I was unable to watch the game between the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans live; after going through the film, I can say I was immensely grateful to be able to hit the "skip ahead" function and not have to suffer through that in real time.
Obviously, the game was not a good showing by our hopefully-contending Dallas Cowboys. Much of the focus, as it should be, is on the inability of the offense to get anything positive going. This game against the Texans was the "dress rehearsal', the 4th game for the offense at the tail end of an abnormally long training camp. With the first team originally scheduled to not play against Miami, this was supposed to be the final tune-up for the season opener against Washington.
If this was the Cowboys team that's supposed to be ready for the Redskins, then we're in serious trouble.
Now, all of this is based on first glance. All of the knee jerk reactions and the immediate emotion after such a poor game is mostly warranted, but I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to break down exactly what went wrong against the Texans and where is actually went right (there were some positives). After the jump, my detailed film review of the first team offense against the Texans. You might be surprised by what I found; then again, you might not.
For the purposes of this film review, I focused solely on the first team offense under Tony Romo.
Before I get into my extended and detailed thoughts on the offense's performance overall, I wanted to highlight and breakdown a number of plays from each of the five possessions by the first team offense. These individual plays highlight the various issues the offense struggled with all game long. Once we get into the season, I'll include screen grabs for these film reviews; for now we'll just have to go with a description.
3rd & 7 - DAL 41 - (13:29 - 1Q) (Shotgun) 9-T.Romo sacked at DAL 29 for -12 yards (29-G.Quin).
This play was the perfect example of what the Cowboys struggled with all game long when it came to pass protection. The Texans brought a five-man rush with Mario Williams stunting to the inside from the right defensive end position. Quinn came untouched on a delayed blitz from the edge, but it was the Williams pressure that caused the issue. For some reason, Gurode initially bumped Williams and then let him go free as if expecting help; this wasn't helped when Marion Barber completely ignored Williams and went up the middle on a pass route.
Even if Gurode was expecting some help, there was no need for him to let Williams go. Holland had his man locked up and everyone knows that you never allow pressure from the inside -- this gives the quarterback nowhere to go in the pocket. As it was, Romo had to avoid two free defenders and was sacked for a 12 yard loss. The Cowboys were forced to punt.
1st & 10 - DAL 21 - (10:09 - 1Q) 24-M.Barber left tackle to DAL 17 for -4 yards (94-A.Smith, 90-M.Williams).
The Cowboys decided to start their second drive with an off-tackle run to Barber. On this play, Leonard Davis was pulling while Jason Witten was charged with blocking down on the left side of the defensive line. Witten completely whiffed on his block, allowing Smith to be in the backfield almost as soon as Barber has handed the ball. With Davis pulling, Williams had space to head off a cutback attempt by Barber. This failure of the offense to execute on any sort of pulling blocking scheme would become a trend throughout the game.
1st & 10 - DAL 33 - (8:04 - 1Q) (Shotgun) 9-T.Romo pass incomplete short left to 19-M.Austin.
After getting their initial first down of the game out of the way, Jason Garrett called a short curl to Miles Austin along the left sideline. With the Cowboys set up on the left hash, this was a longer throw than a normal quick curl but was designed to negate the pressure the Texans had been getting on every pass play. The Texans were playing Austin soft and he had plenty of room to make his move to the outside after catching the ball. Unfortunately, he dropped it.
What made the drop more unfortunate was that the rest of offense executed perfectly. Lined up in the "11" package, the Cowboys sent their lone TE out on a pass route and left the offensive line to block five rushers. Romo had a perfect pocket on a five step drop.
2nd & 10 - DAL 33 - (8:00 - 1Q) 28-F.Jones left end pushed ob at DAL 31 for -2 yards (29-G.Quin). Penalty on DAL-68-D.Free, Offensive Holding, declined.
This was all sorts of ugly.
The Cowboys, over the past two years, have used the delayed draw to catch defenses off guard. It's worked, nearly every time, as Romo fools the defense by initially dropping into a passing stance before handing off. This time, it fooled no one. The blocking appeared to call for an inside run behind Montrae Holland and Doug Free, with Gurode and Davis both crashing their defenders to the right. Brian Cushing slipped through and immediately disrupted the timing of the play, as he was in the backfield before Jones was handed the ball.
Jones attempted to bounce outside and was able to avoid Cushing. Unfortunately, with Witten, Free and Holland blocking to the left, Jones ran straight into the defenders. On a play designed to go right up the middle, there was zero room to the outside. Not even Jones' speed could help him here.
3rd & 12 - DAL 31 - (7:31 - 1Q) (Shotgun) 9-T.Romo sacked at DAL 24 for -7 yards (91-A.Okoye).
On third down, the Texans brought yet another five man rush. Romo never had time to set up in the pocket, however, as Okoye cleanly beat Gurode inside with simple swim move from Gurode's left to right. We had been warned that Gurode was having issues with this move during camp and it was plainly evident here. I watched this play about 10 times and I have yet to determine what Gurode was attempting to do on his block; it looked like Gurode was blocking vs. air and was just ignoring the real live person in front of him.
Once again, and inside rush is near impossible for a quarterback to handle. Sack.
1st & 10 - DAL 24 - (9:16 - 2Q) 9-T.Romo pass short right to 11-R.Williams to HST 47 for 29 yards (26-E.Wilson).
Finally, a positive. The Texans brought an eight-man blitz on first down; an initial six-man rush with an inside stunt with two linebackers blitzing on a delay. Both Jones and Gronkowski were able to pick up the blitz with solid blocks while the offensive line were able to counter the inside stunt and provide Romo with a clean pocket. Romo hit Roy Williams with a bullet on a 9-yard curl and Roy did what you're supposed to do: turn it into a big gain.
With the eight-man blitz, the Texans gambled and the Cowboys made them pay. Roy Williams ran a good route, made a clean catch on a great throw and the offensive line provided a clean pocket.
1st & 10 - HOU 23 - (9:26 - 3Q) (Shotgun) 9-T.Romo pass incomplete deep right to 19-M.Austin.
We've been talking about the back-shoulder fade all camp and how the Cowboys have been making it a vital part of the offense. We've seen it used to perfection a number of times already in the preseason and we here talk about how it's "impossible to defend". Well, that statement is based on the offense actually executing the play.
This was an example of how dangerous this play is if quarterback and receiver aren't on the same page. Miles Austin lined up against press coverage on the right sideline and runs a slant-and-go. Romo, who has to rush a bit due to pressure, throws a sharp fade that leads Austin. Unfortunately, Austin had stopped on his route expecting the back-shoulder pass. We've been told that this pass is not planned and is contingent on what coverage the cornerback has; if that's the case then Austin was right.
The cornerback was well in front of Austin on the go route and wasn't letting Austin by. Seeing this, Austin cut his route short as Romo released the ball. Romo went with the longer pass and it was nearly intercepted. The play looks great when it works; when it fails it's very dangerous.
Honestly, I could have given a detailed breakdown of every offensive play by the first-team. Each play provided me with something to look at and break down, and most of it wasn't good. Without going into detail for each play, here are the main points I want to make about the performance as a whole.
- Once again, we see the Cowboys play with a very vanilla offensive gameplan and get smoked by a fired-up and aggressive defense. The Houston Texans were not playing their "vanilla" base defense and generally rushed at least five defenders on each pass play. At least twice the Texans brought more than six. This created all sorts of problems with the pass protection and it also created problems with the extremely safe plays that were being called by Jason Garrett. Was it this vanilla gameplan to blame for the offense's ineffectiveness?
After watching each play, it's tough to lay sole blame on the playcalling. No matter what play is being called you still need your players to execute that play and win the one-on-one battles. Too many times the Cowboys whiffed on individual blocks, with multiple players being at fault: Witten, Gurode, Davis, Holland. When this lack of execution happens, it breaks down the entire play; who cares what defense is coming at you if you can't block the guy in front of you.
- One reason the offense sputtered like it did was the absolute lack of any sort of running game. The Cowboys were barely able to get any positive plays going on the ground as generally a running back was met in the backfield by a defender. Against a fast defense like Houston it's tough to get moving downfield if you can't keep them honest with the run.
The Cowboys, on nearly every running play, used a pulling guard to try and open up holes. Even on inside runs there was a lineman pulling. Now this isn't abnormal and it's what the Cowboys generally do with their running game. Yet the Texans have a fast and elusive defensive line and the Cowboys' linemen were never able to get their blocks in time while pulling. The defenders were already meeting the running back while the linemen were attempting to get in place for their block.
You have to think that against a defense that is too quick through the gaps to allow intricate pulling schemes to work, the Cowboys would use straight ahead blocking instead. Just once did the Cowboys line up and fire off the ball heading up field, and that was on Gronkowski's first down run on 4th and 1. The Cowboys were able to move the Texans off the line of scrimmage; on none of the other run plays, with guards and tight ends pulling all over, did this sort of positive movement take place.
- As far as playcalling goes, there's no doubt that Garrett called a soft and "vanilla" game for most of the first half. Before the last drive of the half, there was just one downfield pass attempt by Romo. The Cowboys were calling mainly short pass plays; 10-yard outs and curls and the occasional screen. This lack of a downfield attack isn't solely because of the pass rush as Romo always checked down even if he had time; the Cowboys just seemed to want to stubbornly play it safe.
It wasn't until the Cowboys were attempting to drive in the final minute of the first half that Garrett finally opened up the offense. Romo stepped up in the pocket and fired a rocket downfield to Austin for a 30 yard gain just before halftime. In their first possession of the second half, Romo was once again hitting receivers downfield. Garrett apparently opened up the playbook as he tried to kick-start the offense and get the Cowboys finally moving the ball aggressively. Unfortunately, Witten's drop and the subsequent interception ruined the good times on what turned out to be Romo's final pass of the game.
- One thing that has bothered me was why the Cowboys struggled so much after supposedly putting together a great camp? Against the Texans, Romo was laser sharp and made several accurate throws; can't blame him for it all. The offensive line was unable to win individual battles and the Cowboys struggled with pass protection, yet when Romo did have time there was either a drop or a mis-communication.
You have to wonder if the "vanilla" offensive gameplan had something to do with this lack of execution. The Cowboys played most of the first half as if they weren't completely interested and almost as if their were practicing in a walk-through. When you know that the playcalls will be simple, then perhaps there was a tendency to become complacent a bit. This conservative approach doesn't suit Romo, it doesn't suit Garrett and is obviously doesn't work with this offense.
There is something to the saying "you play like you practice". When you're practicing as an aggressive and supposedly innovative offense, it's not easy to get into a game against a fired up defense in front of a rowdy crowd and suddenly operate within a safe and conservative gameplan. With the Cowboys playing the Texans in Week 3, it's understandable that Garrett wanted to play it close to the vest; yet it was obvious the Cowboys were having trouble executing these simple plays against a complex defense.
Final (quick) thoughts:
I think the Cowboys offense is going to be fine. The basic execution was off, but I'm hoping this was due to the team easing up while playing in a conservative gameplan. Is that the right way of doing things? Not at all, but the offense did start to move once more aggressive playcalls were made.
Romo was sharp yet was obviously hesitant to step up in the pocket. Even when he had time, Romo didn't make that one step forward right before a throw you like to see when a quarterback is feeling confident. Romo's lightning-fast release was on display, but he was having trouble feeling comfortable in the pocket.
Chris Gronkowski impressed me. He received a lot of playing time with the first-team offense and never stood out with a glaring mistake, and showed good pop on his blocks from a number of positions.
I have a feeling that the Cowboys starters are going to play in Miami. I also have a feeling that it won't be with a conservative gameplan. They'll get on the field and attempt to be successful with their normal, aggressive playcalling. It has to work this time, or there will be serious doubts headed into the season opener.
Finally, let's remember that this is just a preseason game. That the "dress rehearsal" was against a Week 3 opponent is a bit maddening as it was obvious that Wade was refusing to show his hand, while the Texans appeared content on opening up the playbook. Both the offense and the defense held back while the Texans unleashed upon them; this is still not an excuse for the lack of basic execution on a multitude of levels. Yet I look forward to seeing what the Cowboys can do when the game actually counts.