As reviewed in Part I, the Cowboys where inches away from turning the Vikings big-play 1st quarter touchdown into a defensive turnover. The game in Minnesota Saturday night was close, it was hard fought, and the Dallas Cowboys earned their second preseason victory. It was not a dominating win, but there was no lack of effort from both the youngsters and veterans, even when they were outmatched.
Football is a game of inches, a fight to achieve precise timing and gain even the smallest advantage while executing as a unit the eleven-man assignments. The 2011 Cowboys will not be perfect, but everyone is fighting for that needed inch and the team did not quit or release their grasp on the 2nd quarter lead. And to think, it wasn't even all the starters or even a heavily detailed game plan.
There were plenty of mistakes to review in the film room at Valley Ranch, but the team was competitive in every aspect of the game. Even when individual players lost their matchup or made a mistake, the team rallied and (as Coach Garrett would say) finished the play. When we left off, the Vikings were winning the matchup and Game of Inches as the first quarter came to end, the Cowboys down 7-3 with the Vikings driving down the field.
Unlike the 2010 squad, this Cowboys team came together and the defense brought the team back into the game, capturing the momentum and the lead...and finished the game.
During the 2010 season, all too often the team would collapse when a few things went wrong. Suddenly mental lapses led to penalties and mistakes, a sense of dread seemed to permeate, and soon blown assignments and finger-pointing ensued (usually from the defense). But against the Vikings, this preview team of the 2011 Cowboys did not quit, they did not let up, and managed to win a game they seemed doomed to lose. While the defense was outmatched at the line of scrimmage, they allowed very few plays over twenty yards. While the Vikings amassed yards, they were kept out of the red zone most of the night. The offense sustained drives, were accurate through the air and successful on the ground, spearheaded by a young and feisty offensive line.
The Vikings had the lead and were driving downfield, Adrian Peterson seemingly unstoppable and escaping by inches to gain handfuls of yards...
Yet this Rob Ryan defense would find a way to finish the play and then regroup. The defense would bend, but never let up, even with Ryan often calling base schemes and three man rushes. As the defense took the field on 3rd and eight at the turn of the 2nd quarter, they managed to stop the play a yard short of the first down marker. Knowing a little something about fighting for every inch, Coach DeCamilis motivated his crew as the Vikings prepared to kick a field goal. And then the spark, a legal move to hurdle the line to block the kick...inches away from the "leverage penalty."
The way the defensive linemen are attacking the blockers, like an offensive line smashing the line low on a goal line run, and with Alan Ball assigned to zone protect instead of trying to block the kick (like counterpart Orlando Scandrick), this seems like a designed and practiced block attempt.
Even after the block, the ball bounces the Cowboys way as momentum swings and the Cowboys return it for a touchdown. The Cowboys continued to fight for every inch and began winning more of them as the game went on, never quitting though with their backs on the ropes in the 1st quarter, never relenting the lead for nearly 3 quarters until they left Minnesota with a victory.
The Vikings begin another drive, now down 10-7, and again move the ball down field. Adrian Peterson continues to use great interior line blocks and incredible vision, burst, and balance to gain chunks of yards, but never managing to break for a long touchdown. Donovan McNabb continues to avoid sacks by mere inches, but the Cowboys fight on, even when held (Jay Ratliff) or pushed in the back (Anthony Spencer).
Still with few exotic blitz packages and no organized chaos, the defense gets pushed back into their own side of the field. But the Cowboys continue to fight for every inch as they try to make plays and keep the Vikings out of the red zone. The rewards were game changing.
Jason Hatcher returned from injury and had a solid game against the Vikings, the best of any Cowboys defensive lineman. Even when asked to do something I have never witnessed, zone coverage, Hatcher manages to just reach a pass and tip it up for Sensabaugh to make a great diving interception. This team may not be perfect, but they fight for every inch.
The momentum in full swing in the Cowboys favor, the offense took the field on the twenty-three yard line and commenced a crisp drive down the field. The majority of yards came on three pass plays (Tony Romo to Dez Bryant) with good pass protection. The three passes averaged a dozen yards a piece, and all were different routes with good timing. One great jump catch along the sideline, one precise quick slant, and once splitting zone coverage with a tough throw by Romo to split the coverage and hit a very small window. A pass to Kevin Ogletree was the first incompletion, and from what I saw and Romo's look after the play, it seems Ogletree ran a sloppy route. And then for but an inch, Ogletree missed again instead of redeeming himself...
None the less, the offense sustained the drive and managed to reach just outside the redzone when again faced by adversity and a 3rd and four. At this point, I would like to note this was just one of a few clutch catches made by Jesse Holley on Saturday night, where on this occasion, he managed to pick up the first down with a nice grab and a fight to get the Cowboys within the five yard line...where the Game of Inches becomes smash-mouth football and a battle of wills.
The first attempt went to Dez and the young receiver was just inches away from making a tough touchdown catch with Romo throwing the ball the only place he could but just out of reach. But the team did not quit from the frustration of two touchdowns by just an inch. They fought on. And while Felix Jones was rarely afforded goal-line opportunities in the past, the lead dog (Cat) was allotted the challenge this time. Guess what he did? That's right, he fought for that final inch to make it into the endzone.
The Cowboys increase the lead to 17-7 and (the starters) went on to finish out the (half) game never losing the lead.
Yes, the defensive line did not look dominant. Yes, the defense gave up a lot of yards. Yes, the offense was not as explosive as we would hoped. But all game, at every position, and throughout the entire lineup, the Cowboys came to play and were competitive on every play. This is not the 2010 squad. This was a team that fought for every inch.
This was only a preseason game, but a win that speaks volumes to the condition of the franchise. You can certainly concentrate on the things that didn't go well, but I found far more positive tidings in the "dress rehearsal" preseason game. The Week 1 starters were not all on the field, and the game plan was certainly restrained, but for all the matchups lost across the line of scrimmage, many more were won during the course of the game. We will certainly continue to discuss the rejuvenated o-line, the battle of the young and talented running backs, not to mention the young receivers like Jesse Holly and Manny Johnson (who had a good game vs. Vikings). But the return of our starters on defense and evolution of Ryan's game plans will make this defense cause far more pressure than the three-man rushes did against the Vikings, though still tallied three sacks.
There are reasons for worry, but rest assured the 2011 Cowboys will be competitive, and will take the right approach to improve every day, and will never quit out on the field...even if the Game of Inches favors the opponent in the first quarter.