Two Dallas drives stalled inside the Carolina ten yesterday. The Cowboys settled for two field goals, though they moved as close as the Carolina one, in each case.
In tight games, small failures of this sort can hurt. Last night, they were happy accidents, which forced the Dallas defense, a group I've dubbed the "55 minute men" in the past, for their inability to close out games, to maintain their focus for the entire 60 minutes.
They not only kept their heads, but lopped off Carolina's. Terence Newman picked off Jake Delhomme one series after the second Dallas field goal pushed the lead to just 13-7, after Dallas strangely threw back to back fades after grinding to a second-and-goal situation at the Panthers one.
This was a crisis moment for the defense last year. It was notorious for playing hard for three series or so and then sagging immediately after an offensive score.
Last night, that tendency disappeared. The defense, which looked flat in a sluggish first half, found their missing shot of adrenaline in the locker room during intermission. On their first series, Jay Ratliff overpowered Carolina's right guard and dropped Jake Delhomme for the team's first sack. This produced a quick three and out, which the defense repeated three more times.
The Panthers did not gain their first first down of the half until roughly six minutes remained in the game. And Newman settled the matter two plays later when he jumped a slant for Steve Smith and returned the pick for a touchdown. Tashard Choice rammed home a two point draw to push the final score.
That would have been enough for encouragement, but Wade Phillips had one more present in his bag. Phillips is famously allergic to rookies but on Carolina's final series he introduced 4th round pick Victor Butler as his situational rush end opposite Demarcus Ware. Butler had shown some promise during camp, running ahead of fellow rookie Brandon Williams, but he appeared destined for a year of special teams duties once the real games started.
Butler had a real burst off the corner, but his hand usage seemed remedial. Wade and end coach Reggie Herring have obviously given him some private tutoring, because Butler gave Carolina RT Jeff Otah some lessons of his own. Butler hobbled Carolina's final drive when he blew past Otah on the outside, flattened out and dropped Delhomme with an eight yard sack just after the Panthers had crossed into Dallas territory.
A few plays later, Butler ended the drive by sacking Delhomme and stripping the ball from the QBs hand. The fumble was recovered by Jason Hatcher and the real celebrating began.
Bill Walsh often remarked that 4th-quarter pass rush is a key ingredient for winning. The Cowboys have missed any and all rush ingredients through two weeks. Butler has to replicate this effort again, but if he can, Wade should have the complete recipe for his big time defensive cake.
Maybe he'll make eleven cupcakes instead? Call it a Phillips Dozen? Nah!
-- This is the Terence Newman everybody has waited for. He had a lot of help over the top from Ken Hamlin, but Newman dogged Steve Smith everywhere. The results? Four catches for 38 yards. The bracket coverage took Smith away as a deep option. Delhomme tried a Smith bomb just once. When Delhomme threw deep he looked for Muhsin Muhammad, who was eaten up by Mike Jenkins.
-- The pass defense stepped up. Three sacks, and more pressure helped generate three turnovers. Anybody who saw the game knows work remains. Say it with me now -- tackling! Newman and Jenkins missed a lot of tackles early, and I'll venture that had Jenkins not whiffed on a four yard Muhammad curl, which became a fifteen yard run out of bounds in the final 75 seconds of Carolina's lone scoring drive, the Cowboys pitch a shutout.
-- Another strong game for the run defense. Deangelo Williams has a solid rush average, but Dallas stopped nearly all of Carolina's early runs and put the game on Delhomme. Carolina's runners finished with just 63 yards on the ground. The Cowboys front has neutralized the Giants and the Panthers running attacks in consecutive weeks. Tips of the hat to Igor Olshansky, who stoned every run his way and to Keith Brooking, who brings a lot more throw weight and energy to Dallas' interior run defense.
-- More big games from Victor Butler and you'll never hear the name Greg Ellis in these parts again.
More on the Dallas offense line and the winning quarterback, much more, coming soon.