Every year the pressure and emotion erupts into a frenzy upon the arrival of Week 1 games, but the 2011 season found the Dallas Cowboys in an epic season opener with more storylines and intensity than a Hollywood blockbuster.
First time head coach Jason Garrett had a lockout-shortened offseason to implement changes to reflect his coaching philosophy and new team culture. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan also had less time to prepare his unit, which was in serious need of improvement from their 2010 performance. As an opponent, the Cowboys would face a team that reached the conference championship game the last two seasons, not to mention led by Rob's twin brother, and has one of the league's best defenses.
The season opener was also on prime-time, the first Sunday night game of the season. And if all this swell of emotion and excitement wasn't enough to create an electric atmosphere...the game was played on the 10-year anniversary of a national tragedy with the home crowd miles away from the opening of the 9/11 monument.
The game was action-packed and reflected well this epic build-up to a season opener.
The Cowboys came into Week 1 with several players sidelined by injury, though managed to start a few that were questionable to play just days ago. In a game that saw the Cowboys on the verge of overcoming the limited time to implement new schemes, the inexperienced jitters of their young starters, the vaunted Jets defense, and the emotionally crazed crowd - the defeat was more painful than expected.
However, there were plenty of reasons to be excited about the 2011 Cowboys, even though (perhaps because) they lost on the road to a Super Bowl contender by only three points. Let's take a closer look.
Before the Jets final drive in the first half, Mark Sanchez was an abysmal 5 for 11 for 31 yards passing and the Jets had a total of 65 yards of offense. Meanwhile, Tony Romo was 12 of 16 with a touchdown and the Cowboys offense had amassed 164 yards.
By early in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys had taken a 14 point lead even though they were losing the field position game and had started three drives deep in their own territory (6, 8, and 11-yard line). The defense was also looking solid having already forced several three-and-outs for the Jets.
So it's understandable that many Cowboys fans became upset at the final result of the game and the collapse in the 4th quarter. But I must repeat, while the loss was more painful than expected, there were plenty of reasons to be excited about the rest of the 2011 season.
- Offensive line: I will be writing a weekly post on this young unit, but the early performance was quite commendable. The stat sheet will show they allowed 4 sacks, but only one was a complete breakdown (the first sack) and that was actually a mistake made by the veteran on the squad as Kyle Kosier was late in reacting to a delayed blitz. The others were situations where Tony managed to try to scramble from the pressure but was not able to evade it or get rid of the ball. Yes, four sacks allowed is not a good statistic, but considering the pressure the Jets can create and the inexperience of a young offensive line, they did a good job last night. It should also be noted that on many passing downs Romo had a lot of time to look deep and let the play develop because of some outstanding pass protection.
- Blackjack Scheme: Last week, I had written about my prediction that Jason Garrett would utilize two tight end sets often and create various formations by shifting and motioning the versatile tight ends, and that was certainly the case Sunday night. This becomes apparent as early as the first drive where Jason Witten lined up everywhere on the field. He was wide left as a lone receiver on the big play to Dez in the 1st quarter (though not Blackjack personnel). Witten also lined up wide as receiver and motioned to the slot or line on several occasions, and also lined up as a fullback and shifted into the slot. John Phillips also joined in the fun, sometimes motioning from the line or slot into the fullback position. The most interesting variation, however, was a four receiver set with three bunched in the slot, though two of them were tight ends - a formation that can be dangerous in both the run and passing game, not to mention setting up an interesting screen play. They also lined up in this bunch formation the next play but then motioned out of it.
- Felix Jones: The Jets are a very difficult team to run against because they are so strong across the defensive line and have a group of power rushing linebackers, and yet, Felix managed to get some tough yards rushing and was a threat as a receiver. He was even afforded his first runs from the goal line and managed to score. His average for the night was nothing impressive, but he did prove he can be the lead back and managed to gain yards even when the blocking breaks down.
- Passing Game: Dez Bryant had an incredible first half, and the passing attack was clicking as Romo completed nearly 64% of his passes for over 340 yards and two touchdowns (and one infamous interception). Even Kevin Ogletree came up big with two clutch 3rd down receptions, while Jason Witten proved once again he is the best tight end in the game and Miles Austin proved how a strong receiver with speed can prove to be a nightmare for defenses. While Cowboy fans are used to this kind of offensive output, it is very encouraging to see it against the Jets, with Dez missing portions of the game, and the young offensive line facing one of its greatest tests on the first game of the season.
- Pass Rush: There were many fears over the 2011 Cowboys defense, and there are certainly still areas that need improving, but this was a revived unit playing against the Jets. DeMarcus Ware lined up everywhere across the line and finished the night with two sacks. Two more sacks were added by Anthony Spencer and young safety Danny McCray (who also made some big ST tackles). Mark Sanchez behind a stout offensive line was pressured all night into forced throws and incompletions. Even with a starting corner out for the game, and another during, the defense managed to create pressure rushing only three or four and protecting the secondary with more people in coverage to help Alan Ball and Bryan McCann. A great example came towards the end of the 3rd quarter where the Jets were in the redzone and the Cowboys without Orlando Scandrick, and with only a 3-man rush, managed to flush Sanchez out of the pocket and pressured him into throwing an incompletion.
- Rush Defense: There was also a lot of worry about how this defense could hold up against the run considering their performance during the 2010 season and 2011 preseason. The Jets have a strong running game and yet their running backs were held to 42 yards on 15 carries with a low 2.8 average. Two of the most impressive run stops were anchored by two players that were not even starters last year, Sean Lissemore and Jason Hatcher. (By the way, glad Ryan listened to me and has Jason Hatcher and Marcus Spears as his starting defensive ends).
Problems to Work On
- The Cowboys offense let the play clock wind down to nearly 1 second on most plays of the night. While this might have been a result of facing the Jets defense with well designed blitzes and exotic schemes, it led to too many mistakes, a few delay of game penalties, and a snap count that the defensive pass rush could anticipate by just judging the play clock.
- It is only the first week, but the end of the 2nd and 4th quarters were clear signs that the Cowboys defense can be forced into mistakes when faced with a quick or no-huddle offense. This should improve as the season progresses and Ryan has more time with the players, as well as by the return of our starting corners.
- The blocked punt was a game changer and certainly one of the biggest reasons the Cowboys could not hold onto the lead in the 4th quarter. It was a well designed punt block attempt that forced LP Ladouceur and rookie Alex Albright into making a blocking mistake that inexperienced Jesse Holley was not wise enough to save. It was a devastating play, but something I expect special teams coach Joe DeCamillis will not allow to be repeated.
- Running between the tackles was tough sledding against the Jets and Garrett did not even attempt it too many times. The opponent made it difficult and an offset line for the Cowboys helped a couple of times, but this is an issue that must be resolved...or tested more thoroughly against a defense that isn't so stout in the middle. Also, Tashard Choice will lose his job if he doesn't improve his ability to pass protect. His mistake led to a serious hit on Romo, though he managed to throw the ball before the blind side rush got to him. The mistake wasn't as costly as it might have been, but something that coaches will be pointing out in the film room.
- I hate to sound like some ESPN hack, but Tony Romo must make smarter plays than the one that led to an interception in the 4th quarter.
- Losing Orlando Scandrick for 2-4 weeks will really hurt this team as he is by far the best slot corner on the roster.
With the NFL season threatened by a long lockout and amplified by a short yet action packed offseason, coaches across the league had less time to plan and prepare, and fewer practices to implement any changes. So the new regime in Dallas was working overtime to catch up to franchises (like the New York Jets) with teams that had few changes during the offseason. And yet the Cowboys gave the Jets a run for their money in front of a very hostile crowd Sunday night. There are certainly areas where this team needs to improve, but they did confirm (in my eyes) the preseason speculation that the 2011 Cowboys will be a competitive team.