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To win the close games that they are sure to play, the young Cowboys must find ways to eke out touchdowns and hold the opposition to field goals. The key is to play well on third downs.
Allow me to begin with a bit of history, from a game none of us ever tire of discussing: the 1992 NFC Championship. The 49ers, you may recall, took an early 7-3 lead but, over the course of the second, third and early fourth quarters, the Cowboys scored three touchdowns and held San Francisco to two field goals to take a 24-13 lead. The 'Niners and quarterback Steve Young were forced to play catch-up the rest of the way, and he threw two fourth-quarter picks, both the result of defensive pressure, as the Cowboys held on and then won going away, 30-20.
When asked for his take on the game immediately afterward, Young responded with something to the effect of: "We can't win if were going to give them sevens and just get threes." Indeed, in a game between two evenly-matched teams, the winner is often the one who can turn promising drives into touchdowns and limit the opposition's promising drives to field goals. On Sunday, the Cowboys had six scoring drives, three of which ended up as field goals. Of the Ravens' five scores (one of which came not on a drive but on a long return), only one was the result of a field goal. As a consequence the Cowboys were outscored in a game in which they held a significant statistical advantage.
In the aforementioned NFC Championship, the Cowboys were particularly effective on third downs. On offense, they made numerous plays to convert third downs and to keep drives alive - indeed, after the game, San Francisco head coach George Seifert called their third-down play "special.". Defensively, they gave up quite a few explosive plays, but managed to come up big on enough third downs -thanks in no small part to Charles Haley playing out of his mind - to limit the damage. As this example suggests, its no accident that the key to turning threes into sevens, and vice versa, is to do well on the "money down." With that in mind, let's take a look at some key third downs from drives that resulted in Dallas field goals or Baltimore touchdowns to see why the Cowboys fell short on Sunday
12:24 Second Quarter: Dallas is driving, up 7-3, and faces a 3rd and four on the Ravens' 12. The Cowboys deploy in "11" personnel, with Felix Jones as the lone back, and Kevin Ogletree split left, Dez Bryant split right, and Miles Austin in the slot inside Bryant. Before the snap, both Ogletree and Austin go in motion closer to the line, to assist with blocking on the edges, as a pass formation takes on a run look. The Cowboys don't often run on third and four. Here it makes sense: in the game's first 18 minutes or so, they had been particularly effective on the ground, logging 111 yards on 13 carries. It looks like this trend will continue, as the line, especially the left side, gets a great push and Jones picks up 6 yards behind a pulling Mackenzy Bernadeau. Two receivers in motion at the same time constitutes an illegal shift, of course, and the crucial conversion is negated. On the next play, from a similar set, a screen to Bryant loses even more as he tries to break tackles. A potential 14-3 game stands at 10-3 after A Dan Bailey field goal.
7:32 Second Quarter: The next Baltimore drive. After converting one third and seven on a swing pass to an uncovered Ray Rice, the Ravens face a third and two at the Cowboys' two yard line. They go heavy, with three tight ends, one on the left, lined up over Cowboys DE Kenyon Coleman. For the second consecutive play, Baltimore passed out of this formation and, for the second play in a row the pass was incomplete, getting Dallas off the field. But wait! Coleman, seemingly surprised that the Ravens' Billy Bajema, instead of blocking, went out into a pattern, got off-balance and caught Bajema's facemask, drawing an illegal hands to the face penalty. Instead of a field goal attempt, the Raven set new life and score a touchdown one play later. A 10-6 game is now knotted at 10-10.
2:00 Second Quarter: Coming out of the two-minute warning, the Cowboys threaten a blitz, which causes a Ravens offside, bringing up a tough-to-convert third and fourteen. On the next play, the Ravens come out in three-wide with Anquan Boldin in the slot. Miraculously, Boldin is covered by Bruce Carter, largely because Rob Ryan has dialed up a corner blitz on the other side, so will be rotating defensive backs the other way. The blitz doesn't get there, Baltimore QB Joe Flacco has plenty of time to throw, and the Ravens get 20 yards and a critical conversion en route to a score before halftime. A potential punt turns into a touchdown, and a 10-10 game is 17-10 at the half.
11:46 Third Quarter: On their first possession of the second half, the Cowboys are driving, and face a third and four at the B'more 25. Romo gets the match-up he wants, with Austin singled up on Ravens second-year corner Jimmy Smith. Austin has trouble getting into his route, however, and Romo's pass is too far in front of him by the time he creates a bit of space. A good play call, a good read, and a perfectly blocked play (as well as a strong drive) all go for naught, with the result being another Bailey field goal. A potential tying touchdown drive instead finds the Cowboys at a 17-13 disadvantage.
0:13 Third Quarter: After an exchange of touchdowns (making the score 24-20), and a Baltimore three-and-out, the Cowboys find themselves in an eerily similar situation: third and five at the Ravens' 35, with Austin one-on-one with Smith. This time, Austin runs a "go" outside the numbers, and Romo's pass, seemingly placed perfectly along the sideline, out of the safety's reach, is tipped away by Smith at the last second. Result: a Dallas punt, as Jason Garrett plays field position...
9:03 Fourth Quarter: ...and rightly so, for, after another Ravens' three-and-out, Dallas, enjoying terrific field position, has once again moved the ball swiftly downfield, gaining sizable chunks on the ground. Due to another illegal shift, however, they are taken out of a plus run situation and, after a short completion to Bryant, face a third and nine. Baltimore decides to rush three and play coverage. Nobody gets open and Romo, moving up in the pocket, runs into the Ravens' nose guard, taking a sack, resulting in - you guessed it - another Bailey kick. Instead of a possible lead change, Dallas still trails, 24-23.
7:00 Fourth Quarter: After having the ball for a mere six plays in the second half, the Ravens finally eke out a first down and then threaten to get another, facing a third and one just short of midfield. Baltimore lines up in a single-back formation, with three wideouts, and opts for a simple inside run to Rice. Jay Ratliff blows ancient B'more center Matt Birk off the ball, and towards Rice's running lane, but can't disengage in time to make the play. Rice runs past him for the third down conversion. Later in the drive, on second and goal at the Dallas two, Rice loses two yards, bringing up a much more difficult to make third and four...but the huge loss was negated by a Dallas offsides, and a dicey conversion situation turns into a second and one, and the Ravens score easily.
In the inevitable over-reaction that has followed Sunday's contest, gallons of ink have been spilled covering the game's tumultuous final minute. But, as they say, no game is won or lost in the final minute. Indeed, had the Cowboys been able to turn a single one of the above plays in their favor, the final outcome would likely have swung their way as well (I realize that this thinking falls under the "fallacy of the preordained hit," as it applies to baseball but, given the Cowboys general dominance, feel it to be somewhat less fallacious). If this team is to win some games against evenly-matched opponents (and this team isn't good enough not to be evenly matched on most Sundays), they could do a lot worse than to watch the events of January 17, 1993, with notebooks and pens in hand.