The Cowboys running game wasn't great on Sunday, but it was effective.
My apologies for this week's film review coming a few days late. I also regret to inform everyone that the popular "Film Breakdown" will not be done this week. I am officially out of the US Navy as of this week and I am in the process of moving back to Dallas over the bye weekend. I should be back to my regular blogging schedule soon.
What was the difference between the first two games of the season and the win against Houston? What changed that suddenly propelled the Cowboys back into the realm of ability we all believed they had before the season started?
I can tell you one thing: it wasn't a sudden change in coaching philosophy. Jason Garrett has actually put together great game plans all season long, altering them a bit to accommodate each opponent and his playcalling -- while popular to bash him for it -- has been fairly well rounded in all three games. Wade Phillips called a much smarter game against Houston, but this is still the same defense we've seen for the past few seasons.
What changed was execution. A much more balanced and crisp performance by every unit of the team was the difference against Houston and showed us that when the Cowboys actually focus on the task at hand, they're going to be one tough team to beat. After watching the game again (once with the excellent radio commentary of Brad Sham and Babe Laufenberg as my audio companion) it is now apparent just what sort of team these Cowboys can truly be if they just execute and not shoot themselves in the foot.
I know, that's a tough task for this team. One can hope, however.
After the jump, my thoughts from a season-saving win.
- Much has been made over the past few days over the running game "emerging" against Houston and how the better balanced offense was what sparked the scoring success. In reality, the Cowboys ran the ball just as much as they did the first two games. I know the stats say the Cowboys ran 27 times, but before that fourth quarter, minute-eating drive the balance between run and pass was the same it's always been. The difference here was that the running game was actually effective, even if the average per carry still isn't great.
Both Marion Barber and Felix Jones picked up big chunks in the running game, forcing the Texans to play their linebackers a bit closer to the box at times. This opened up the area in front of the safeties in the zone, which was promptly taken advantage of the passing attack.
The Cowboys are never going to be a running team. With Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Roy Williams and Jason Witten on this team the best attack for the Cowboys is to air it out and move the ball downfield. The Cowboys don't have to be more committed to "running the ball more" to be effective; the Cowboys need to be committed to "running the ball more efficiently" for the offense to truly find the right balance.
- We've been wondering all season what had happened to Felix Jones and this past week we saw that he still possesses that speed we all loved so much last season. The Cowboys are still trying to force him to run between the tackles on slow-developing running plays but this past Sunday Garrett finally realized he had to get Felix out in space.
The screen play in which Felix went off for a 33-yard gain was a thing of beauty. Garrett bunched the receivers to the left side of the formation and ran a slight bootleg to the right. The initial motion of the offense to the right, combined with a nice fake by Romo, had the defense faked out and Felix had a wide open sideline with which to work. For 20 yards it was sprint between Felix and a couple of offensive linemen. It's a shame that Austin's block in the back penalty (a block exactly like that one happens all the time yet is rarely called) negated the big gain.
- Continuing in that theme a bit, the Cowboys finally were able to use their patented delayed draw to much success. Several times the Cowboys ran the delayed draw out of the shotgun to Felix, which spread the defense out and gave the ball to the Cowboys fastest running back with plenty of space to work with up the middle. Both plays resulted in big first downs.
- We talked over the past few weeks how Tony Romo, while still having great games, still looked just a bit "off". Against the Texans, Romo was damn near perfect. This game showcased his pinpoint accuracy, his great decision making and his ability to extend plays in order to get big gains. On the game-changing, 90-yard scoring drive in the second quarter the Cowboys converted three 3rd-and-long plays, all off of perfect passes by Romo.
What was more impressive was his display in just how much command he has of Jason Garrett's offense. On the clinching 63-yard touchdown pass to Roy Williams, the original call was for a draw to Marian Barber. Jason Witten was lined up in the backfield and the offensive line fired off the snap for a run. Yet Romo and Williams made an adjustment between them, calling for a quick slant that took advantage of the single-safety formation the defense had lined up in. Barber picked up a blitz, Romo hit Williams in stride and he was off to the races.
It's this sort of adjustment that we hadn't seen from Roy and Romo the past few years but something that is emerging this season. Perhaps they are finally on the same page, which will only open up the offense for big passes to the rest of the receivers.
- Chris Gronkowski continues to improve and he is turning into one heck of a fullback. His lead block opened up a nice hole for Marion Barber's one-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
Doug Free, although he does get help from time to time, is having himself one heck of a season. Everyone worrying about the left tackle after the Cowboys released Flozell Adams should feel just fine now. Let me ask you: how many times this season have you heard Doug Free's name called?
- Actually, the entire offensive line has been good. I know that Alex Barron almost lost the Redskins game all on his own, but for the most part the offensive line has improved each game. Romo has only been sacked once (technically twice) in three games, much better than the pace we were at last season.
- Last week Wade Phillips backed off against the Bears and never really put his defense in the position to make plays. He was aggressive early but regressed into a zone scheme that the Bears slowly picked apart as the game went on. It was beyond frustrating to witness, especially considering the success they had early in the game.
Against the Texans, Phillips dialed back the in-your-face aggression of the defense but played a much smarter game against the NFL's best offense. The Cowboys rarely blitzed in the game, instead relying on their pass coverage to put the most pressure on the passing attack of the Texans. The Cowboys were aggressive at the line, played much more man-coverage and the safeties were focuses on keeping the receivers in front of them. Some of Ware's sacks were coverage sacks as Matt Shaub had difficulties all game long finding open receivers downfield.
Until "garbage time", when the Cowboys were playing less man coverage and had several backups in the game, the passing attack of the Texans was woefully anemic. It was very impressive to watch and had to be frustrating for such a potent offense to be stifled. The Cowboys used the same approach last season against New Orleans and while the Saints eventually gained some momentum, it wasn't enough in the end.
- This preseason we were all in love with the linebacker depth the Cowboys possessed. Against the Texans, it was painfully obvious just much of a drop off it truly is between the starters and the backups. On one play in the third quarter, both Leon and Jason Williams were in the game to spell Keith Brooking and Bradie James. The Texans run a counter play, with the offensive line pushing to the right while Arian Foster cut to his left. Both Williams' lost containment on the play and bit on the movement of the offense, resulting in the biggest play of the game for the Texans. Foster rumbled for 26 yards on a play the Cowboys had to have seen about fifty times on tape.
- I know we like to bash Newman from time to time and I know he's not as good as he once was, but he did a fairly decent job against three very good receivers. Andre Johnson was far from 100% but Newman and the rest of the defense did a great job of covering each receiver throughout the game.
- Gerald Sensabaugh is quietly having a very, very good season. The game against the Texans was easily his best as a Cowboy and it's obvious that he is becoming the leader of the secondary. He tied for the team lead in tackles, saved several big plays and most importantly kept the Texans from scoring in the fourth quarter. His sure tackle of Owen Daniels at the one-yard line set up a big goal line stand by the Cowboys. A touchdown there and the game takes on a much different feel in the fourth quarter.
- Barry Church was given some significant snaps in the goal line package and he didn't disappoint. He was in on the tackle two plays in a row to stop Foster behind the line of scrimmage, each time making a confident move to fill the hole and an even better form tackle of an elusive runner. It's easy to see why the Cowboys like him so much.
- Finally - If the Cowboys weren't a pass-happy team before then they sure as heck are about to be. The emergence of Dez Bryant, along with the continued supremacy of Miles Austin and suddenly sharp play of Roy Williams, is going to force the Cowboys to put the ball in these receiver's hands. Dez Bryant is on the cusp of breaking out and the Texans game should have been that moment: he had two big plays nullified yet each play showcased just how good he's going to be. Despite being tackled in mid-air, he still managed to come down with the ball on a 40 yard bomb in one heck of a display of his body control in the air. The touchdown catch that was called back because of a penalty was a perfect example of his speed and burst once the ball is in his hands.
If the Cowboys can continue to execute at this level then this offense will become near unstoppable as the season progresses. These Cowboys are primed to peak not now, but a few months down the road as Bryant develops and Garrett and Romo find the perfect balance for using all the weapons on the team.