Monday, December 14, 2015

The Morning After - Green Bay 28, Cowboys 7 (4-9)

Anyone who spent their afternoon witnessing the affair could see that the Cowboys' offense was very poor in Green Bay Sunday in their 9thloss of 2015.  But, some of the details are absolutely staggering.
For instance, the Cowboys had 12 offensive possessions on this rainy afternoon.  On only 2 occasions - both set up by big runs from Darren McFadden - did the Cowboys march the ball all the way to their own 40 yard line.  
Let that soak in. 
They had 10 possessions on Sunday where they could not get the ball to their own 40-yard line.   The two that actually did pierce the other side of the field resulted in six plays total in Green Bay territory.  Four of those were on the first drive of the game where the Cowboys burst down the field with optimism flowing when McFadden used pulling linemen and man blocking to blow around right tackle and then back to the left sideline for 50 yards.  An additional 10 yard pass to Jason Witten would be the only completion in enemy territory the entire day and set up the Cowboys to take an early lead. 
Instead, yet another stuffed run out of the jumbo package on 1st and goal was stuffed and then followed by a missed Matt Cassel throw to Jason Witten at the goal-line on 2nd down.  This left what quite possibly was the pivotal play of the game when it comes to the Cowboys winning the afternoon.  This left 3rd and goal from the 3 yard line and Dom Capers was going to send a blitz at Cassel to try to affect the throw to the left where the back-up QB would select between the outward-breaking Cole Beasley and the inward-breaking Dez Bryant on a bit of a run route combo at the goal-line. 
Both players broke open and either selection would have been appropriate (although Cassel knows which one will get him in earful on the way back to the sideline), so Cassel selected Bryant on the inside of Sam Shields.  However, with Clay Matthews in the path on the blitz, Cassel cannot deliver the ball right in the proper location and the ball goes high.  Luckily, if you are going to throw a ball high, Dez Bryant will often go get it with ease and collect another touchdown in his highly decorated career.  Unluckily, this current version of Dez Bryant is likely still not 100% because he did not reel this pass in, but instead tipped the ball into the air in a way that Shields, his adversary of several past meetings, could intercept the ball and take a touchback to end one of the Cowboys' rare opportunities. 
It appeared it was going to be one of those days.  They could not afford very many mistakes against a playoff team at their place, but the offense seemed to be one giant mistake after that opening drive.  Despite springing the two longest runs of the entire season with Darren McFadden of 50 and then 45 (Lance Dunbar also had a 45-yarder against New Orleans), the Cowboys offense looked positively tame the entire day on offense.
It was yet another day of less than 300 yards of total offense in a league where anything less than 350 is generally a poor day.  This is the 5thtime the team could not break 300 and the culprit is certainly another putrid day on 3rd down where they posted a 1-11 effort after Monday night's 1-9 in Washington.  2-20?  10%?
3rd down has been called the "money down" for many year, mostly because those who are really good at it get paid lots of money and those who are not get relegated to the bottom of the standings and are given backup QB jobs quickly.  3rd down is about extending drives, turning punts into field goals, and turning field goals into touchdowns.  If you can't function on 3rd down, then football is going to be incredibly difficult. 
The proximity to 2014 is not helping anyone to digest this 2015 any better, as last season the Cowboys were phenomenal on 3rd downs.  They finished 2nd in the NFL and made a living with their QB finding just the right guy in just the right situation on the money down. 
In 2015, they are near the bottom of the league - but at this rate will get there in no time.  All season long they had been converting at least at a reasonable level, but since Romo was hurt again on Thanksgiving, the Cowboys have gone 2 for 20 and have put out efforts that make you consider running the punt team on the field on 3rd down just to save the aggrivation.
But, on Sunday, it would be difficult to put it all on Matt Cassel to be honest.  Look at some of the 3rd downs that failed beyond the end zone interception on the 1st drive:
2nd drive - 3rd and 1 from the 10 yard line on the 1st play of the 2ndQuarter had Robert Turbin run left and fall just short in another example of the Cowboys issues with 23 personnel when they need just 36 inches.  Punt.
3rd drive - after the converted on 3rd and 7 to Witten, they had another 3rd and 6 a few snaps later.  This play went from a sure interception to possibly one of the best catches of Dez Bryant's entire career to just a garden variety incomplete pass in the matter of a few moments.  Cassel flirted with disaster as rookie Damarious Randall appeared to have the inside position on the ball, but somehow Bryant was able to snatch the ball away.  Unfortunately for the Dallas efforts, the replay showed that he utilized the ground to complete the catch.  At Lambeau Field, no less.  It appears Bryant and that plot of land in Wisconsin do not fully agree with each-other.  Punt.
4th drive - last play before the 2 minute warning, Cassel finds Witten on 3rd and 8, but Micah Hyde is able to pull Witten down a yard short of the 1st down marker on the Y Option route.  Witten is used to falling past the sticks, but on this occasion, the Green Bay safety secured the tackle.  Punt.
6th drive - Just out of halftime, Cowboys face a 3rd and 8 and hit Beasley who appears to have plenty of space.  But, he doesn't think so and ends up stuttering long enough to attract too much attention to get to the 26.  He is tackled after gaining 7 on 3rd and 8.  See a trend yet?  Punt.
8th drive - Late 3rd Quarter, Cassel is flushed out of the pocket on 3rdand 9 and magically finds Witten on a hopeful fall-away pass and Witten grabs it only to be ankle tackled after gaining 8.   Punt.
9th drive - Still just down 14-7, on a 3rd and 5, the Packers blitz with Turbin in the backfield to test his pass protection skills.  He fails as he helps Doug Free and leaves Clay Matthews a free run at Cassel in a collision that the QB is still feeling.   Punt.
10th drive - 3rd and 13, but the game still sits there.  This time, Cassel steps into a throw with a clean pocket and finds Terrance Williams.  Unfortunately, Williams is coming back to the ball and will be tackled 3 yards short of the sticks yet again.  And, yes, Punt.
We just listed seven 3rd down situations and there was not a single incomplete pass listed (save for the reversal of the Bryant play).  Cassel's throws all seemed to be fine in those situations, but for whatever reasons - route running, defensive tackling, perhaps throws that require comebacks - they were gaining yards on 3rd down, but always 1 less than they needed. 
It was that kind of day.
Defensively, again, they will be credited with fighting hard and being exposed to way too much time on the field.  But, they also had a crucial 3rd down.  You see, Green Bay's offense is not the long time juggernaut that you have grown accustomed to seeing up there.  They are fighting it right now with no vertical threats and appear to be a team that has to grind pretty hard to put drives together, too.  Even with Aaron Rodgers at the helm.
But, on the pivotal play of the game for the defense, at 14-7 with 8:15 left to go in the 4th Quarter, the unit has a chance to get off the field yet again.  Packers are going to have to figure out a 3rd and 9 from the Dallas 48 if they want to put this game away.  The Cowboys send five rushers and appear to have called the same blitz as they did against Washington when Sean Lee grabbed his 1st Quarter sack - except this time it would be McClain that would engage in the LB/DT stunt to Rodgers' left. 
Here, the Cowboys do exactly the thing they talked about not doing; they rushed past Rodgers level.  This means as he dropped back to his 45 yard line, you can see Jeremy Mincey and DeMarcus Lawrence both at the 43 or 42, a few yards behind him.  This, with man coverage behind it, opens up the entire field except for Sean Lee who is performing McClain's normal spy/robber role in the shallow middle of the field.  But, as he sees Rodgers begin to vacate the pocket with all of the defenders behind him, Lee loses his footing and now Rodgers has a chance if he can dart past Tyrone Crawford.  Crawford, however, seemed to be sitting and waiting for this as he has an angle on the QB that should end this at midfield.   He is able to wrap both arms around Rodgers, whom he outweighs by about 80 pounds.  And yet, somehow, Rodgers runs right through the arm tackle and keeps running past the sticks in a play that likely broke the backs of the tired defense.  From there, the Packers ran the ball for another demoralizing 74 yards in the final 8 minutes to total the most rushing yards (230) that the team had conceded at any point in 2015. 
We can certainly add to that the eight different occasion in 13 games where this team did not cause even a single takeaway and you have what you have right now - a mediocre team playing out the year where they could never really get out of the starting gates. 
Football is a game that requires execution at crucial moments and the Cowboys simply cannot get what they need when they need it often enough to win games where the opponent doesn't seem to be playing great football.  This Green Bay team was beatable - especially by the 2014 Cowboys.  But, if there is one thing we have learned here in the twilight of this lost season, it is that the 2014 Cowboys don't live here anymore.
The final three games are purely for amusement purposes - although the chance to spoil Washington's season might be worth a bit more than that.  I again use what little influence I might have to attempt to convince anyone who would listen that this might be a reasonable time to check and make sure Kellen Moore isn't of NFL quality.  There is absolutely no benefit to playing Cassel longer this season if you have any other excuse to look elsewhere.  Moore is unlikely to have enough to prove that all of the NFL scouts are wrong about him, but what would it hurt to find out in these final weeks? 
I would also have a long talk with Dez Bryant about his current form and attempt to convince him to shut it down if he isn't 100%.  He is fighting the ball right now and looks well below his normal standards, and at 4-9, let's get him right.  Tyrone Crawford, too, who appears to be about half of what he was and with that shoulder issue really zapping him of his ability, it might be time to get the important assets right for 2016. 
Because, 2015 isn't happening, guys. 
Sunday made that abundantly clear, yet again.

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