After the end of Sunday night's game, as the Cowboys were walking off the field in defeat following a failed last-minute comeback, I was certain I was going to be inconsolable. I'd seen games like this before, the Cowboys falling just short in the final seconds of a game they should have one and they always left me in a constant state of deep depression. I could feel that same feeling building up in my chest once more, the anger rising and I had to resist the urge to punch any breakable objects that were within reach.
Then I calmed down. I remembered there were still at least 15 games remaining in the season. Those previous losses, the ones that effectively doomed prior seasons, those were the final and lasting memories of ultimately disappointing campaigns. The loss against the Redskins hurts, it hurts a lot, but the great news is that there's another game next Sunday against the Chicago Bears.
The Cowboys are just 0-1. Not the end of the world. The only thing to do now is to pick up the pieces from a brutal defeat, learn from the mistakes that were made and improve. There were a lot of mistakes made, so there's only one way to really go from here, right?
I also know we want to blame it all on Alex Barron. I did. While I will never forgive him for his lackluster and idiotic play, it's obvious that more than anything this was a complete team loss.
Somehow, I forced myself to sit through the entire game one more time to really breakdown the good (there was a lot of good) and the bad (there was plenty of that as well). Later, I'll have a detailed breakdown of a couple of key plays in the game, but follow the jump for my random thoughts as I re-watched the Cowboys and Redskins from Sunday night.
Thoughts from my notebook as I watched the game for a second and third time (in no particular order):
- Deon Anderson received the majority of the snaps between the two fullbacks and he had one of his best games as a pro. He was decisive in his blocking and consistently blew his man back and off the play. He was used exclusively as a fullback in the game and was never flexed out into the TE-HB spot that Chris Gronkowski had been playing in the preseason. Oddly, I didn't see Gronkowski out in that position very often either. The Cowboys played a lot from their two TE formation, but rarely used the third tight end in the game.
For all the good Gronkowski did in the preseason, you know John Phillips would have been used extensively in this game.
- Speaking of tight ends, I want to commend Martellus Bennett. I know he made a drive-killing penalty that left folks angry but re-watching the play several times over it was obvious he was already committed to the block as the defender was turning. It's unfortunate, since the block ultimately didn't matter in the play. What I did see, however, was a tight end that played outstanding in run blocking. He caught just one pass, but also wasn't used much in the passing game either; the Cowboys almost exclusively used him to help out the offensive line. Each big outside run play by the Cowboys was sprung because of a big Bennett block -- that's what you need from your #2 TE.
- The Cowboys had success running the ball inside as the Redskins struggled with gap control in their new 3-4 defense. It's the same thing we saw in 2007 when Wade Phillips brought his own defense to the Cowboys; the Redskins improved as the game progressed, yet were still vulnerable inside. Amazing when you consider that Haynseworth is on the team. The Cowboys finished with 4.7 yards per carry; very respectable against a traditionally staunch defense.
- The Cowboys run defense, on the other hand, regressed as the game wore on. Early in the game the Redskins had absolutely no room to run, whether inside or outside, and were unable to use their play-action effectively. Yet once the offensive line began to wear on the Cowboys, the running backs suddenly found their cutback lanes opening up. Shanahan's scheme calls for a zone-blocking scheme that gets the line moving in one direction and the running back cuts back against the momentum. If pulled off effectively, this play consistently averages five yards a carry. This is why Mike Shanahan has had so many 1,000 yard running backs. The Cowboys played it perfectly but were too easily moved late in the game.
- I don't know what Wade Phillips was thinking, but it was obvious to me after about 10 minutes that the Redskins were not being fooled by the inside blitzes from the linebackers. I counted five times that Bradie James and Keith Brooking were blown off their feet by a blocking back as they blitzed up the middle. The Cowboys used this blitz extensively, it never worked, yet I didn't see any true variation of this defensive play. Very unlike Wade.
- That's not to take much away from the defense, however. I thought the Cowboys played an unknown offensive scheme with a new quarterback about as well as can be expected. The defense had all sorts of trouble with Chris Cooley (as we knew they would) but were able to keep the offense in front of them and not allow any big plays downfield. The red zone stand, fueled by Mike Jenkins, after the offsides on the field goal call was obviously a big boost. The Cowboys haven't allowed the Redskins to score an offensive touchdown since the first quarter of the Cowboys 14-10 victory on November 16, 2008. That's impressive.
- The Cowboys were called for 12 penalties (that were accepted at least) and all were costly. The Redskins were called for five. Call it homefield advantage, call it Cowboys bias, whatever. All I know is that in re-watching the game I saw at least three blatant holding calls not called on the Redskins, twice on Trent Williams.
To be fair, none of those holding non-calls were as blatant as the Alex Barron clotheslines we witnessed all night.
- Jason Garrett is Jekyll and Hyde. I'm convinced of it.
Throughout the game I was thrilled with a number of his play designs and his play calls at the right time. This would quickly be followed by a curse at an incredibly odd decision. We only saw a couple of the historically annoying Garrett tendencies in this game ( which is good, I guess) as only once did the Cowboys try a pointless outside pitch for no gain after an incomplete pass on first down. Garrett, especially early in the game, was intent on putting his players in the best situation he could. Several times he put Romo on the move with misdirections or play-action and nearly every time there was a positive result. This is something I've wanted to see more of for three years now and he finally gave it to me.
Garrett also game-planned to get the defensive ends for the Redskins out in space and exploit their inexperience in the scheme. This worked to perfection on a number of occasions as he used misdirection and quick screens to catch the Skins in over-pursuit.
Of course, then would out-think himself. Garrett is too smart for his own good, apparently. The Cowboys weren't exactly gashing the Skins up the middle, but they were certainly getting a push forward (especially behind Holland and Free). That's when Jason Garrett starts with the outside pitches, to the short side of the field, with the Cowboys' slowest running back. He also had success early with the screen, then absolutely drove that play into the ground until it was completely useless.
Maddening, I tell you.
- Speaking of which, I thought Montrae Holland had a great game. He wasn't perfect, but he and Doug Free were very consistent all game long. There's a good reason that Brian Orakpo switched to the right side of the offense.
- I thought Tony Romo had a good game. Not great, but very good. It was painfully obvious that he was not comfortable in the pocket and several times made his move to scramble way too early. At one point, he backpedaled out the pocket before weakly tossing a ball at Witten's feet; if he had just stepped up into the clean pocket, he would have had time and room to make a clean throw.
That said, Romo certainly calmed down as the game progressed and made several great throws. His deep out to Roy Williams was deadly accurate and his fade along the sideline to Dez Bryant was right on the money; unfortunately his receivers let him down. By my count, he had just one truly bad decision all game -- the lame duck 40 yard toss to Miles Austin on the final drive was easily his worst throw of the night.
- While Romo had a good game, he needs to take complete and ultimate control of this offense. Whether it's Garrett, Romo, the offense or whatever, this team needs to find some way to get to the line so that Romo has more than four seconds to get the play off. This has been happening for three years now, so I guess it shouldn't change anytime soon.
- Miles Austin is the real deal. He's just incredible.
- So in Anthony Spencer. No sacks, but once again a monster in run defense.
- Forget the holding penalties. Alex Barron was not very good, at all. He looked disinterested at times and it's very apparent that every scouting report coming from St. Louis was painfully true. This offense desperately needs Marc Colombo's nastiness.
- Dear Dallas Cowboys defense: Your offense plays with much more confidence when given a short field. Please take note and start forcing turnovers. Signed: B.W.
- Coach D should have had fun today while studying film. While David Buehler was busy booming kicks through the back of the end zone all preseason long, the kickoff coverage received no practice. That showed against the Skins as Buehler had to save TWO touchdowns with great tackles of his own.
- Finally, a couple of thoughts on Dez Bryant and his NFL debut.
It went about as well as one could expect. It was obvious he was playing with some nerves and was hesitant at times, which is why (I assume) Garrett wanted to give him some easy plays early with the smoke screens. Unfortunately, they never worked. Yet Bryant made several tough catches across the middle and showed his incredible hand strength by holding onto the ball with one hand while being tackled to the ground.
He also had two chances to go up and snag fades along the sideline but quickly realized how much better these NFL cornerbacks are over those faced in college. I'm willing to bet this is the first time in his career he's failed to come down with two catches of that nature in the same game. He did go after the ball with the zeal and aggression I know he can and I'm looking forward to seeing what he does now that he's got that first game out of the way.
Romo has confidence in the rookie (targeting him four times on the final drive) and knows that he's going to become the dependable receiver we all knew he could be. For a rookie receiver making his NFL debut, after zero preseason games and after missing most of the 2009 college season, I'd have to say that was a very, very successful debut.
Just stop trying to throw defenders to the ground, kid. It won't work.
Next post, I'll have an in depth breakdown of three key plays from the Redskins game.