For roughly two hours and 35 minutes Sunday, the Cowboys and Giants played an incredibly tedious affair that would be easy to forget. Two teams that didn't care for each other, unfortunately, had no idea how to get out of their own ways, let alone take a rival down in front of an incredibly unimpressed stadium half full of Giants enthusiasts.
It was a very difficult game to watch and at 10-10, we had just watched a forgettable stretch of the game where 10 consecutive series resulted in a combined nine punts and one missed field goal. It was brutal for both offenses. At least the Giants appeared to be securing their very high draft pick and seemed happy to achieve yet another loss. For the Cowboys, clinging to their slight remaining playoff hopes, this was yet another disgusting day in which the offense could not get to where it wanted to go with regularity.
This week, it appeared to be the fault of the receivers for much of the afternoon. Terrance Williams had a ball hit him in the face in the end zone on the first drive on what would have been a nice catch for a touchdown, but it was surely one that he expects to make. Dez Bryant dropped a simple slant on that same first drive and would come back in the second quarter and drop a huge gainer down the left sideline (possibly another touchdown) that also would go through his hands and hit him in the face mask. It was not his finest moment, and the complete shade he enjoyed on that route suggests he just flat-out missed it. The sun would claim a third down to Cole Beasley on the next play and the Cowboys' second-quarter drive ended with a missed field goal by Dan Bailey (oddly, not the one referenced in the paragraph above, but a totally different one on a very poor day for the best kicker in franchise history).
Things were not going very well, and now the Cowboys faced yet another third-down situation -- third and 2 from their own 26 -- when they had converted just one of their past six. This was a third-and-short, but that didn't stop Giants interim coach Steve Spagnuolo from dialing up a pretty aggressive blitz to try and cause a big play.
The Giants brought the house -- everyone they could send -- despite it looking like that was the one part of the game plan the Cowboys' offense had sorted out. If you will recall, last year, on the same exact weekend, the Cowboys visited the New York Giants on 10 days of rest in Week 14 and looked like they had never seen a blitz before. The Giants trashed the Cowboys 'entire offensive game plan, even with Ezekiel Elliott in top form, and humiliated the Cowboys in a decisive win that day.
Fifty-two weeks later, the Cowboys returned to the scene of that crime playing against a Giants team with about half of its roster that went to the playoffs last year. This has been a season of massive disappointment for those Giants, and it has resulted in the expected firings of both coach and general manager.
Yet their defensive coordinator from last year is now coaching the team, and it appeared he was convinced that last year's game plan was the one to dust off. That means, on third downs, he was going to rattle Dak Prescott with pressure -- sometimes with five while doubling the prime targets, other times with seven and simply overwhelming the Cowboys quarterback with rushers.
The trouble with that decision of his was this: He did not have the necessary cover guys to do what he chose to do. If you are going to put guys in space on a one-on-one basis to stop a receiver after the catch, he is going to have to be sure of his tackling ability. Yet, the three biggest plays of the game were all in these scenarios.
The biggest one was right before halftime from midfield, where the Cowboys could just not get anything going to that point on offense. But on a second-and-6, the Giants brought seven. That puts Brandon Dixon -- a guy who was brought up from the Giants' practice squad three weeks ago -- in a one-on-one situation with Dez Bryant on a slant route. Bryant catches the ball and then, with the strength of a receiver who doesn't often get brought down by the first man, swings Dixon off him and sprints to the end zone for a 50-yard touchdown. It was a fine job by Bryant, for sure, but it made you wonder why the Giants thought that was a good idea.
To be fair, the Giants blitzed seven different times Sunday. The results for the Cowboys? Five first downs and two touchdowns. In other words, the Giants blitzed seven times Sunday and lost on all seven plays.
The very first one was a lucky break for the Cowboys, as a five-man blitz resulted in Landon Collins batting a ball in the air and Rod Smith running under it to move the chains. OK, lucky bounce. But from there, the Cowboys moved the chains on a third-and-1 out to Beasley for 4 yards and a first down against seven-man pressure. A third-and-3 scramble from Prescott against a five-man blitz. Then, a 16-yard pass to James Hanna against five-man pressure, followed by 11 yards to Williams on a crosser against another five-man rush.
So by the time Bryant broke the Dixon tackle to give the Cowboys their first touchdown, the Giants were 0 for 6 on blitzes in the first half. Yet the score was 10-10, so they were right where they wanted to be in pretty much every other category.
From that Bryant touchdown before halftime until this third-and-2 midway through the fourth quarter, the Giants never brought an extra man and the Cowboys never put a drive together. The Giants were playing straight up against Alfred Morris and the normal Cowboys attack, and they were withstanding things very well.
Frustration was mounting and the Cowboys were not able to break the code at all, which is why I was so surprised the Giants and Spagnuolo decided to stick their hands back into the cookie jar again on this third-and-2 situation at 2:34 p.m. Central time.
This play from the Cowboys' 26 is a third-and-short, but the Giants are bringing seven again. And, just like the Bryant touchdown, they cut their own throats. Because they bring so many, the high safety, Collins, is being asked to chase Beasley (because Beasley's man is coming on the blitz). This makes some sense if Beasley is running a vertical, but as anyone who has ever watched a Cowboys game knows, he never runs verticals. Who on the Giants' coaching staff thought this was a good idea? There is no possible way Collins can close down Beasley from that far away, and if he doesn't, because they blitzed so many defenders, there may not be anyone else to tackle Beasley for a long, long time.
Fifty-four yards later, the game had changed dramatically.
This is the way football works. People want the one team to make "halftime adjustments" or something that brings solutions out of nothing, but it is often the opposition that gives you an opportunity, not anything different you call. If the Giants do not elect to blitz that one time in the second half -- despite six unsuccessful blitzes earlier in the game -- the opportunity may not be there and the Cowboys may continue to punt. We don't know why Spagnuolo was so reckless in the face of evidence, but that may be why 2-11 teams get to 2-11.
The opportunity was given, and Dallas took advantage. Again.
One play later, the Cowboys set the Giants up with 13 Personnel -- from where they always run or throw quick passes -- and sneaked Jason Witten down the seam, with Bryant distracting the defense underneath, for a touchdown.
It is 17-10, and the game would end on the next drive. Prescott converted yet another third down when Rod Smith was split out on the only "empty" play of the entire game and ran a slant underneath against a linebacker who also had no help (because the safety above him went to Bryant, hoping to sit on a slant route). Rod Smith against backup linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, who had just been brought back to the Giants after being waived by the Chicago Bears in September, was another one-on-one battle where if you don't tackle him, nobody will.
Eighty-one yards later, the Cowboys had found their big plays again. Three 50-yard passes would double the team's total in one afternoon. There had been a 53-yard pass to Brice Butler in Arizona, a 72-yard screen to Ezekiel Elliott in San Francisco and a 56-yard gain to Terrance Williams against the Chiefs. But it won't surprise anyone to know that those were the first huge gainers since Elliott's suspension began -- and to find all three on the same afternoon likely tells you as much about the state of the opponent as it does about the Cowboys' offensive issues being completely solved. But then again, let's not look gift horses in the mouth, please.
We don't know where the Cowboys go from here, but we do know they returned to the Giants' stadium 52 weeks later and clearly had a much different day on third downs:
Dec. 11, 2016 -- Prescott and the Cowboys go 1 for 15 on third down.
Dec. 10, 2017 -- Dallas slices up the Giants' blitz and goes 7 for 14 on third down.
If nothing else, it surely looked like a real fine grade on the mental testing of Prescott's ability to find the right place to go with the football if the Giants planned on rattling him. He wasn't going to let that happen and, as any mature quarterback would, he invited the blitz so he could burn the defense with its own attack.
It wasn't easy, but in the end, it was a pretty solid result for the young quarterback to bust out of a slump with a career-high day in passing yards (332) and three touchdowns.
On to the next one. This opponent was quite accommodating. We assume the next few will put up far more resistance.