Sunday night may possibly have nothing to do with the final fate of the 2017 Dallas Cowboys. That doesn't mean it wasn't wildly entertaining or memorable from a pure drama standpoint.
These games are played for three-plus hours between two teams that don't want to give in to each other. They are often not separated by more than one play here or there. That is the sport and that is why we love it so much. For all of the off-field drama and stories that annoy us, plus the vague manner in which the league draws its on-field rules, it is still the best soap opera any writer could ever conceive. It is two teams of amazing athletes destroying their bodies in the pursuit of a win.
Even if that win does not stand the test of time.
The Cowboys survived Sunday night. They survived because they made one more play. Or maybe just the one play that matters. Or maybe the opponent just made the vital mistake at the wrong moment and the Cowboys were the beneficiaries of that gift.
Choose your own description.
Today, I wish to go back to that final drive and just look at each of the nine plays from a defensive standpoint to see how the Cowboys did survive and notch their third win in a row. They again held their opponent under 300 yards of offense (fifth time this year) but also failed to get a takeaway (fifth time) or sack (fourth time).
In fact, what was once a very promising season for sacks -- they were third in the NFL after eight games with 27, trailing only Jacksonville and Carolina -- has now disintegrated. Since the Kansas City game, the Cowboys have played six games and registered five sacks, which, as you may imagine, ranks 32nd in the NFL. During that same span of time, Tennessee has 27 sacks and the Rams have 22.
Their team total of 32 sacks still ranks 16th in the league, but the idea that the Cowboys were a sure bet to reach 40 for the first time in years is just a far-off fantasy again. They would do well to just get to last year's total of 36 in the last two games.
WEEKLY DATA BOX - AT OAKLAND
Several of the numbers above will please you. They did a nice job of limiting big plays, making sure Oakland got nothing easily and even fighting hard against the battering ram that is Marshawn Lynch. They failed on third downs many times and, with no sacks or takeaways (even those that hit them in the chest), flirted with losing a game in which the defense played pretty well.
Oakland obviously is depleted at the skill positions and, aside from Michael Crabtree, had very little. He isn't a top-tier receiver, but he has some very Dez Bryant-like attributes with his ability to win with strength on third downs and in the red zone. But beyond that, the Raiders found almost nothing.
DEREK CARR THROW CHART
Looking above, you can see the secondary was very strong. Derek Carr had almost nothing down the field and that would suggest the pass rush was effective, despite no sacks. You want it to be more effective, mind you, but Carr certainly didn't appear to have all day to throw from the pocket.
SEAN LEE - W.O.W.Y.
Sean Lee "With Or Without You" stats continue to impress. We know he is good and we know the Cowboys desperately rely on him (probably way too much), but we are going to have a full season of very impressive defensive days when he plays, and not so much when he doesn't. That, of course, begs the question of how this season would be different if he had perfect attendance, but I suppose every team has a sob story to tell -- and nobody wants to hear them.
SPLASH PLAYS - AT OAKLAND
I hate to make splash plays subjective -- and I don't believe I did, technically -- but there are two that are not as cut and dried as others. Chidobe Awuzie's third-down stop was a driving tackle that left Crabtree a yard short of the sticks on a third-and-8. Normally, positive yardage is not allowed, but if you get the team off the field with a tackle, I make a third-down stop a splash if deemed a strong personal effort. And the same goes for Jeff Heath on the final play. That was a five-yard gain by Carr and Heath did not technically cause the fumble. But, if you watched it, I assume we all agree it was an extraordinary effort by Heath to save the day.
SEASON TOTALS FOR SPLASH PLAYS
OK, let's look at that final drive -- from the first play to the last.
First and 10 at the Oakland 11, 1:38 to go. Carr quickly unloads to his left to Seth Roberts in the flat, in front of Anthony Brown. Brown is right there and bats the ball away. Good, aggressive break on the ball that prevents a short Oakland gain.
Second and 10 at the Oakland 11, 1:34 to go. Carr and Roberts go again, this time from the opposite slot, and Brown releases Roberts to the safeties. Roberts settles before he gets into Heath's area and is able to pick up 19 in a small window, qualifying as the longest pass play of the game that connected. You can see that Xavier Woods is more conservative than Heath because he has to account for the sideline man to his left running vertically. Heath is ready to pop Roberts if he continues, but he wisely sits down in the soft spot. First down.
First and 10 at the Oakland 30, 1:16 to go. Now Carr tries the right sideline to Crabtree. Awuzie does what he always does, and that is aggressively go up and make a play on the ball. He is so good right now and his confidence is only making him better. It helps to know that Crabtree has speed limitations, but Awuzie does not allow for any separation and doesn't want to give up any completions, either. A really nice player.
Second and 10 at the Oakland 30, 1:10 to go. Here is Crabtree's best move. In the middle against Lee, Crabtree simply pushes him to create space. That is some tight end strength there, but Carr is off with the timing and accuracy of the throw. Lee is looking for a flag, which seems to be a reasonable request. Incomplete.
Third and 10 at the Oakland 30, 1:05 to go. Carr wants Roberts again. Brown knows this and undercuts the route. The ball hits Brown in the chest. It may not be a pick-six, but even if it is not, it still ends the game then and there. Instead, as Brown has shown against the Rams and Eagles, opportunity falls to the ground. Nice play for sure, but these are game-changing moments that you can't let get away.
As you can see, Carr did not play well, but he also doesn't have the most dynamic options ever. And if the Cowboys are just going to rush four, that means they have a seven-man zone to make sure there are small windows. The pocket is collapsing and he has to get rid of it. Also, the Cowboys don't leave many escape routes.
Fourth and 10 at the Oakland 30, 1:01 to go. Huge moment, and the Cowboys still can't get home. They try the tackle-end stunt and DeMarcus Lawrence is closing fast, but almost like Aaron Rodgers last January, Carr steps to his left and is able to launch a pass 55 yards down the field to Crabtree. Heath sees an issue up at the 50 and that leaves Jourdan Lewis by himself with Crabtree. The ball is underthrown, Crabtree knows how to draw the flag and Lewis looks like he is a little panicked. Flag.
The end-zone view. Tyrone Crawford falling gives Carr the escape path, and then you see Lewis is the victim of the underthrown ball. Pass interference looks like the easy call and the Raiders get their fourth-down miracle.
First and 10 at the Dallas 15, 51 seconds to go. Here is a great pass rush off the edge by Taco Charlton and he almost gets home. Carr sees Cordarrelle Patterson on the sideline and takes the quick 7 there before Awuzie pushes him out of bounds.
Second and 3 at the Dallas 8, 44 seconds to go. This is a close call that looks like improvisation from Crabtree or a very rough-looking double move. Either way, he has Anthony Hitchens here and it is up to Heath to dive in and save the day. This is a tremendous job by Heath because he has to watch two threats and, if he is not on his toes, this might be the game-winner.
Heck of a play by Heath against a guy who doesn't lose in the red zone very often.
Third and 3 at the Dallas 8, 39 seconds to go. This is the play. Oakland has a timeout. The Raiders really just need three yards and the Cowboys are in big trouble. But, Dallas could make a stop and force overtime at least. Lawrence is over the left tackle and this is another "almost sack" for No. 90. He has to get Carr to the ground here, but Carr is pretty slippery. Once he does slip away, Carr seems to have a chance to get to the pylon. Look at Heath and all the things he has to consider before realizing that Carr is taking off. Awuzie has to stay with Jared Cook, or Carr will pass it to him. Then Cook looks like he is trying to impede Heath.
Again, I have no idea why Carr didn't just take his first down and get out of bounds. I think it is a horrible mistake by the quarterback to put the game on a reach for the pylon. He almost threw a pick a few plays ago, and then he does this. If I am a Raiders fan, I definitely feel like my $125 million quarterback let the team down on this final drive.
But from a Dallas standpoint, perhaps this drive gives you a better appreciation for Heath and this secondary. Rod Marinelli didn't blitz once and if Carr gets in, I likely would wish to discuss that with Rod. But they survived. It was quite a finish, and the Oakland quarterback gave the Cowboys a lifeline when it looked like they were in big trouble.