Tony Romo started December '09 with a 112 QB rating game. He completed 75% of his passes for almost 400 yards. He made one dubious throw, and was bailed out by Jason Witten, who played volleyball over Giants CB Bruce Johnson for a big first half gain. His offense was 9 of 17 on 3rd down. They ran 31 more snaps than New York's offense.
Roy Williams quietly had his best game as a Cowboy, catching two touchdown passes and making big receptions over the middle. Jason Witten piled up his career high in yards, with156 on fourteen catches.
Yet, the Cowboys again began December with a loss, because the defense, which has carried the team thus far, giving up yards, but not points, gave up both by the bucket full Sunday evening. I warned last Sunday:
When you see the "Perils of December" stories, and some are already around, know that the quarterback may get the attention, but it's the defense which will either navigate the rocky waters at last, or wreck the Cowboys ship again.
-- Wade's Defense Will Guide the Cowboys December Ship, BTB, Nov. 29th
Wade's guys ran the ship onto a sandbar off the New Jersey coast. They showed the maddening '08 tendency to surrender points immediately after Dallas scores. They did so twice, each time with depressing speed. Dallas had dominated the first 27 minutes of play, and had taken a 10-0 lead after Williams caught a fade in the far right corner of the Meadowland's left end zone with 3:14 to play in the second quarter.
Eli Manning and his offense snatched one back in just four plays, going 74 yards in 1:28. Manning made two key throws, the first a dumpoff to Kevin Boss, while Bobby Carpenter was trying to wrestle the QB to the turf. Boss' sixteen yard romp moved New York past midfield for the first time. Two plays later, Manning zipped a pass past Terence Newman up the right sideline. Hakeem Nicks sidestepped the gambling Newman for the Giaints first score.
The second rapid collapse came late in the 3rd. Dallas had driven 58 yards in methodical fashion to take a 17-14 lead, but the defense gave it all back in one play. The Giants deployed in a two tight end set that had Kevin Boss tight left and their backup flexed wide left, where he drew Gerald Sensabaugh into space. The two receivers were split right.
New York sent Jacobs on a quick out to the left flat. He got behind Anthony Spencer and raced up the left sideline. Gerald Sensabaugh had a chance to bump Jacobs out of bounds at the Dallas 30, but went low on the runner, who hopped over him, and continued up the sideline for a score.
Nineteen seconds after Dallas had taken a lead, it trailed again.
The defense had company in the big negative play department. Marion Barber provided the lone Dallas turnover and it proved to be devastating. The Cowboys were moving to answer New York's first touchdown with a late scoring drive of their own. Felix Jones had returned the kickoff to his 35 and a Barber draw had given Dallas 2nd and one on its own 44 with 1:18 left.
Barber released a blitzing linebacker on the next play and caught a screen to Tony Romo's right. He motored past midfield but fumbled the ball. Osi Umenyiora picked up the ball and ran it to the Cowboys 28. As the had in September, the Giants moved 28 yards for a key score just before the half. Two Manning passes to Steve Smith moved the Giants to one, where Jacobs scored with just 19 seconds left in the half.
Dallas' special teams added to the misery, surrendering a 79 yard punt return just over five minutes into the final quarter. Mat McBriar punted 59 yards to Domenik Hixon, who floated to his left, then cutback sharply to his right, escaped Pat Watkins and a couple other Cowboys, then picked up a wall of blockers up the right sideline. His score pushed New York's lead to 31-17.
For the day, New York's four touchdown jolts took 1 minute and 28 seconds, 45 seconds, 19 seconds and 15 seconds off the clock, respectively.
That's no way to treat your offense.
-- How do we define Nick Folk? Critical? Mental? His yips are no longer a distraction. They are an official impediment to the season. Folk wasted an early 4th quarter drive, which included a dandy 3rd-and-14 conversion by Romo to Roy Williams, when he hooked a 42 yard attempt. Folk's head is not right, and his miss, which would have closed New York's lead to 21-20, messes with every Cowboys fan's brain.
-- Sophomore slumps: Martellus Bennett makes plays here and there. He had a big 18 yard gain off a Romo scramble in the 3rd quarter. His tendency to drop one easy one a game is starting to grate. Bennett scuttled the promising opening drive, which had marched 50 yards from the Dallas 18 to the New York 38, when he dropped a 3rd down Romo dart aimed right at his face.
Orlando Scandrick also needs to shake off the second year funk. He may have been running 1B to Mike Jenkins 1A in camp, but there's no comparison between them now. Jenkins had several breakups and picked off Eli Manning in the end zone early in the 3rd, when the Giants were threatening to expand their 14-10 lead.
Scandrick, on the other hand, had another miserable day on Steve Smith's rack. Scandrick excelled in the slot last season but has been a liability much of the time this year. He's got a ways to go to reach Terence Newman's standard in the slot. He's got a ways to go to approach Kenny Gant class.
-- Another breakout for the bookend: Anthony Spencer had a strong game and continues to make late season strides. He pressured Manning out of the pocket on several plays and forced at least three incompletions with his pressure. Teams are doubling Demarcus Ware and Spencer is making them pay a higher price every week. Dallas needs him to continue his push.
-- We saw today what the passing game is capable of, with decent protection: the starting wideouts and tight end snagged 30 balls for 320 yards.
-- The line, on the other hand, could not break lanes in a front which run blitzed heavily on early downs. Marion Barber's 8-yard run was Dallas' best of the day. This was an inversion of the first game, so Dallas went up top and found its yards in the middle of the field, against the Giants linebackers and safeties.
-- The defensive and special teams breakdowns overshadowed one of Dallas' most creative touchdowns. On a 2nd and goal in the 3rd, with Dallas at the Giants' five, trailing 14-10, Dallas lined up in a two tight end, two wideout set with Marion Barber in the backfield. Roy Williams was alone left, Jason Witten at tight end right, Martellus Bennett flexed into the right slot and Miles Austin split right.
Before the snap, Austin motioned into the backfield and lined up as an I-back behind Barber, who was just five yards behind Romo, in the fullback spot. At the snap Romo first faked a dive right to Barber, then faked a pitch left to Austin. The second fake yoked both Giants linebackers towards Austin and held the corner on that side. This allowed Williams to release into the middle of the end zone. Romo's superb fakes produced a wide throwing lane and he tossed to Williams for an easy score.
-- Hurry back, Ken Hamlin. Gerald Sensabaugh had to overcome a hold on Brandon Jacobs' touchdown reception, but neither he nor Alan Ball tackled well. Both were invisible on a series of short crosses by Steve Smith which converted 3rd-and-long situations.
Cowboys fans know that poor safety play hamstrung the defense in '06 and '08. This is no time for the problem to recur.