game, ground and pound on the early downs, and then great efficiency on 3rddown to move the chains.  All of that would combine to dominate time of possession, to build drives with double-digit snaps, and to be able to play downhill in the 4th Quarter with devastating shows of force as the team refuses to give the ball back.
I think in just about every case and statistic, the Cowboys offense dusted off the 2014 game-plan to perfection.   They ran 40 plays from under center.  40!  On 29 1st down snaps, they ran the ball 21 times and passed only 8 times.  They had 3 different drives with at least 12 plays as they methodically bled the clock and kept the defense off the field and ended up with just under 39 minutes of possession. 
Now, there were issues.  The return of the Jedi QB brought back some magical plays, but also a few instances where he clearly was trying to do too much.  The interception early in the 3rd Quarter is something that Romo knows is the type of thing a rookie QB might try to pull off, but he was pretty amped up yesterday and I expect he will settle down.  His accuracy was all over the place at times yesterday as well and he looked like a guy who hadn't had any snaps in about 2 months.
Add to that, the pass protection was disappointing as Romo was under duress all day.  But, let's not forget to factor in the idea that Romo back means that he is going to hold the ball much longer than Weeden or Cassel ever would because he is giving those vertical routes a chance to develop.  Now, instead of having to deal with a pass rush for 2 seconds, Romo will routinely ask them for 5 seconds.  That is not easy and will end in punishment at times.  That turns frustration to the offensive line - and sometimes, rightfully so - but, we should all remember the risk/reward for bigger plays.  There is a reason Romo is not satisfied with 22 dump downs to McFadden or Beasley all day, but with that risk comes the possibility that he is going to take hits from very talented pass rushers.  Miami has them and Carolina on Thursday has even more as they are tops in the NFC in sacks. 
But, back to that blueprint for success, here come the Cowboys with the 4-minute drill - just like 2014.  The 4-minute drill is something only good teams need to worry about, but it is the offense killing off the final minutes of a game by simply being able to run off the final minutes of the clock (and the defense's timeout allotment) by moving the chains in a soul-stomping drive of victory.  Again, if you are never ahead late, you never get to pull this off, but the Cowboys had a 10-point lead and took the ball with 6:29 to go and by the time Tannehill received the ball back, the Dolphins had only 1:04 left and none of their timeouts.  The Cowboys just moved the chains repeatedly and demonstrated that the best defense is one that only has to be on the field for 41 snaps.  Dallas ran 68 plays and controlled the clock for 38:50. 
Welcome back, dominant offense. 
And, that means, of course, Tony Romo.  This is not breaking any story about what he means to this thing, but you have to understand that his mental mastery of the offense is such right now that he literally coordinates the offense from under center.  Yes, he sets protection, sniffs out blitzes, gets them in the right play, and aborts the play that he thinks is doomed.  Yes, he is looking frustrated if a route isn't run right or if the receiver is seeing something different.  And yes, his throws were erratic and we can imagine he will be getting back into form as we go down the stretch.  
We should also remember that the Miami Dolphins do not represent the toughest obstacle as the Cowboys try to shock the NFL with a late season push with Romo.  They surely do not and instead look like a team that was more than willing to be put to the sword yesterday when the Cowboys dragged them around in the 4th Quarter. 
There will be much tougher tests ahead, including the one on Thanksgiving Day.  But, for at least one Sunday, it all made sense.
The Cowboys defense made sense as they got off the field, went hunting for sacks and takeaways, and appeared fresh because, you know, they were fresh.
The Cowboys offense was able to take the game to the opponent and not worry about things being the other way around.  They were awesome on 3rd downs, they found some big plays around the field, they reintroduced Terrance Williams as a threat, and ate huge chunks of clock with many of their drives, despite some of the worst field position for the first 3 Quarters they could ever imagine.  Look at the starting spots before the punt fiasco in the 4th:  The Dallas 4, 20, 10, 7, 20, 20, 10, 20.  They were shoved back all day long.  But, then they put long drives together.
Romo is back and it changed plenty.  Even on a day where he was clearly rusty and not up to full speed, he won his 11th regular season road game in a row.  His value cannot be understated and now they must capitalize on the situation by punching the best team in the NFC right in the face on Thursday.  If they can figure out how to beat the Panthers while the whole NFL is watching, they will get everyone's attention.  The Eagles and Redskins were kind enough to assist yesterday by getting beaten soundly, so now Dallas must follow up Sunday with equaling the win total of the first 9 weeks in just 5 days. 
If they can, you won't believe how much Cowboys optimism will be served with the Turkey on Thanksgiving evening.

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