As we hardened veterans of the NFL wars know from experience, division games tend not to follow the expected script. Since both teams know each other so well, there are few schematic surprises. As a result, the games hinge on individual effort; the team whose players make the most plays is usually the team that wins. On Sunday night, this proved to be the case. Thanks to several herculean individual efforts, the Cowboys outlasted a Redskins team that outperformed them in every appreciable statistical category. How did they do it? Let's take a look, by the numbers:
216: The Redskins running yardage on the night. Yes, the number appears to be high, almost as damaging as their large running totals in 2012's season ender. But, in reality, it was the meekest of 200+ yard efforts. Perhaps it's best to look at a breakdown by quarter:
This reflects to a large degree my impression of the game: as the first half wore on, the Dallas defensive line began to assert itself and to control the line of scrimmage generally and to shut down the running game in particular. That changed in the third quarter, when momentum swung solidly in Washington's direction, and the Dallas defense seemed to sag from a wearying combination of imbalanced play counts (the Cowboys ran eight third quarter plays; the Redskins ran 24) and tremendous effort.
Indeed, more than a third of that third-quarter yardage bulge came on an Albert Morris 45-yard touchdown, during which he ran largely unabated into the end zone. As he crossed the goal line, Cowboys fans could hear the ominous ring of nails being driven into coffins. Frankly, the Cowboys defense looked cooked, and it seemed only a matter of time until they were going to be rolled by a 'Skins running game that was picking up steam.
But, somehow, they found a second wind in the fourth quarter; a huge chunk of the run yardage in the final frame came on two plays: a 19-yard rumble by the 'Skins fullback and a meaningless 17-yard Roy Helu run on the final play, when priority one was to keep him in bounds. Indeed, a seemingly exhausted Cowboys defense managed to dig deep in the final frame. Check out Washington's five fourth quarter drives and how they ended:
1: Started in 3rd and continued into the 4th Q; a nice drive ended in a missed Kai Forbath field goal
2. Kyle Wilber's sack-strip-fumble recovery trifecta
3. Scandrick's end zone interception
4. Turnover on downs, finishing a five-play drive in which the first play was a 25-yard completion.
5. Final two plays; Redskins got ball with 14 seconds left on the clock.
I have no idea where they found it but that band of misfits and rejects found a reserve fuel tank. And, instead of Washington grinding down the Dallas defensive line, it was the other way around: all those snaps tired the Redskins front and the Cowboys began to make plays again.
.500: Washington's third down conversion rate, on eight out of sixteen tries. For much of the offseason, we heard the same mantra: a key difference between Rob Ryan's and Monte Kiffin's defenses is that Ryan is designed to generate big plays and Kiffin's is designed to prevent them. In the past couple of weeks, however, Kiffin's D resembled those Ryan put on the field in recent years, in that they were allowing huge cushions to opposing receivers and failing to close quickly on underneath routes, which is one of the hallmarks of the "Tampa-2."
On Sunday night, this changed. For the first time in a long while, perhaps all season, Cowboys defenders provided tight coverage and limited the damage underneath all game. In particular, Dallas cornerback triumvirate of Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Mo Claiborne lived in the hip pockets of Washington's receiving corps. Together, they had eight pass breakups, one interception and 13 tackles. That's nice work.
And: rarely, if ever, did a Washington back turn a swing pass upfield to find open real estate. As a result, the Dallas D played the "bend but don't break" style for which Kiffin's scheme is famous. So, even though the Redskins conversion rate was high, the Cowboys continually forced them to keep making plays.
4: The number of Washington drives that ended in field goal attempts, one in each quarter. The 'Skins failure to continue to execute for 10+ plays in the face of the above delineated tight coverage resulted in enough stops late in drives that limited Washington to field goal attempts. Especially early in the game, the Cowboys escaped by the skin of their teeth. To wit:
- On Washington's first drive, the Cowboys held after the 'Skins managed a first and goal at the Dallas nine. Result: a FG attempt from the two
- At the end of the first half, the 'Skins clock mismanagement helps the Dallas D; instead of several attempts at the end zone, the Redskins have time for only one, a toss to Pierre Garcon, who was blanketed by Brandon Carr and had no real chance at a play.
- After converting two third downs (the second of which was a "Just Bob" Griffin 26-yard run with a bonus ticky-tack personal foul on Barry Church), Washington cannot convert a third, once again coming up two yards short, and settling for a FG from the 15.
- In the 4th quarter, a now stiffening cowboys defense gives up one third down conversion but, thanks to tight coverage by Carr and Claiborne, produces a 4th and 11 at its own 31. The long field goal attempt is no good.
Sometimes football is a simple game. On Sunday night, the difference lay in Washington's trading sevens for threes; their field goals were matched by Dallas touchdowns (in addition, Dallas matched the missed FG with a Dan Bailey make), an imbalance that provided the bulk of the Cowboys' margin of victory. Which was rather odd and amazing, given the next number:
220: The total yardage advantage enjoyed by the Redskins on an evening in which they gained more than twice as many yards from scrimmage as did Dallas. In fact, the Redskins outgained the Cowboys in nearly every appreciable category: first downs, yards, both passing and running, yards per play, yards per attempt, both passing and running. A strong argument can be made that Washington dominated the game, winning two of the three phases, yet the Cowboys led start to finish, a lead that was in jeopardy only once, after Morris's 45-yard rumble brought the score.
This was because the Cowboys won four key "hidden" categories:
1. Washington was 0-3 in the red zone (Dallas was 3-4)
2. The 'Skins amassed 12 penalties for 104 yards.
3. Dallas won the turnover battle 2-1.
4: And most important: they crushed one category: return yards. Dwayne Harris - who was clearly the star of the game - tallied 222 return yards, the third highest total in Cowboys history. By comparison, Washington had 46. If we take both teams' total offense, add return yards and subtract penalty yards, it's a much more even affair: Washington 375; Dallas 365. There's the story of the game.
18.1: Dwayne Harris' average yards per punt return since the start of the 2012 season, a figure that leads the NFL.'Nuff said.
And Harris' big game was crucial, given the offense's struggles. A couple of numbers from that side of the ball to consider:
3-4; 29: Washington's defensive scheme and DeMarco Murray's number. The Cowboys have long struggled against active, deceptive, pressure-oriented 3-4 fronts; indeed, I wrote about this at length after the Kansas City game. In the division, the team that best fits that description in recent years has been Jim Haslett's bunch. In three plus seasons (now seven games) against Haslett, the Cowboys' yardage totals have often been reasonably impressive - they have averaged 358 yards a game - but have often come in the face of intense pressure (recall the Cowboys gritty 18-16 victory in 2011, the week after Romo broke his rib in San Francisco): Haslett love to blitz, from all angles and in any situation.
On Sunday night, the Redskins inexplicably eschewed the blitz on the Cowboys opening series, and Dallas waltzed down the field on a methodical 10-play drive. After that, however, Haslett began to bring the pain. On their second series, a hard-charging Josh Wilson tipped a Romo pass, resulting in an interception. More importantly, two plays before the pick, Murray was injured, a development that seemed to change the complexion of the game entirely.
At the point when Murray was injured, the Cowboys had run 16 plays, and gained 117 yards - a total that proved to be more than half their yardage on the evening - which meant that they were humming along at a nice 7.31 yards per. Moreover, Romo was 9-10 passing at that point, with a lot of short blitz-beating throws such as slants and bubble screens.
After Murray went down, the offense ground to a virtual halt. Look at the passing totals from the Cowboys subsequent second and third quarter drives, starting with the final two plays on the series after Murray's injury:
- 0-2, with an interception
- 3-6 for 20 yards
- 1-1 for 15 yards and a touchdown
- 0-2, with Washington's lone sack
In total, on those four drives, Romo went 4-13, with the lone bright spot a play in which he eluded a free rusher and, while still recovering from a slight stumble, threw into the corner of the end zone, where Terrance Williams made a superb catch. In other words, two guys made a play on a snap wherein the Dallas offense was otherwise beaten, and badly.
Of course, this scoring play was set up by Dwayne Harris' 90-yard kickoff return. In fact, both of his big returns happened smack dab in the midst of this run of futility. All I can say is: thank goodness for number 17; without his star turn, the Cowboys would have been in big, big trouble. But as the defense did, the offense was able to turn it around in the final quarter, by resorting to...
01: As in "01" personnel, a no running back, single tight end formation. In the fourth quarter, Bill Callahan opted to try and beat the Washington blitz by deploying his troops in a spread formation. Strangely, the Cowboys leading receiver on the day (in terms of yards) was Cole Beasley, who gathered in four passes for 44 yards. The diminutive one caught three of those four in the fourth quarter, all in the lone Cowboys drive in which they were still trying to score. Although he played an occasional snap here and there throughout the game, Beasley manned one slot in spread formations and was able to use his quickness to get open underneath before Haslett's pressure packages got to Romo.
6: The number of Cowboys with two or more receptions. The Cowboys continue to go to a wide array of receiving options. On the night, Romo targeted eight different receivers; six of them caught a pass, and each of those six caught more than one ball. Dez Bryant is a certified superstar and, consequently, is getting a lot of extra attention, especially deep. The more the Cowboys can hurt rival defenses with other receiving options, the more likely we are to see Bryant receive the single coverage that he can exploit for big gainers.
After watching tape of the Denver and Washington games, rival defensive coordinators are surely going to see that failing to pressure Romo will result in a long afternoon, as happened against the Chiefs and Redskins. So, I expect to see a lot of opponents bring the heat, starting this Sunday in Philly.
If When they do, it looks like the Cowboys have a better answer than they've had in quite some time. That's a good thing; I expect they'll need it.