Friday, November 28, 2014

The Morning After: Eagles 33, Cowboys 10 (8-4)

A season that has been largely enjoyable and surprising from many perspectives was run over by a speeding truck yesterday in Arlington.  The Philadelphia Eagles destroyed the Cowboys by a 23-point margin and in many respects, the game was not even that close.
At 8-4, all hope is not close to lost, but the views of what this team is capable of may need to be tailored with a bit more reality as they face a daunting December with 3 of 4 in cold weather situations and plenty of chips in the middle of the table.
The following are the ugliest characteristics of a decisive thumping by a division rival in your own building to try to ruin Thanksgiving:
- Your QB plays arguably the single worst game of his career from a QB efficiency standpoint.  Tony Romo had a passer rating of 53.7 for the day, yesterday.  You would have to go back at least 5 years to find any performance that is really in the same neighborhood.  Those candidates would include the first game ever played at Cowboys stadium against the Giants in 2009 (29.6), 3 games late in the season against the Eagles in 2006 (45.5), 2007 (22.2) and that 44-6 debacle in 2008 (55.8), another late season trip to Pittsburgh in 2008 (44.9), and the miracle win in Buffalo in 2007 (49.9).  In other words, when he was young he threw up some worse stinkers, but the type of game he played yesterday hasn't been played here in the post-Igor Olshansky era.  Romo was never locked in, his passes were loopy and short of velocity for much of the day, and he showed us that skittish demeanor in the pocket which seems to be triggered best by big blitzes and that sometimes cause him to bail to the ground before the pressure arrives.  I spent a good portion of the week expecting the Cowboys to be better than the Eagles, with my principle reason being that Romo is a far better QB than either QB that Philadelphia has on their payroll, but it seems pretty silly in hindsight to leverage much weight on that based on what we saw for 3 hours yesterday.  He simply did not look himself for much of the day and even many of his completions downfield looked hopeful.  One would have to assume that a QB that hasn't practiced on a Wednesday all year may not have the ability to play 2 games in 4 days.
- Your dominant ground and pound offense is out gained by the opponent by 163 yards.  The Eagles demonstrated the ability to run the ball from the very first drive yesterday with simplicity.  It started early and never stopped.  The Cowboys surrendered a massive 36 yard run to LeSean McCoy right off the bat on the first possession when they unbalanced their line to the left and then simply cutback to the wide right.  This had all of the Cowboys rushing to the strong side and there was absolutely nobody to prevent McCoy out-sprinting Rolando McClain to the sideline for a huge gainer that set the tone for the afternoon.  When your middle linebacker is the only guy handling outside contain, you have a major problem on your hands.  JJ Wilcox and Anthony Hitchens both crashed to the inside and fell right into a scheme trap from the Chip Kelly recipe book.  Evidently, the short week did not sufficiently cover the Eagles just getting the Cowboys to align improperly.  Meanwhile, Dallas ran its 2nd worse rushing day of the season (Arizona) and its worst rushing day when Romo was available to keep a rushing defense honest.  Murray and the offensive line were able to get some decent yardage at times, but when the long gain on 25 carries is 8 yards, and when McCoy had 3 carries of over 19 yards each, then there is very little that you can draw from that matchup that would be considered acceptable in a showdown game like this.
- You lose the turnover differential decisively and take a -2 at home.  The Cowboys turned the ball over 3 times and that is a problem, but we are also seeing a major trend in what is needed from the defense to secure wins.  In the 8 wins, the Cowboys have taken the ball away 16 times.  In the 4 losses, including yesterday, they have taken the ball away 3 times total.  In fact, yardage allowed seems to have no correlation whatsoever to wins and losses, but when the Cowboys don't take the ball away, which they seldom ever accomplish in home games, but the way, they generally don't win.  The lone exceptions were the Saints and Giants games where they took the ball away a combined 5 times.  Otherwise, in the other 5 home games, they have grand total of 4 takeaways.  And in all 7 home games this year, the defense has accounted for just 4 interceptions.  Everything else has been accumulated by fumble recoveries which depend on the good fortune of the ball bouncing properly.  And, as we saw yesterday when Tyrone Crawford stripped Mark Sanchez, when Cole Beasley was stripped before halftime, and when LeSean McCoy's rear end touched the turf before Barry Church pulled the ball out, the fumble luck was not on the Cowboys side on this day.
- You take a massive loss in the trenches on both sides of the ball.  This wasn't a great week for the offensive line to turn in one of their roughest days, either.  What makes it disheartening for the Cowboys has to be the fact that this is how they thought they were equipped to deal with the Eagles.  The belief was that you could just beat them at the line of scrimmage and that affects everything else on the field.  Unfortunately, Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan proved to be more than the Cowboys were able to deal with inside and that, of course, made DeMarco Murray and Tony Romo look far more ordinary that usual.  Looking back at the Giants game, it is clear that much of Romo's success in throwing the ball is due to the time and comfort he had in the pocket.  Now, we see the other side of that equation, when the lack of a pocket for much time caused him to look as awful as memory can recall.  Given that we never heard from Trent Cole all day, it appeared Tyron Smith played very well - aside from the possible exception on that crucial play in the 2nd Quarter where it appeared Travis Frederick snapped the ball before anyone else expected it.  But, from my perspective, it looked like that is all on the center since nobody else budged on that very significant moment in the game.
- Your defensive line did not generate any pressure to speak of and really aside from the Crawford sack/fumble in the first minute of the 2nd Quarter, I am not sure a Cowboys front seven guy touched Sanchez all day long.  This is a game where they absolutely needed Anthony Spencer, DeMarcus Lawrence, Henry Melton, Jeremy Mincey, or George Selvie to make a play on Sanchez, but they couldn't get there.  Without a doubt, the Eagles get the ball out as quickly as they can to lower the weight on their QB's shoulders, but there were moments where he did have to stand in there and wait for something to develop.  For instance, on that 2nd and 20 after the Sanchez fumble when he had to wait for Brandon Carr to leave Maclin because Carr thought Darren Sproles was going to get the ball in the flat, and was then burned over the top on the clear busted coverage for 58 yards.
- The 3rd Down situation was a disaster, as well.  If you are going to get destroyed up front, perhaps you can still turn the game with some 3rd Down work to cover some of the issues.  Well, that didn't happen either.  The Cowboys converted at 33% (4-12) which continued a massive slide down the NFL standings since Romo missed a game where they are just 14-46 in their last 4 games.  This after leading the NFL for much of the 1st two months of the year.  Then, defensively, they allowed the Eagles to move the chains on 8 of 15 occasions, which takes the opponents' 4-game trend against Dallas to 32-60 (53%).  What was going so well in the first half of the season and the Cowboys rode to a 6-1 start is now going quickly in the wrong direction and 2-3 since tells the story.  They were winning 3rd Downs in both directions and now they are being soundly defeated.
The issues were many and the solutions were few.  The Cowboys thought they were ready for this stage against this opponent (as did I) and were quickly shown that they were not and the reasons for optimism leaving that game were almost non-existent.
They were dealt a very damaging blow in the attempts to win the NFC East and to even qualify for the playoffs.  But, with 4 games to play, the Cowboys very much control their own destiny in those regards.  The questions are whether or not we should assume that Thursday was merely an aberration and something they can shake off and easily overcome.
More than anything leaving the game, the real concerns over whether or not the Cowboys could deal with the Eagles differently when they have time to prepare is being discussed.  Was it simply a matter of a quick turnaround and a short work week that had them looking both mentally and physically slow.  There are players like Romo and Rolando McClain that looked to be shells of themselves on Thursday, and you wonder if it is just one of those games or if they were simply unable to play again so soon after a taxing night in New York on Sunday.
But, those would have to be filed under excuses that nobody wants to hear when the season is on the line.
Chip Kelly did look to be the better tactician on Thursday as his team did look prepared and confident.  Maclin looked better than Dez Bryant, McCoy looked better than Murray, Fletcher Cox looked like a star defender (the Cowboys traded up in that draft, but they found Morris Claiborne more worthy of that price tag than Cox who was believed to be high on their list, too), and even Mark Sanchez looked to be the best QB on the field.
The worst part of it all?  It could have been much worse.  The Eagles actually stumbled quite a bit in the red zone (a trend that the Cowboys defense has been on the wrong side of for a month now) and only converted 1 of 5 trips into touchdowns.  Had they been able to execute down there with the same ease as the rest of their offense all day, a 23-point margin could have easily been significantly more painful.
The Eagles were picked by virtually everyone who picks the NFL to win this division in 2014.  Then, they were destroyed on national television 2 weeks back and the Cowboys started asking "why not us?"  Now, the national television destruction hits home and the doubt will switch camps for 16 days until these teams meet again.  In the meantime, Dallas has to deal with Chicago and the Eagles have Seattle coming to town.  To suggest that anyone knows for certain how this will look in 2 weeks is laughable.
But, for Dallas to keep this season of promise from turning into one of the more disappointing endings in memory, they are going to need to shake this one off in a hurry and prove their resilience.
Because right now, everything they have shown to be positive this season is being questioned.  The dominating run game, the opportunistic defense, and yes, even the QB having his best year ever and being suggested in this space as a potential MVP candidate 4 days back.  The doubts and the doubters have reemerged, and only the 53 in that room can restore order.
With a month to play, the Eagles are setting their sights higher than the divisional race to see how they measure up with the NFC heavyweights.  Meanwhile, the Cowboys are left here to figure out a response, before it is too late.
December beckons.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Bob Sturm: Three Eagles players Cowboys fans need to watch for

There are plenty of available talking points when breaking down this matchup, but let’s focus on three players in particular:

C Jason Kelce

Kelce is one of the key blockers who anchor what the Eagles try to do with their run-first mentality. Unfortunately for the Eagles, Kelce suffered a sports hernia and missed four starts a month ago, and combined with the extended absence of left guard Evan Mathis, the Eagles have really not been close to the running threat they were in 2013.
In fact, not only has LeSean McCoy’s performance dropped off per carry, but the Eagles are 31st in first-half runs in the NFL after being eighth in 2013. Kelce is undersized, but generally excellent in the zone scheme with athleticism that includes uncommon speed for a center (4.89 in the 40 in the 2011 NFL combine).
The return of Mathis and Kelce inside for the late season should assist nicely in jump-starting the misdirection threats that the Eagles generally present.

WR Jordan Matthews

Another week leads us to another standout rookie wide receiver as times have changed in the NFL. There was a time where this position required a year to get acclimated, but in 2014, each week it seems we cross paths with a player who has quickly figured things out. Matthews, the all time SEC leading receiver had a reputation of being as talented and as smart as they come in the buildup to the 2014 draft. He runs all of the routes and has versatility and size (6-3, 212) to do whatever is asked. He seems to excel at deep crossing routes. With 300 yards in the last three weeks, Matthews has certainly become Mark Sanchez’s favorite target. His hands are exceptional, and the Eagles look like they have found a keeper from the second round. 

LB Connor Barwin

There is only one player — Kansas City’s Justin Houston with 13 —in the NFL who has more sacks than Barwin’s 121/2. 
Barwin arrived in 2013 from Houston as an unrestricted free agent and has helped the Eagles transition into the 3-4 scheme where he excelled for the Texans in his first four seasons in the league. A college roommate of Kelce at Cincinnati, Barwin’s pass rush gift is a combination of edge ability and an energy level that never stops. He lines up mostly over the right tackle as the left edge man opposite Trent Cole and as an outside linebacker he is a very good defensive end. You can attack him in coverage with tight ends, as his hips are tight and best suited going forward as a DE. Given how 3-4 defenses have caused the Cowboys issues — Washington and Arizona, in particular — this season, the Eagles’ pressure pass rushes will present quite a test.

Marinelli Report - Week 11 - New York Giants

Sunday was quite a tale of two halves from the Cowboys defense against the Giants.  In the first half, the Cowboys needed until inside the 2 minute warning of the 2nd Quarter to mix in their first stop of the night.  The Giants marched down the field for touchdown drives the first three times they touched the ball with relative ease, to the tune of 223 yards on 30 plays which is a very poor 7.43 yards per play to concede.  During those drives, the Giants converted 7 of 7 3rd Down attempts which added to a trend of the Cowboys spending the last month or so sliding down the standings in situational football.
Over the last month - from the Washington game until today - the Cowboys are the worst team in the NFL (32nd) at getting off the field on 3rd Down.  They have allowed teams to convert 3rd Downs on 30 of 59 occasions for a 51% conversion rate.  Prior to that Washington game, the Cowboys were actually slightly worse than league-average (40.9% is the NFL 3rd Down conversion rate) at 3rd Down defense, allowing 35 of 84 for (41.7%). That puts them now at 29th for the entire year.
They have also fallen down the charts all the way to 31st in Red Zone defense as well.  In a league where 55.7% of all drives that enter the red zone are converted into touchdowns, the Cowboys are allowing 7 points on 67.7% of occasions.  Indianapolis is worse, but that is the only team that can claim as much.  Dallas has only allowed 31 opponents' trips inside the 20 (league average of 35), but have then allowed 21 touchdowns (league average is 19).
But, to the Cowboys credit, they are where they are through 11 games because they can and have played better in spurts.  And the 2nd half against the Giants was impressive work for the most part.  After being soundly whipped in the 1st half, the Cowboys dropped the Giants' yards per play down to 4.6 and recorded stops on 5 of the 6 drives - including a monster interception by Barry Church that turned the game (although any fair look at that thanks Eli Manning for his exceptional generosity) and the vital 4th down stop by Rolando McClain which secured the game.
Now, they face a team that brings with it a reputation that will stretch a defense and isolate its weaknesses with a scheme that certainly brings a unique challenge to the table.  The Eagles under Chip Kelly have run an offense that over 2 years has run up the yardage at a very impressive rate.  Basically, they are able to gash opponents for as many big runs as anyone but Seattle while also able to throw for as many big passes as anyone but Denver. Essentially, they have put themselves in a production category with Denver, New Orleans, Green Bay, and New England since Kelly was hired - without having a Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, or Tom Brady as a QB.  That neat trick over the course of almost two full seasons certainly should not be disregarded.
The issue with Philadelphia is two-fold, the first being their ability to massage the tempo to their liking.  They are not more efficient than most teams in those vital execution-based metrics like 3rd Down rate (13th) or red zone rate (28th!), rather, they just know that the more chances they get, the more they can convert enough to stay ahead.  With tempo, they are rushing you back to the line of scrimmage, certainly taking away your ability to specialize your personnel with substitutions, and not allowing for much time to recover or collect your thoughts before they come at you again.
The 2nd issue is the ability to tactically put you in "classic conflicts" where they stretch you horizontally to a point where you cannot deploy enough players from sideline to sideline to take away what they want to do.  This is the life-blood of Kelly's scheme going back to Oregon where there are a number of packaged plays that basically present the QB with a decision tree where plays can evolve in a number of directions based on how the defense defends it.  It turns into simple math and strategy, and Kelly rightfully gets credit for a design that is both simplistic in its approach but plenty complex to defend.  Invariably, if he can increase the snaps in a game and stress all 11 defenders, he knows that ultimately, he will catch one of your guys napping and the big plays occur.  If he ever finds a Quarterback who can perform at the high-leverage moments, it will be interesting to see how far it can go against the league heavyweights.
That said, he is a month from winning the NFC East again, and Rod Marinelli's unit might be the only way they are stopped.  He will require assignments being handled, tackles being made, and, as usual, the timeliness of some key stops and takeaways for the Cowboys to celebrate Thanksgiving with a massive divisional win.
Looking ahead and behind brings us back to a player who has made 2014 his season.  I was asked two days ago if the Cowboys could only have one of Rolando McClain or Sean Lee to keep for the future, who would I rather have?  This is a hypothetical that may be irrelevant, because Lee is under contract and McClain is not - and the Cowboys have plenty of contract concerns for the spring - but, for the exercise, it is an interesting debate (and that alone speaks to the amazing year 55 has had).
I asked one high-ranking member of the front office and he hedged his answer by saying they are plenty different animals and each has his own issues - positive and negative.  But, he then confessed he would love to see what they look like next to each other in 2015.
Wouldn't we all?
McClain for me should be paid the compliment of at the very worst, upholding the level of play from that position when Lee is available.  As my friend Bryan Broaddus has said a million times, what type of ice cream do you prefer?  Which means, it is all a matter of what type of player are you looking for.  For me, I love the idea of a middle linebacker who plays downhill and punishes.  I prefer big to small in the trenches of the NFL, and as good as Lee has been over the years, I am not sure his body is designed for the warfare between the tackles.  Again, with no disrespect for Sean Lee, I think Rolando McClain was made for these battles.  He is a destroyer of run plays.
Let's see a few from Sunday:
Watch #55 - diagnose and attack.  He dive bombs in there and then brings the shoulder to snuff out a run before Rashad Jennings can get back to the line of scrimmage.
This one is the best.  McClain runs past a tight end who didn't have a chance to find him before he circles and attacks again for another tackle for a loss.  There is no indecision in his game.  He trusts his eyes and attacks.
This is where McClain is awesome.  The stretch plays to the sideline.  We have seen this over and over this season as the middle linebacker basically mirrors the running back and meets him in the hole.  The Center 55 is supposed to get him, but Rolando runs past him.  Do you think Jennings loves what he sees when he wants to cut upfield?  And then, he tries to hit the booster, but McClain is not letting him get away.
Look at this collision.  Same situation as the other play above but the pain train is coming. Explosion and certainty for where he is going.  Jennings is surely getting tired of this routine.
Another one where McClain takes these goal-line runs as a personal challenge and he sees the play so quickly.  Then, he doesn't fall for the FB dive and meets him right at the line again with force.  Diagnosing is one thing, then being able to make the stop is vital as well.  McClain does both.
And then, the play that saved the game.  Look how he directs Carter and makes sure they have their ducks in a row on who has who.  Then, he battles to protect that 30-yard line.
From what I saw on Sunday, the Giants game for McClain might have been the single best performance of a Cowboys defender in any game this season.
Brilliant stuff.
DEFENSIVE PARTICIPATION:  A scary moment on Sunday night was when it appeared Orlando Scandrick was injured.  He is as tough as they come, but when you look at these final 5 games and the players they can least afford to lose on defense, the cornerbacks must remain upright with Brandon Carr and Scandrick.  Sterling Moore also has played a ton of football this season and against a number of 11 personnel teams, the Cowboys need to be able to continue to count on those 3.  Otherwise, the rotation up front is intact, but the 2nd wave of Anthony Spencer, Henry Melton, and DeMarcus Lawrence need to step up with more splash plays in this final month.  Jeremy Mincey and Tyrone Crawford have done a lot, but the more those and George Selvie can contribute, the better chance this thing has.  All snap counts from
So many snaps and so many 3rd Down conversions.  The Cowboys got away with one on Sunday from those perspectives.
A reminder of what a splash play is by clicking on the link:
As demonstrated above, this was the Rolando McClain show, with special guests Jeremy Mincey and Barry Church.
During the Marinelli Report, we attempt to chart how the opposing quarterback fared against the DAL pass rush (unlike Decoding Linehan, when we chart drive progression). The key in the bottom end zone defines how many rushers came during a given throw. Each line entails where the ball was thrown from, trailing to the (general) point where it was caught. Dotted lines are incomplete passes. Red squares are sacks.
Week 12 Summary 

This segment of the defensive study is simply to find out how well the Cowboys are doing at getting pressure on the opposing QB.
We see again that the Cowboys are almost never sending pressure.  They are trusting their front to bring the pressure and their coverage to be as sound as possible.
Each week we calculate how opposing quarterbacks fare against the Dallas blitz. Consider this the raw data behind the passing chart.
Wk 1 - Colin Kaepernick: 4/8, 74 Yds, 1 TD, 1 SACK
Wk 2 - Jake Locker: 3/6, 22 Yds
Wk 3 - Austin Davis: 4/7, 42 Yds, 1 INT
Wk 4 - Drew Brees: 6/8, 68 Yds, 1 TD
Wk 5 - Ryan Fitzpatrick: 6/11, 41 Yds, 2 FD
Wk 6 - Russell Wilson: 2/6, 25 Yds, 1 FD
Wk 7 - Eli Manning: 7/8, 75 Yds, 4 FD
Wk 8 - Colt McCoy: 5/7, 66 Yds, 2 FD
Wk 9 - Carson Palmer: 5/7, 42 Yds, 2 FD
Wk 10 - Blake Bortles: 4/6, 47 Yds, 2 FD, 3 Sack
Wk 12 - Eli Manning: 6/6, 75 Yds, 5 FD
2014 Total: 52/80, 65 Cmp%, 577 Yds, 2 TD, 1 INT, 18 FD, 3 Sack - 89.4 QB Rating
Each week we monitor how often the Cowboys send pressure on passing plays.
Wk 1 - SF: 9/21 - Blitzed 33%
Wk 2 - at TEN: 6/38 - Blitzed 15%
Wk 3 - STL: 7/42 - Blitzed 16%
Wk 4 - NO: 8/46 - Blitzed 17%
Wk 5 - HOU: 11/26 - Blitzed 42%
Wk 6 - at SEA: 7/31 - Blitzed 22%
Wk 7 - NYG: 8/35 - Blitzed 22%
Wk 8 - WAS: 8/35 - Blitzed 22%
Wk 9 - AZ: 7/36 - Blitzed 19%
Wk 10 - JAX: 9/45 - Blitzed 20%
Wk 12 - NYG: 7/42 - Blitzed 16%
2014 Total: 79/362 - Blitzed 21% 
2013 Totals:  140/673 - 20.8%
2012 Totals:  134/551 - 24.3%
And, here are the full season numbers to date:
SUMMARY AND LOOK AHEAD:  There is no question there are signs that the Cowboys defense is showing signs of breaking down to some of the issues of 2013.  Yet, they are to be admired for the battle and the effort plays that they continue to make.  This is an organization that has decided to put the lion's share of its resources into the offense and therefore the defense is going to have to get by with less than ideal circumstances and then attempt to just come up with the timely stops.
On Sunday, they kept the game where it was for a long span and allowed their offense to catch up and provide the fireworks show that they are capable of from week to week.
Now, the great test of a showdown with Philadelphia.  This is where the safety play of Barry Church and JJ Wilcox will be absolutely vital to securing the back half of the field and attempt to minimize the receivers running free in the secondary.
The Cowboys slowed them down twice in 2013, but there is no question that the magnitude of these two showdowns in 17 days have a playoff build-up and the national attention.  They simply must find a way to generate takeaways and if there is a real achilles heel for the Eagles, it is just that.  With 27 giveaways and counting, the Eagles have been very sloppy with the ball and if the Cowboys are going to win this division, that generosity will need to continue.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Morning After: Cowboys 31, Giants 28 (8-3)

Last night demonstrated a certain character and determination level that many who follow this team have been seeking from their heroes for years.  The Cowboys won a key game late in the season against a divisional rival on the road to alert any who were wondering that the team from Dallas does not anticipate going quietly into the night.  Not this year.
They are now 8-3 and a perfect 5-0 on the road after winning a game that will not pass the aesthetics test when it comes to looking at the stat sheet.
- The Cowboys lost the time of possession battle by a 35:00/25:00 margin and were spending a large majority of the game with their defense on the field.
- That, of course, means that they were outsnapped by a similar 74-53 margin.
- Also, out gained by the Giants, 417-385 - something the Giants are not in the habit of doing very often.
- And most angering to Rod Marinelli, the Cowboys surrendered 11 3rd Down conversions last night.  Only twice in the NFL this year (San Diego vs Jets, Tampa Bay vs Atlanta) has a team converted 12 3rd Downs, and both times, it was a lower percentage of conversions that the 73.3% that the Cowboys allowed to Eli Manning and friends last night.
The last number, in particular, is a statistic that normally doesn't accompany a victory.
And yet, the Cowboys won coming out of the bye in New Jersey for the 2nd season in a row and flew back to Dallas last night with a win total that equals the win totals of 2011, 2012, and 2013's full seasons with 5 games to play in 2014.  The prospects of finishing 8-8 are now incredibly unlikely.  In fact, in just a few days, the Cowboys have a chance to cement their first winning season under Jason Garrett with yet another divisional test against the reigning NFC East champ.  But, more on that later.
This win over the Giants was impressive in many regards.  It starts with the fact that the Cowboys were behind on two occasions by eleven points.  14-3 and 21-10 were both margins were the game was hanging by a mere thread.  For Dallas to take those punches to the midsection and to continue to chip away offensively while figuring some things out defensively speak, again, to the overall resolve and character of this football team.  It has been said that "last' years team doesn't win this game" a few times so far this year.  Well, add this one to that pile.
This year's team has an offense that they can count on to take over a game and with three touchdowns in the 2nd half, they did just that.  Again, it was the powerful running of DeMarco Murray complimenting Quarterback play that was nothing short of flawless (yet again).  Tony Romo is having the best season of his career to this point, and I am not even sure it is close.  His QB rating, his TD percentages, and his yards per attempt are those of a NFL MVP-candidate, and if he can maintain this for a few more weeks, that is exactly what he will be.  For Romo to do this with the physical condition that he continues to deal with is nothing short of fantastic.  He is having a simply amazing season and, of course, picked a rather unlikely time to do it in his career arc.
But, from a common sense standpoint, the arrival of this running game and the amazing pass protection to trigger Romo's year fits perfectly together.  Whether you believe this was the intentional plan all along when the Cowboys started down a path that began in spring of 2011 is up to each observer.  I happen to believe it was more of experimenting several times until they got it right, but the end result is the same.  They have built a special offensive line.
When Andre Gurode was cut in August '11 (after Leonard Davis and Marc Colombo went away earlier that offseason) and the Cowboys purposely began the 2011 season with Bill Nagy and Phil Costa as starters alongside fellow rookie Tyron Smith, they started a process that was on full display last night.  That 4 season evolution has introduced us to a number of players during the run like Nagy, Costa, David Arkin, Ryan Cook, Nate Livings, and even attempts to get guys like Brian Waters and Brandon Moore out of retirement to help fix this thing.
But to the front office's credit, they continued the process and spent the resources to get it right.  Now, as you look at the line of Smith-Ron Leary-Travis Frederick-Zack Martin-Doug Free, you see a line that is as good as anything the league has.  It was the dream in the summer that spending 3 1st round picks would give the Cowboys a "Top of the NFL" offensive line, but you have to see it prove it on the field before we give any such proclamations out.
Well, the returns have been considered, and in 2014, I challenge anyone to find another offensive line that can stand up to this group.  They are fantastic in just about every way.  And that is what allows DeMarco Murray the room to get going on run plays where he is just fine finishing the job.  The zone stretches and man-blocking plays have been run dozens of times each and now are complimented with fake end arounds and fullback dives that show the coordination of the offense to be in very capable hands as well.  Scott Linehan does not get every call right and still can aggravate fans in tight contests like this one, but in the end, if someone is not satisfied with the tactics and strategy of the play-calling then I don't know what to tell them anymore.  Linehan is painting a masterpiece this season with his vision and while it might be getting lost in the story for many, it won't in this space.  Oh, and by the way, only one member of that offensive line is older than 25 (Doug Free, 30, who is on an expiring deal).
The final drive for the offense is what this whole thing has been built for.  When you spend those 1st round picks (4 of the last 5 have been given to the offense) and you pay the going rate for an "elite QB", then you imagine a scenario where your squad gets the ball with the entire field to travel and only a touchdown will get you a victory.  You envision a time where you are playing a prime time game and you must leave Gotham with a win.  You take the ball and travel 80 yards and by the end your team is celebrating wildly while the opponent hangs their head in yet another disappointment.
And they delivered.
It took seven plays and converted three 1st downs.  It was simple in its execution and the same Giants defense which has dished out some rather humiliating lessons over the course of this Cowboys OL rebuild project, had very little to say on this night.  Romo had all day to throw and his receivers broke down the defense.  Then, the throws went where they needed to go with ease.  Romo was 6-for-6 on that drive and the only question after he hit Dez Bryant in the corner of the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown was whether or not the Cowboys marched down the field too quickly and too easily.
Bryant, by the way, continued his assault on anything that challenges him, this time pulling into 2nd in the league in touchdowns (trailing only Julius Thomas with 12) with his 9th and 10th on another dominating evening of football that really wasn't set off until the 2nd half.
Before that Bryant show in the 2nd half, the 1st half was owned by Odell Beckham.  Beckham, who we wrote about in the Giants preview in Sunday's Paper, put on a show that will not soon be forgotten for the insane catch touchdown on the 1st play of the 2nd Quarter.  There is no question, regardless of how much coverage it receives, that catch was one of the most impossible snags you will ever witness.  It is fair to expect more of Brandon Carr last night in general, but on that particular play, the speed/strength combo to put himself in that position and then the singular "go-go-gadget" hand of Beckham is worth any hype.  It was sensational.
Beckham and Eli Manning were more than just that play, however, as we indicated earlier as the Giants converted their first seven 3rd Down conversions and put all 3 of their first drives into the end zone for 7 points each time in demoralizing fashion.  Manning was trying to bounce back from a brutal week against San Francisco where he threw 5 interceptions and given that a ball hardly missed a target in the 1st half, he did a pretty nice job of doing just that.  He had a 156 QB Rating at the half and in throws to Beckham was 8 for 8, 125 yards, and 2 touchdowns.
The defense had to respond and there is no question the hard-driving Rod Marinelli had steam coming out of his ears at the half.  He claims that there were no real tactical changes in the 2nd half, but we do know that somehow the Cowboys - who were unable to slow down the Giants at all in the 1st half - were able to get stops on 5 of the 6 New York drives after halftime.  Punt-Punt-Interception-Punt was the way the half began for the Giants, which allowed the Cowboys to turn a 21-10 deficit into a 24-21 lead before the 3rd Quarter ended.
From there, the Giants had to have a huge drive in the 4th - mostly without Beckham - to retake the lead thanks to a large dose of Rashad Jennings runs and short receptions, which put the onus back on the Cowboys with 3:00 to play.
But, the defense wasn't done there because Romo to Bryant occurred with 1:01 left in the game and all the Giants needed was a field goal to at least extend the game into overtime.  And that, on a 4th and 2 from the Giants 28, the Cowboys were able to snuff out the last signs of life of the Giants' season when the physical battering ram Rolando McClain kept Rashad Jennings short of the 30, and official review overturned the initial call where the referee had awarded a 1st down.  After several looks at it, they properly ruled that McClain had held his ground and ended the game right then and there.
In many respects, McClain has been one of the main reasons the Cowboys are where they are, which properly encapsulates the long-shot nature of a 8-3 start in 2014 as told by the facts that were available in July.  Rolando, a man with such promise, appeared to be a NFL castaway and had arrived in Dallas unlikely to even make the team, except by default.
Now, a few days short of Thanksgiving, he is on the scene as a focal point of a defense that must rely on determination, grit, and battle to suffice as their principle calling cards with players flying to the ball and fighting for every last inch.  They are a flawed defense that appeared to look rather feeble at times last night, but once momentum was reversed with a few sacks and a huge Barry Church interception (Eli will throw you one, can you catch it?) the defense stood tall when the game needed one more play.
Now, at 8-3, they have to recover quickly to stand up to the division champs from Philadelphia.  That team needs no advanced hype as the media has been handling that department with over-the-top adoration ever since Chip Kelly was hired.  It will be up to the Cowboys to protect their home turf with the entire football world locked in on Thanksgiving Day.
At 8-3, they have a chance to do something no other Jason Garrett team has done - they can push their way right into the playoffs and require no assistance or favors.  They can physically smash their way in with just a few more wins, provided Philadelphia is one of their victims.
Thursday requires no hype.  We haven't seen the Cowboys in this spot in quite a while.  This week, they can prove to any doubting observers their heavyweight contender status.
It is all right there in front of them.

Decoding Linehan - Week 11 - Giants

The coordination of the Cowboys offense this year has been one of the points I have visited about week after week in this space.  There have been years where it looks like the Cowboys brain trust (Garrett, Romo) have not been able to noodle through their issues with great amounts of success, but this year, with Scott Linehan included in the conversations, it sure seems like they are generally one step ahead of their competition.
Once again, against the Giants, the Cowboys did several things that the Giants were not expecting:  They threw from 23 personnel for a big gainer, they tossed a shovel pass to a guy who has almost 1,000 catches but maybe none like that one, and they destroyed a blitz for a 45-yard touchdown.  Week after week, it seems that the Cowboys offense has out schemed their opponent.
There are five games left in the season.  Of those five games, the Cowboys are about to play four games against teams that love to bring pressure on a regular basis. So far this season that hasn't always gone well.  Arizona brings blitzes the most in the NFL, Washington blitzed Romo every chance they get, but Houston (another team that blitzes a lot) decided not to bring much pressure on Romo back in Week 4.
Teams that don't blitz much - Jacksonville (32nd), New York Giants (24th), Seattle (25th) - all saw what a comfortable Tony Romo standing behind a massive offensive line can look like when he throws the ball.  Meanwhile, Washington (10th), Arizona (1st), St Louis (3rd), and Tennessee (8th) caused Romo to have some uncertainty and to get the ball out quick or get smashed to the ground.
Now, here comes Philadelphia (5th), Indianapolis (4th), Philadelphia again, and Washington again down the stretch.  Only Chicago (23rd) isn't a big pressure team in these remaining games.
You may notice the trend, by the way.  In most cases (not all), 3-4 teams love to blitz - the 49ers are the exception, but the Dick LeBeau/Dom Capers/Ryan family tree all love to send numbers.  Meanwhile, most 4-3 defenses (not all) love to try to "get there with 4" and play 7 in coverage.  And, as the schedule shows, there are lots of 3-4 teams ahead.
Romo has been really solid (bordering on phenomenal) this year against the blitz: 58-78, 822 yards, 10 TDs, 2 INTs and a QB rating of 125.7.  The issue is more about the 11 sacks that have caused distress about keeping the QB on his feet and not in the locker room having his back examined.  Regardless of his QB rating, opponents did see that Monday Night game and how the constant pressure made the Offensive Line look ordinary contrasted to the final drive against the Giants where Romo had time to eat a sandwich before throwing passes.  You must believe that Jim Haslett put ideas in the head of upcoming opponents on how to deal with Romo and Perry Fewell (the Giants Defensive Coordinator) showed people what not to try.  Which did Billy Davis and Chip Kelly consider the blueprint for how to deal with this Cowboys' offense?
On top of that is the idea that those numbers only measure individual plays - not the overall effects of a high-frequency game like Washington.  Only 2 teams have blitzed more than 12 times in a game against Dallas this year - Washington and Arizona.  Everyone else has played with caution.
How good is Romo's 125.7 rating against the blitz this year?  Well, consider that in 2011 he had a passer rating of 82.2 versus pressure, it dropped in 2012 to 79.4, and then rose in 2013 to one of his best years of 91.2.  So, 125.7 in 2014?  Amazing work, players and coaches on how to burn any hands who dare touch your stove.
Here is a great look at why the Giants are happy to be done with Dallas this year.  The Giants only tried one "big blitz" on Sunday (6 or more rushers) and this is what happened. It was a 3rd and 5 midway through the 3rd Quarter and the Giants still were up 11.  This one play and once decision turned the momentum of the entire game.
As you can see above, pretty basic 3x1 alignment to isolate Dez by himself and put the Giants in a spot where the safety must cheat to Dez which leaves 3 on 3 on the other side.  Simple math:  Blitz 6, send 2 towards Dez, that only leaves 3 players left.  So, are you going to be able to deal with Jason Witten, Terrance Williams, and Cole Beasley with only 3 men?  Because if your 6 rushers don't beat the 6 protectors, this is going to happen on a simple pivot route.  Beasley versus 28-Jayron Hosley did not go well for the G-Men.
Here is the protection above.  DeMarco lines his guy up perfectly (como siempre) and the place where the Cowboys get in trouble is that Leary goes with his man to Frederick (you would like him to pass off his man and move to 53-McClain).  This should leave a free man, but a you can see, Tyron Smith not only deals with Jason Pierre-Paul here, but also picks up the blitzing Linebacker (who took the scenic route) just enough and Romo gets the ball out on time.
There.  One big blitz from the Giants in the whole game and it goes for a huge 3rd Down touchdown.  That is how you chase teams out of blitzes.  Beautiful.  The Giants were beaten over and over by the Cowboys when they blitzed back in Arlington, too, and you can review that here if you like.
Prepare for the blitzes, because if we know the Eagles at all, we know it is coming.  Honestly, if you are a Cowboys opponent, it is the only solution, because you are not slowing down the train with other methods, it seems.
Offensive Participation:
The Cowboys were not on the field much at all on Sunday night with only 52 official plays. So, tracking who played when is very easy - on virtually every play (aside from 23 personnel) - it was the same 10: Romo, Murray, Bryant, Williams, Witten, Smith, Leary, Frederick, Martin, and Free.  The only tinkering is basically that 11th spot which shifted from Beasley (23), to Escobar (12), Hanna (11), and Clutts (10).  Dunbar played 2, Street 5, and Harris 3, but you get the idea.  The Cowboys are healthy and they know their preferred 11.  Everything is running smoothly in late November.  Pinch yourself.
All snap numbers courtesy of PFF and they include all snaps including plays that were not official because of penalties.
 The big thing to look at there is average yards to go on 3rd Down.  This is key and anything under 7 is quite good.  Also, the starting field position of your own 32 is actually quite good as well.  Dwayne Harris was excellent on special teams again.
PASSING CHART - My buddy John Daigle has designed this passing chart each week.  Each color represents the possession number listed in the key. The numbers are separated by the half. If you were to start from the bottom and work your way up, you would be tracking that possession from beginning to end. The dotted-lines are incompletions. Large gaps between throws are mostly YAC or carries.
Week 12 Summary
DRIVE STARTERS - The 1st play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan. How committed is he to the run or pass when the team comes off the sideline? We track it each week here.

2013 Total: 176 Drives - 84 Run/92 Pass - 47% Run
2012 Total: 173 Drives - 76 Run/97 Pass - 44% Run
2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run/102 Pass - 44% Run
* This statistic doesn't count the 1-play kneel down drives.
Shotgun snaps are fine on 3rd Down and in the 2 minute drill. But, we track this stat from week to week to make sure the Cowboys aren't getting too lazy in using it. They are not efficient enough to run it as their base, and with a 15%/85% run/pass split across the league, there is no way the defense respects your running game. When shotgun totals are high, the Cowboys are generally behind, scared of their offensive line, or frustrated.
Balance is proving itself again.  Not just Run/Pass balance, but Shotgun/under center balance.  And they sit at exactly 50/50 this season.
2013 Total: 566/945 - 59.8% Shotgun
2012 Total: 565/1038 - 54% Shotgun
2011 Total: 445/1012 - 43.9% Shotgun
TOTALS BY PERSONNEL GROUPS (Before you study the data below, I would recommend that if the numbers for the groupings are unfamiliar, that you spend some time reading a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groupings here.)
 In 12 personnel, the Cowboys ran the ball 9 out of 10 times from under center.  You can impress your friends by calling run on Thursday out of 12 and look like you know your stuff.  Homework!
* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.
Wk 1: 1/5, 9 Yds, 3 INT, 1 FD
Wk 2: 4/5, 39 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 FD
Wk 3: 3/3, 88 Yds, 1 TD, 2 FD
Wk 4: 6/8, 76 Yds, 1 TD, 4 FD
Wk 5: 2/4, 38 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 FD
Wk 6: 1/4, 47 Yds, 1 Sack, 1 FD
Wk 7: 3/5, 55 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 TD, 1 FD
Wk 8: 5/6, 92 Yds, 1 TD, 2 FD
Wk 9: 1/1, 1 Yd
Wk 10: 2/3, 21 Yds, 1 FD
Wk 12: 4/4, 86 Yds, 4 FD
2014 Total: 32/48, 66 Cmp%, 552 Yds, 5 TD, 3 INT, 20 FD, 4 Sack
Brilliant Play Action work in New York.  Let's see the ambush presented to the Eagles next.
BLITZING Romo - Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 27 Passes at New York
Wk 1: SF Blitzed Dallas 1/40 - Blitzed 2.5%
Wk 2: TEN Blitzed Dallas 12/33 - Blitzed 36%
Wk 3: STL Blitzed Dallas 11/23 - Blitzed 47%
Wk 4: NO Blitzed Dallas 11/32 - Blitzed 34%
Wk 5: HOU Blitzed Dallas 11/42 - Blitzed 26%
Wk 6: SEA Blitzed Dallas 5/33 - Blitzed 15%
Wk 7: NYG Blitzed Dallas 5/25 - Blitzed 20%
Wk 8: WAS Blitzed Dallas 21/40 – Blitzed 52%
Wk 9: AZ Blitzed Dallas 13/36 - Blitzed 36%
Wk 10: JAX Blitzed Dallas 6/29 - Blitzed 20%
Wk 12: NYG Blitzed Dallas 3/27 - Blitzed 11%
2014 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 99/360 - Blitzed 27%
2013 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 210/616 - Blitzed 34%

The Cowboys offense looks like they have reestablished their confidence in the last 2 games thanks in large part to Tony Romo's return to health and his efficient performances which constitute maybe the best 2 game stretch of his entire career. Added to that is supreme confidence in the offensive line, a running game that has had perfect attendance from DeMarco Murray, and Dez Bryant taking over games when they need him most.
Basically, it is turning into that fun discussion of who deserves the credit (or, asked traditionally, who is the Cowboys MVP?). I think Romo will be in the MVP mix in a few weeks if he can win 2 of his next 3, but should it really go to Murray? Or Bryant? Or the offensive line in general? Or Linehan?
If you think this sounds quite a bit like the discussions of 2 decades ago when Emmitt, Irvin, Aikman, a big offensive line, and Norv Turner were the names in the arguments, then you are absolutely right. This offense is a machine at the moment and there is reason to believe they are properly built to deal with the cold weather and the physical football that lies ahead.
But, they must prove that they can consistently deal with pressure and I assume the Eagles will blitz more than 12 times on Thursday to present that test. If it works (if it gives the Cowboys difficulty), then the blitzes will increase steadily each week. If it doesn't work, the Cowboys might ride this wave of offensive excellence all the way into January.