Ghosts of the 2010 Nightmare Season resurface...but how the team responds will prove how different they are in 2011.
I have never quit watching a Cowboys game prior to the final whistle, but Sunday night I came close. It was a brutal and embarrassing display by our beloved team. The bad news: The "..." Eagles have found new life and could use the dominant victory against the Cowboys to springboard them from the division basement to playoff contention. The good news: For those who fought through the pain until the bitter end, at least we saw a team that didn't quit before the final whistle.
There are two drastically different paths that can follow such a thorough beat-down by a division rival. In 2010, the Cowboys let the embarrassing losses eventually tear the team apart until there was no hope without a coaching change. Every game appeared to be a copy of the last, with mental errors and poor execution inevitably leading to easily-accepted defeat.
While the Cowboys displayed many of the same problems that plagued the team in last year's nightmare season, at least they appear to be on a different path. The game got out of hand very quickly. There were missed assignments and missed tackles throughout the entire game. But the team never rolled over and died. The offense managed to score and the defense managed to force a punt. It was in no way pretty, but it also wasn't last year's team that seemed resigned to losing.
Let's take a closer look at the problems of 2010 that have resurfaced, but why the 2011 Cowboys appear to be on a different path than last season's tailspin...
The Simple Truth
Some may call them excuses, others may recognize them as significant factors, but credit is due to the opponent. In an emotional night remembering a great defensive mind in the NFL, the Eagles defense played inspired football in memory of the late Jim Johnson. Also, the return of Jason Peters answered many fears in Philadelphia, and their offensive-line put together their best performance of the season. Also, LeSean McCoy is the real deal and I am still (and even more) upset that Philadelphia drafted him. The Eagles needed this win more and showed it by outplaying the Cowboys.
The way the game developed favored into the strengths of the Eagles. Their defense is designed to stop the pass but susceptible to run. They have the leading rushing offense in the league and a high-powered passing offense prone to mistakes and turnovers when playing from behind. At no point did the Eagles have to press offensively and where thus never pressured into mistakes. Michael Vick managed the game very well and never had to make a big play, thus seemingly always made the right play. They took the lead early and while they couldn't stop the Cowboys rushing attack, they didn't have to. The way the game developed the Cowboys were forced to abandon the run and test the best capabilities of the Eagles. It became blatantly clear their pass pressure and coverage proved too much for the one-dimensional Cowboys Sunday night.
The Vick-timization of Rob Ryan
This was the poorest performance from the Cowboys defense in 2011. It appeared to be the least aggressive made worse by also being the least complex. I assumed Rob Ryan would rely on organized chaos to confuse Michael Vick and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. Instead, it appeared Ryan tempted Vick to beat the Cowboys with his arm. While I have yet to verify the fact, the Cowboys defense appeared to have blitzed the fewest times all season. Three and four-man rushes were the usual suspects. Yet even then, Vick managed to read the coverage and throw the safe pass, or run out of the pocket and make the first guy miss.
Ryan not only called fewer exotic blitzes, he seems to have relied on very few coverage schemes as well. The majority of the game the Cowboys either played two safeties in deep coverage, or brought one to the line to rush alongside the three defensive-linemen. There were very few times were the defense cause pre-snap confusion for the offense. The Eagles never managed to beat the Cowboys deep to DeSean Jackson, but they were also never really pressured into making mistakes. While the Cowboys defense kept Tom Brady off-balance and somewhat confused by a variety of blitz packages and coverages, it appeared Ryan did not try to force Vick out of the pocket or confuse him with the same aggressive style of defense we have seen this season.
It seemed Rob Ryan created a defensive game-plan specific for Vick and it failed miserably. Of course, there was another big factor that was out of his control.
The Wrath of Sean Lee
The Cowboys middle-linebacker play without Sean Lee is horrendous, nightmares of 2010 with Keith Brooking missing tackles against the run and Bradie James getting beat in coverage. The dreadful performance of the defense and the reluctance to force Lee back into the game after halftime shows how vital the young linebacker is to the long-term success of this defense. The leading tackler, the best run-stopper, the best backer in coverage...Sean Lee may be the MVP of the Cowboys defense both due to his talent and the poor state of the inside-linebacker core without him.
The Eagles offense beat the Cowboys with a game-plan I thought the Cowboys would use against them. With a subpar unit of linebackers, and some young and untested safeties, I expected the Cowboys to run the ball against the Eagles, and use tight-ends and receivers to attack the middle of the field and up the seams. Instead, the Cowboys fell prey to the same plan of attack with Brooking and James outmatched by McCoy and Brent Celek.
Since Sean Lee also calls the plays in the defensive huddle, it could mean that Ryan's game-plan was simplified once he lost the captain of his defense and the most versatile ILB. The idea of a long-term injury to Lee is too scary to consider, even on Halloween, but Rob Ryan should throw Bruce Carter into as many practice reps as he can manage (his big hit on special teams one of the few the Cowboys had all night) in an effort to find someone to bolster the depth at ILB. A free agent acquisition or perhaps a trade involving Martellus Bennett or Kevin Ogletree for a middle-linebacker would be a comforting move as well.
The 2010 Rushing Invasion
The Cowboys defense could not stop the run. That statement of fact for the 2010 defense once again became a reality in 2011. The best defense in the league against the run allowed McCoy to gain 185 yards on the ground and Vick to contribute another 50 yards rushing. It was the one aspect of the Sunday night massacre that was most reminiscent of the 2010 nightmare. The linebackers without Sean Lee were no help in run support, and the safeties in deep coverage were too far away to be of any help and too often missed tackles. The defensive-line was not horrible, but certainly lost more matchups than it won.
It seems another culmination of bad tides led to the perfect storm. Sean Lee's injury was clearly a huge factor in the disappearance of the Cowboys run defense. But Ryan's game-plan had the safeties in run support very sparingly and rarely called run-blitzes that worked so well earlier this season. The Cowboys also faced one of the league's best running backs - Shady McCoy's inspired performance even had Cowboys-hating Chris Collinsworth recalling the great Barry Sanders. Add in the season's best performance by the Eagles offensive-line and the game situation that allowed the Eagles to establish and maintain their rushing attack...it was a bad moon rising.
Assuming Sean Lee's quick return in the near future and more aggressive game-plans from Rob Ryan, I expect/hope this hellish demon of the past will not continue into the rest of the season. If the Cowboys can again become adept at stopping the run, this defense should not be this victimized the remainder of the season.
The Ugly Outing of the Yuglies
The Cowboys young offensive-line was thrown in the fire Sunday night, and unfortunately, they did not survive the challenge with much grace. While the few times the Cowboys managed to run the ball the young guys blocked really well with several nice displays of downfield blocks by linemen, the o-line had issues in pass protection. They faced an excited pass rush which was able to pin it's ears back once the Cowboys offense became one dimensional, and simply couldn't handle the pressure. The Eagles were Top 10 in the league in sacks for a reason, and everyone struggled to provide Tony Romo and the offense time for passing plays to develop.
Montrae Holland showed why despite his great performance run-blocking versus the Rams he was still a free-agent. While he has certainly helped the Cowboys rushing attack, he has always been a liability in pass protection. Kyle Kosier had some issues handling the bull rush of defensive tackles, and Doug Free and Tyron Smith had their hands full. All things considered, while the o-line did a commendable job impersonating the poor pass protection of the 2010 unit, they allowed only four sacks to a team averaging three sacks per game even though the offense became one dimensional in the first half.
The Yuglies were assured some growing pains and Sunday night were the most painful to date. However, this o-line is poised to improve every week though the 2010 edition was only getting older and worse each week.
The Power Of A Rushing Attack
A team that can run the ball efficiently will be able to compete in every game, will be able to seal victories at the end of games, and can set the tone and pace when dominating a game. The Cowboys clearly became victims of a powerful rushing attack Sunday night. Because the Eagles were playing with a lead and didn't have to try and force a downfield passing threat, Vick was an impressive 21 of 28 with one-third of his completions going to a tight-end. While the Cowboys defense was based on stopping the deep pass play, the Eagles never had to test or try and beat the Cowboys deep. They simply took everything the defense gave them, which was a lot of short routes and passes in the middle of the field. Linebackers were already playing poorly in coverage, but with the dominant run game, the linebackers and safeties also fell victim to play-action fakes. The Eagles beat up on the Cowboys defense and drained the clock of valuable time for the Cowboys offense to make a comeback. The game was over in the first half when the Cowboys offense couldn't maintain drives and the defense couldn't stop the run. If your opponent has the lead and you can't stop the run, the resulting defeat is just a matter of time.
In 2010, the Cowboys could not run the ball. It seems that this issue has been rectified, so problems with the offensive-line and/or passing game can be aided and/or overcome with a solid ground game. The Cowboys offense has had some difficulty finding a rhythm this season, but being able to have one phase of the offense help the other will keep this team competitive. Assuming the defensive malfunctioning explained above is not permanent, there is plenty of reason to believe this terrible loss will prove only a hurdle. But if this is to be a defining game of the 2011 season, let's hope it is because the Cowboys use the embarrassing lose as a stepping stone to greater things rather than a dead-weight that forces a dismal season.
The 2010 Cowboys under Wade Phillips faced several embarrassing losses. There're likely some similar feelings permeating throughout Valley Ranch, ghosts of 2010 reminding the players how quickly things can get out of hand. But many of these 2011 Cowboys also remember how that same team became competitive once Jason Garrett became the interim head coach. Psychologically, these players should be better prepared to face such a devastating defeat. Coaching should also be taken into consideration. There's this gut feeling that suggests Coach Garrett and Rob Ryan will not allow this to become some quicksand sentiment that drags down the team. This is a single event, granted following some other heartbreaking defeats this season, but there are reasons to believe this will not crush the 2011 Cowboys. I still have the audacity to hope...