Proving, yet again, that the season is a long and twisted journey, the Cowboys now have hit a stretch where the defense has played so well that we have come full circle and are wondering what this team would look like if the offense could join them.
This, of course, is a rather unexpected development, but here we are. The defense allowed one big play all night long Sunday. Now let's be clear, it was a big one, and a substantial moment in the game (in fact, it might be the only play from that game that gets any sort of historical marker), but for 31 minutes, the Cowboys' defense tried to stand tall as the offense faltered -- and it matched the Giants' defense blow for blow.
In fact, they also made a quarterback look like a rookie. Except this one is not a rookie -- he's a 13-year veteran with a couple of Super Bowl rings.
They were in his face, plugging the run and were all over his receivers. Now, it helped quite a bit that he missed a few throws, too. That always is key to locking down a decent offense -- you just hope when there is a moment when everything clicks that the quarterback either misses the throw, or the wide receiver lets it fall through his hands. But overall, any observer had to be pleased with the night the defense generated.
WEEKLY DATA - AT NEW YORK
It's a massive shame to put together a night when you allow one explosive play, get three sacks and three takeaways, prevent any red-zone damage and allow just 260 yards -- in a losing effort. What is this, the 2015 version of the Cowboys???
They gained confidence throughout the game and closed off lanes for big plays. It helps that, like the Vikings before them, the Giants seem rather limited on offense, but give credit where it is due -- the Cowboys seem to be in a real rhythm at the moment.
Three takeaways is a fantastic number and actually puts the Cowboys just four takeaways (14 on the year) shy of the league average (18). That is not impressive, of course, but it is far better than 2015, when they had the worst year of takeaways in NFL history. Similarly, three sacks put them at 26 at a time when the league average is 28, so we are very close to saying the Cowboys have a league-average pass rush. Which few of us thought was possible this season.
ELI MANNING THROW CHART
Above, please note the Eli Manning throw chart -- that includes just two passes more than 10 yards down the field, and zero passes over 15 yards. Again, this isn't to say there weren't opportunities deep for the Giants, but they did not do a very solid job of executing. But it's important to know what a normal offensive day looks like in the NFL when we fret about the Cowboys' offense.
WEEK 14 - SPLASH PLAYS
On the heels of last week, when I wrote in this space about Sean Lee having one of the best runs of his career and an incredible game in Minnesota, he follows up with a game that was even better -- and is playing out of his mind right now.
Also, quite a game and coming-out party for Benson Mayowa. I know some have labeled him a disappointment, but I am not sure how that can be true if he has not really been given an opportunity. There is a massive difference between disappointing with opportunities versus disappointing while never really getting chances. He did get good snaps in Weeks 1 and 2, but beyond that, we haven't seen much from him. I suggest he is a real weapon and can play, based on my study of him back in the spring. But, like Jason Pierre-Paul giving Romeo Okwara a chance to see the light of day, I submit that Mayowa just needed the reps in a game.
SEASON SPLASH TOTALS
Lee can make a run at the elusive 32-splash barrier -- something that hasn't happened in several years, since DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer were dominating off the edges back in the day. I think all told, we should recognize that this defensive line group has been pretty solid all year long. They definitely have met and exceeded most of my expectations, especially Maliek Collins and Terrell McClain inside, and Cedric Thornton has been coming on strong at just the right time.
I concur with the TV guys that this is a touchdown for the Giants if Eli doesn't let the ball slip through his hands. He loses the ball before he is hit, so while you can claim the blitz made him lose it, you cannot say it was from the impact of the hit. He just saw it and was spooked, I guess, but the secondary busted here and was let off the hook.
Starting to see more Lee blitzes, and they are starting to get home. I love his form and part of that is seeing quarterbacks panic when they see him coming, because I think he does a real solid job of not telegraphing his intentions in pre-snap.
Here is another sack and takeaway on a five-man pressure. This time, it doesn't look like Eli has much, though that corner route might have a chance. But let's look at what he is dealing with in the pocket.
Here, Mayowa steamrolls Ereck Flowers around the edge in a fantastic example of pass-rushing. This is beautiful stuff here, and the blindside hit jars the ball loose so Lee can get to it. Huge play, and a real swing in the game.
Here is Tyrone Crawford's sack, which is off a nice stunt from Collins that creates a diversion, leaving a free path for Crawford to clean up. Marinelli gets plenty of these sacks off stunts and games, and the tackle-end path seems to get the best results.
Here is the Anthony Brown interception. Eli sees Cover 3 and is assuming Brown will be much softer on Victor Cruz, but look how badly Brown wants that ball. Very aggressive -- especially in the red zone. What an impressive kid found in the sixth round of the draft. And another very poor idea from the quarterback.
As you can see, Eli tried to look it off and get this pass in with deception. Brown did not fall for the look-away trick and was right there.
And now, the one play that ended up costing Dallas:
The Giants use one of the most basic pass concepts in football -- the slant/flat combination to open up the Cowboys for a big touchdown. Basically, when you are running man coverage against this, you need your safety to make a play once the slant is completed. Sometimes, the hook defender -- No. 59, Anthony Hitchens -- may be able to help close this window if he is playing the "rat," but it actually looks like he has the tight end, so it is just Brandon Carr and the safety -- No. 42, Barry Church. Church gets the angle all wrong, and Carr can't catch Odell Beckham Jr. once the ball is away. Your safety has to get this right. The other safety -- No. 31, Byron Jones -- is diving down as a robber from the opposite side, so you can argue the Giants caught the Cowboys in the right coverage, too.
You can see from behind that this is a play the Giants should be running once a quarter. Very dangerous when you get nitro in the open field.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
The defense was given huge margins for error for three months, but now there are almost none. They stopped the two-point conversion in Minnesota to get the win, but busted just one time in New York and took the loss. Fickle, indeed.
Tampa Bay is next, but now that the defense is starting to offer some swagger, I am sure they are fired up for the opportunity. That said, Mike Evans is the type of beast they haven't had to deal with much. Big wide receivers of his caliber aren't on the schedule. Let's see how they plan on defending that force of nature on Sunday Night Football.