Monday, October 30, 2017

The Morning After: Cowboys 33, Redskins 19 (4-3)

We will never know how the game would turn out if the field goal wasn’t blocked.  The Washington Redskins were rolling along pretty well on offense in the driving rain with the ability to sneak Jamison Crowder into the secondary and Chris Thompson out on the flanks in the first half of the divisional showdown in Washington.

If Longhorn kicker Nick Rose can knock it through the uprights and put Washington up, 16-7 with about 3 minutes to go, nobody knows what will happen from there.  Would the Cowboys choose that moment to get their proverbial act together and march back down before halftime?  Or would their drive chart continue to shout that the offense was not going to be hitting on all cylinders in the rain on this day?

The first ended with a fumble, then a touchdown drive, then a missed Field Goal, then a 3-and-out-punt and the last drive of the half was another 3-and-out-punt.  Had the special teams chosen this game to get their finger prints on the season, the outcome could have been a real disappointment in Washington.

Instead, the special teams made 2 game-shifting plays.  Rich Bisaccia and his crew did what you always want - swing a game that needs to be swung. The first was a magnificently timed blocked field goal of Washington’s attempt to go up 2 scores.  On a wet day such as this, the timing of the snap and the hold and the kick will always be walking a tight rope.  After the Redskins had gotten away with one earlier when the holder, Tress Way, was able to get a bobble down properly, the timing on this one was thrown off in a bad way.  That left an opportunity, and if there is starting to be a trait of this defensive line group that the Cowboys have put together, it is that if you give them an opening, they will often charge through it.

So, the replay shows that Tyrone Crawford deserves the credit for getting his paw up in the path of the Nick Rose field goal attempt and David Irving looked like he was right behind him and might have also knocked a piece out of the football flying by.  Anthony Brown was coming around the end and looked like had just missed it.  Regardless, what is clear is that Washington’s first real moment of missing most of their offensive line turned out to be on trying to kick the field goal late in the 2nd Quarter.  It would rear its head several more times before the game was ended, but that was the moment that they would have liked Trent Williams on that spot instead of TJ Clemmings (who the Cowboys were definitely attacking along with the LG Shawn Lauvao) and maybe Brandon Scherff or Spencer Long inside making sure their line wasn’t over-run by opportunistic Cowboys looking to make a play. 

But, make a play they did.  And the ball spurted back onto the ground inside the Cowboys 10 where Orlando Scandrick thought about heading to his right sideline for a moment before doubling back to the left sideline where he was able to rumble 86 yards for one of the most influential blocked field goal returns in Cowboys history to set the Cowboys up with a vital 1st and goal situation at the Washington 2-yard line. 

A few moments later, Ezekiel Elliott is in the end zone again and the Cowboys have somehow, on one moment where the ball and Tyrone Crawford’s right-hand meet, it appears that 10 points changed hands.  What might have been 16-7, Washington, has now become a Dallas lead of 14-13. 

There have certainly been some big blocked field goals in Dallas Cowboys history – both good and bad – but, the only one of the positive fashion that included a long return in recent history was the game in 2007 at Texas Stadium versus Minnesota.  In that game – known by many as Adrian Peterson’s NFL debut in Dallas – Patrick Watkins scooped up a Ryan Longwell field goal and ran 68-yards for a touchdown late in the 3rd Quarter that was blocked by Chris Canty.  The result of that play was turning a potential 17-14 Vikings lead into a 21-14 Cowboys advantage.  That 10-point play secured the win for Dallas that day like this one did.  We must give Watkins (who I just discovered played 5 additional seasons in Canada – Toronto and Edmonton - after leaving the NFL in 2010 to retire just last winter) the advantage because he made it to the end zone. 

Now, the Cowboys have the lead going into the 2nd half against the battered Redskins and the feel of the contest is 100% different to how it could have felt.  They take control in the increasing rain of the 2nd half with a defensive front that cannot be blocked by what is left of Bill Callahan’s offensive line in Washington.  On 3rd and 9, the Cowboys send 6 rushers and it is too much for Kirk Cousins to have a chance.  Tyrone Crawford breaks in and gets home against TJ Clemmings at left tackle, but he only beat David Irving and Maliek Collins to the QB by a fraction of a second.  The ball comes loose and there is Demarcus Lawrence to recover the ball.  They are finally becoming what the Cowboys have needed most; a relentless group of long and athletic “war daddies”.  There is a group of them now, and after years of fruitless harvests, the crop has all grown together into something remarkable. 

They weren’t done there, of course.  Cousins would be under duress the rest of the day and they would insure that there would be no Washington rally.  By day’s end, it was another 4 sack-performance with Irving getting two, Crawford and Lawrence one each.  From the Cowboys PR staff: “With four sacks in today’s game, the Cowboys defense now has 25 sacks through the first seven games of the season. It is just the fifth time since 1982, when sacks became an official stat, that a Cowboys defense has recorded at least 25 sacks through the first seven games of the season, joining the 1982 (27.0), 1985 (29.0), 1986 (28.0) and 1987 (34.0) teams.” 

Let that soak in for a moment.  This is the first time since 1987 that the Cowboys have been on this sort of sack pace?  Heck, it was so overwhelming again that you were pleased how they made such quick work of what Washington was able to field yesterday.  So much so, that at the end of the game Coach Jay Gruden offered Cousins his appreciation for taking the beating and continuing to fight the whole game.  They knew if the Cowboys brought it yesterday, they would be in trouble. 

To the Cowboys credit, it took them a while to get cooking, but then they brought it.  And it was sparked by their special teams in both that blocked field goal and then early in the 2nd half, after the Cowboys were kicking off after the Lawrence recovery was only converted into a field goal, they knocked the ball loose when Keith Smith hit little Chris Thompson hard enough to put the ball on the ground and that is where Ben Benwikere was able to make his first real impression in a Cowboys uniform by falling on the ball.

When you combine 3 Takeaways and 4 sacks together, you can afford a slightly less impressive day from your offense.  The Cowboys offensive machine slowed a bit due to some infectious penalties and loose precision in the driving rain.  They turned some touchdowns into field goals in a rather uncharacteristic fashion that they will not want to become a trend.  The penalties put them behind the chains and the Redskins brought a strong defensive effort that caused some frustration as Ryan Kerrigan and Josh Norman showed their quality. 

Ezekiel Elliott was as impressive as ever after his first carry turned into a fumble.  But, once he got that out of his system, he turned in another Emmitt Smith-like effort where the yards are inside the tackles, vicious, and always going forward.  Sometimes, there is a lot to get and sometimes he has to make his own 4 yards, but either way, they want him to be a battering ram in weather games and he touched the ball a career-high 34 times for 154 yards from scrimmage.  That is now 644 yards from scrimmage in the four games in October for 7 touchdowns.  Only one player in football has had a better October, Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell has 743 yards and 4 touchdowns, but it took him five games to get there.  In other words, nobody has been better than Zeke’s 161 yards per game in October.

Now, our attention can’t help but wonder about his availability between now and mid-December, because when you are rolling out the most punishing player in the league and he may need to go away for yet another Dallas Cowboys suspension, that will definitely lessen the likelihood that they could win a game like this where the passing game did very little heavy lifting.  I have attempted to avoid this headache topic in this space for a while, but the gravity of the situation as the Cowboys reach the gauntlet portion of their schedule cannot be lost on anyone who is following this organization.

Elliott is what this whole team has been built on and therefore losing him for six weeks would be like a severe injury to any other MVP candidate on any other team.  This one would surely be more self-inflicted, but the effects would seem similar. 

Regardless, the Cowboys needed two road wins in two weeks and they put both away in convincing fashion.  They took a 2-3 start that disappointed and turned it into a 4-3 spot going to November.  That start may have cost them the division, but they have their full health are 2-0 in the NFC East, and have a chance to play the Eagles a few times moving forward. 

The questions for the Cowboys are still to be answered.  The Chiefs, Falcons, and Eagles in succession will address plenty of the questions that the judge doesn’t handle today.

Your guess is as good as mine on what happens next.    

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