This game served as a great baseline for the stretch drive of the season. It is rare when all of a team’s warts are revealed in one game, but that may very well have been the case in Foxborough. Dallas had no chance to win this game based on where this team is in its development. Facing a team that is based on minimizing mistakes, just made the Cowboys’ deficiencies all that more obvious.
Watching the defense play at New England was a pleasure. This is the first time in Tony Romo’s relatively short tenure where the defense could be considered championship caliber. It is hard to criticize a defense that just faced the most potent offense in possibly the history of the NFL, and held the Patriots to below 30 points for the first time in 14 tries. There is considerable room for improvement, however, as the devil is in the details.
The Cowboys defense surrendered many yards after contact in this game. In other words, Dallas’ defensive players missed a lot of tackles. Big plays surfaced as a result of the missed tackles which flipped field position and led to points for the Patriots.
In addition to the missed tackles, penalties plagued this team…again. Of course, penalties also apply to the offense and the special teams. There were many penalties that had a strong effect on the game:
Doug Free: Offensive holding leading to a punt on Dallas’ second possession
Kyle Kosier: Offensive holding wiping out a first down (due to NE penalty) on Dallas’ third possession
Anthony Spencer: Roughing the passer leading to a New England touchdown pass on the Patriots’ third possession
Anthony Spencer: Running into the kicker to extend a Patriots possession (ended in a fumble)
Tyron Smith: Illegal procedure leading to a punt to New England with 2:31 left in the game
The Cowboys committed 10 penalties in this game (for 77 yards), but some were more difficult to overcome. Those penalties were magnified by horrendous offensive line play. Look at the rushing statistics for Dallas, 24 attempts for 77 yards. Now take away Romo’s 17-yard scramble and the statistics show that the Cowboys’ running backs carried the ball 23 times for 60 yards and lost one fumble. That means that the Cowboys lost as many yards in penalties as they gained on the ground (including Romo’s run).
Furthermore, the offensive line permitted pressure against four man rushes. Romo’s interception came while he was trying to avoid a push up the middle in such an instance. Carter’s second sack was a result of poor technique by Tyron Smith for the second time in two games. Any hopes of converting a first and goal from the seven into a touchdown after that sack were summarily dismissed.
Despite the highly visible sacks, Tyron Smith has actually been the best offensive lineman in Dallas. Doug Free has not lived up to his average $8 million per year contract so far. Free may be headed for an inevitable move to the right side in 2012. Costa may or may not be a player, but at least he is on the field. Nagy may or may not be a player, but he is lost for the rest of the season. Arkin and/or Kowalski will need to step in and perform well in the coming weeks.
The offensive line has played so poorly at times, that a new guy or two may not produce any discernible difference in the passing game or running game. As long as the running game continues to produce a plethora of 1-yard and 2-yard runs, while enduring a dearth of runs over 10 yards (no running back ran for more than an 8-yard gain), this team will struggle in the red zone.
The Patriots basically dared the Cowboys to run the ball near the goal line. Why would any defensive coordinator worth his salt do otherwise?
The Cowboys are a one-dimensional team close to the end zone, and play calling does not make a big enough difference. If Dallas could threaten teams by running the ball in from seven or eight yards out, let alone from within three yards, opponents would have to respect the running game. Until the Cowboys can threaten to score on the ground, the close quarters in first and goal situations will favor the defense, and lead to great fantasy numbers for Dan Bailey.
Other mistakes negatively affecting this team include dropped passes and mental busts by receivers. Miles Austin dropped a certain eight yard gain on the Dallas possession before the go ahead field goal. Miles also dropped another pass two plays later that forced the Cowboys to punt instead of prolonging a drive into field goal range. Demarco Murray also dropped what looked like a touchdown pass in the flat.
Perhaps Dez Bryant’s uneven performance has more to do with the situations in the game, the play calling, or the coverage the defense is playing, but it is curious how he is absent in every second half of every game. A few weeks ago Bryan Broaddus of ESPN radio noted that Romo frequently threw the ball to Dez when he was where he was supposed to be. Perhaps Dez starts to add-lib much too much in the second half of games, in essence making him disappear. The pattern Bryant ran on the Romo interception certainly looked suspect, as he failed to cross in front of the safety as one would expect.
While Witten was being doubled, only Miles Austin becomes a viable downfield threat in the absence of Dez Bryant. Laurent Robinson had a couple of nice catches, and perhaps his second half targets will need to increase in lieu of Bryant’s wild swings in production. That would add yet another factor leading to limiting the available plays that can be called.
When examining the three facets of this team, it is obvious that the offense is behind the defense in its development (with the special teams some where in between: fair coverage, average returns). The offense has many more issues to resolve or improve than the defense at this point. Most of the problems on the offensive side of the ball stem from inconsistent offensive line play, and to a lesser degree, inconsistent play from the skill players.
Note that there is no pinning the final Patriots drive that led to the winning touchdown on the defense. That was New England’s tenth possession of the game (really the ninth when the possession with 33 seconds left in the first half and the fumbled kickoff return are discounted). The Patriots ended their previous eight possessions (with more than 33 seconds left on the clock) with one touchdown, two field goals, two interceptions, one fumble and two punts.
Also notice that there is an absence of criticism regarding the run defense (Patriots 25 rushes for 101 yards). Dallas was defending the lethal Patriots passing game by playing nickel and dime packages. It was a novel strategy, but it also gave New England space to run the ball. Paraphrasing Rob Ryan, taking the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands by encouraging the Patriots to run is not a bad idea.
A far departure from when Wade droned how the Cowboys needed to stop the running game in Texas Stadium the last time these two teams met. New England scored over 40 points that day.
This season will be decided by how much this team improves over the final 11 games. If the Cowboys gradually, but consistently improve (especially on offense), this team has a chance to compete in the playoffs. If the Cowboys improve considerably, Dallas could even boast post-season success.
The baseline is set. The final grades will reflect improvement, or lack thereof…