The Falcons coach Mike Smith went against his tendencies Sunday afternoon and it cost him. His Falcons rely heavily on end John Abraham, who supplied 16.5 of Atlanta's 33 sacks last year. Last week, against Chicago, the Falcons threw a change up at Jay Cutler, dropping Abraham into a shallow zone and blitzing heavily from the opposite side.
Yesterday, the Falcons made this strongside overload their main form of pressure. At least half a dozen times, usually on first downs, Atlanta used Abraham as a decoy and brought two extra rushers from the opposite side. They hoped to catch Dallas sliding protection to Abraham's side, leaving themselves shorthanded to handle the extra blitzers.
Jason Garrett was ready for this tactic and he began jabbing at it after the Cowboys stuttered to a three-and-out on their two opening offensive drives.
The fans may have felt a bit of urgency, after Atlanta rolled methodically downfield on its opening drive, using sixteen plays and over eight minutes of clock to open a 7-0 lead. The team, however, kept its cool and measured the Falcons for a series of knee-buckling punches, which staggered Atlanta in the second quarter,and finally dropped the upstarts early in the fourth quarter, when prodigal wideout Patrick Crayton's long punt return pushed Dallas' lead to 34-14, on its way to a convincing 37-21 final. The win, coupled with New York's loss to Arizona, leaves the Cowboys half a game out of first place, just two weeks after it appeared the season might be slipping away.
Garrett was given the time to decipher and demolish Atlanta's zone blitz by Wade Phillips, who took a page from daddy Bum's old Oilers game plans. On the Cowboys second and third defensive series, Wade rushed just three men and dropped both his outside linebackers into a five man underneath zone. The 3-5-3 look, which fans usually see in mop-up times (this is the standard "prevent" zone) threw off Matt Ryan's timing with his receivers and prompted a couple of near interceptions,as he forced passes into middle coverage.
When Phillips got the Falcons in 2nd-and-long, after a chop block penalty, he brought extra blitzers, and got sacks on consecutive plays by Marcus Spears and Demarcus Ware. This alternation of heavy coverage and heavier rushes kept Ryan off balance for much of the game.
Dallas' offense, meanwhile, was probing the middle of Atlanta's run defense with draws, and losing the rock/paper/scissors calls I outlined Saturday. DT Jamaal Anderson blew up the Cowboys' second drive by slanting past RG Leonard Davis to stop a Marion Barber run. Anderson then drew a false start penalty on Davis.
Garrett had seen the Abraham decoy zone blitz twice and burned it on Dallas' third drive, when he flexed Jason Witten into the right slot. Abraham was over RT Marc Colombo on this play and when the Falcons brought their overload from Dallas' left, Abraham had to drop into coverage and cover Witten over the middle. Tony Romo made the easy connection with his favorite target and Witten moved Dallas into the red zone, where the drive stalled. The Cowboys did get a field goal, leaving the score 7-3.
The game turned early in the second quarter after a series of turnovers. Ware forced the first when he flushed Ryan left. The QB rushed a throw to the left flat, where Mike Jenkins snagged it. Felix Jones returned the ball to Atlanta just one play after convering a first down. Ryan then made a big 3rd-and-10 conversion when he found Tony Gonzalez on the left sideline, outside of Orlando Scandrick.
The completion moved the Falcons inside the Dallas 35, but they would move no closer. Phillips threw Ryan and his line a changeup, sending seven blitzers on the first-and-10 play action. Ware lined up over the right tackle on this play and beat him to the edge. Ware swiped the ball from Ryan's hand an instant before Stephen Bowen and Anthony Spencer converged upon him. Spencer claimed the fumble at the Cowboys' 41.
On the next play, Garrett correctly anticipated another big overload blitz and called for a haymaker. He lined up his offense in an I formation,with Jason Witten left and his two receivers in a slot tandem right; Roy Williams was set wide, with Miles Austin in the slot. At the snap, the Falcons dropped LE Kroy Biermann into the shallow right zone and brought three extra blitzers from Dallas' left.
The Cowboys slid their line protection to their right and kept Witten and fullback Deon Anderson in to block the blitzers off the backside. Marion Barber made a late release, but the Cowboys sent just two men out on routes. Wiliams ran a fly and Austin ran a diagonal towards the left sideline. With six men blitzing Atlanta had three men in their shallow zone and just two deep, meaning Austin was matched on safety Thomas Decoud. Austin easily outpaced him. Romo's toss was on target and Austin loped up the sideline for the score.
The Cowboys showed more zones to Ryan, and forced another three and out. Romo then led a perfect half-ending drive which ended with a short touchdown pass to Patrick Crayton with four seconds left. Credit on that play goes all to Romo. The Falcons executed a twist to perfection, with Jonathan Babineaux looping free from left end. Romo spun away from him,cut inside away from two more rushers, ran towards the line, and spotted Crayton cutting free along the back line of the end zone. The Houdini-like escape sent Dallas to intermission up 17-7.
The Cowboys opened the second half with an unbalanced line experiment. Marc Colombo shifted pre-snap from his RT spot to LT, meaning the Cowboys had both tackles side-by-side, outside of LG Kyle Kosier. Dallas then ran counters behind them, pulling RG Leonard Davis, putting 1500 lbs. of beef at the point of attack. Two consecutive Barber counters gained 21 yards before the Cowboys were forced to punt.
Atlanta opened the second half as it had the first, marching down field for a touchdown. The Cowboys appeared to have forced a punt but Stephen Bowen's offsides penalty negated a Jenkins breakup and gave the Falcons a first down near mid-field. Ryan mixed short passes and runs and pulled his team to 17-14.
Dallas answered with an 80 yard drive of its own. Two big Austin receptions book-ended the drive. Austin beat Chris Houston on a post corner and snagged Romo's pass inside the left sideline at the Atlanta 48. He ended the series with a 22 yard catch-and-run off Greg Grimes on the right sideline. This was the same play Austin bungled in Denver three weeks ago, but which he ran successfully on his game-winning score against the Chiefs two weeks ago. He and Romo have developed a trust, and OC Garrett seems equally confident in calling the play in crucial situations.
The Cowboys seized control of the game at that point. The defense continued to force punts while the offense consumed clock on two grinding field goal drives, which it sandwiched around Crayton's punt return. That play put an exclamation point on a down-and-up week for the former starter, who at the very least regained his punt return duties.
-- Allen we hardly knew 'ye. Allen Rossum's Cowboys career may be over after one play. The veteran returner injured a hamstring on Dallas' first kickoff return. Can Dallas spend a roster spot on him for the weeks it will take him to re-hab?
-- A tip of the hat to Flozell Adams. His penalties make him an easy target, but good performances deserve praise, and Flo had a good Sunday. He wasn't flagged yesterday and controlled the difficult Abraham, holding him without a sack or pressure.
-- If you want to know how impressive that is, consider this: on Austin's last catch, a 27 yard hook and run up the left sideline, Abraham had dropped into a short zone in the left flat. While Austin wheeled away from an Atlanta corner and safety, Abraham raced past them and was running side-by-side with Austin until the receiver dropped the ball out of bounds. How many other 260 lb. linemen can do that?
-- The value of good safety play was evident yesterday. Gerald Sensabaugh can cover and he can hit. He provided good coverage on Tony Gonzalez early in the game and made a couple of key third down stops later in the contest. He was also quick to fill. Were he not wearing a cast on his left thumb, he might have made an interception.
-- Having one receiver you can trust makes all the difference in the world. Tony Romo believes in Miles Austin, because Austin has given him cause. He had a couple of drops in Kansas City, but he also made a fighting catch on a deep ball in that game and made another yesterday. The Cowboys run a lot of timing patterns and the quarterback had to know his receiver will be at the assigned spot when the ball is released. Romo wasn't sure about Austin in Denver, after the WR hung him out on that red zone pick. That may explain the two end zone throws to Sam Hurd at the end of that loss.
Two games isn't a trend, but it's much closer to it than one game.
-- Mike Jenkins' embarrassing ole tackle in the Meadowlands last year seems years in the past. Jenkins has settled in at right corner and is smacking people. He showed great form upending Michael Turner on an early Falcons sweep and he smacked several receivers in the second half. He's got the ball skills Terence Newman lacks, and he's Dallas best corner right now.
The Falcons are partly responsible for Jenkins' presence on the Dallas roster. I was told the Cowboys scouting staff held dozens of varied mock drafts prior to the '08 pick fest and never did Jenkins slide to their first pick at 22. When the real draft rolled around, an unexpected run on offensive tackles, which saw Chris Williams, Brandon Albert, Gosder Cherilus, Sam Baker and Jeff Otah all go between picks 14 and 21, pushed some of the top cornerback prospects down. When the Cowboys came on the clock at 22, they had Felix Jones and Jenkins at the top of their board. They took Jones, whom they rated higher, and then worked the phones to move up from pick 28. Seattle cut a deal for the 25th pick, and Dallas left the first round with two players from its top 15.
I think both those guys are playing up to their rankings right now.
-- Look out Roy Williams, the pitchfork carriers are after you. The message boards in the network are full of rippers calling for Roy Williams' head. I won't sugar coat it. He played horribly yesterday. But its his first bad game of the year as I see it. He was good in the Tampa and Carolina wins. He was hurt in the Denver loss and looked like a guy who should have rested another week yesterday.
Do people really want to send him into exile after one bad '09 game? More on this later in the week.
-- Final thought: was this a big game? 'Cause Tony Romo doesn't win those.
-- Final musical thought:
Where have you gone, Kevin Ogletree?
The Williams rippers turn their eyes to you,
Woo, woo, woo,
What's that you say? Mr. Sherman, sir,
Street free agents have their dues to pay,
Hey, hey, hey,
Hey, hey, hey