The Cowboys went on the road and held a small, fourth-quarter lead for multiple possessions for the first time since 1996. What should we think of this? Perhaps a look at some numbers from the game will offer some clarity.
On Sunday, the Cowboys ground out another close one, the nineteenth time in the Garrett administration in which the final tally was decided by a touchdown or less. This time, they played a field position game, built a small fourth quarter lead, and, surprisingly, held it - the first time since 2008 that the Dallas defense has held a lead of less than a touchdown for two or more fourth quarter drives by their opponent. Should we consider this development a mark of progress or a statistical aberration? We'll have to wait to find out; as we wait, here are some numbers to chew on from Sunday's game, in descending order:
295: The average weight of the Panthers' four starting defensive linemen, a far cry from the 333 pounds averaged by the Ravens 3-man front. Seemingly spurred by the haunting memory of Bill Nagy and Phil Costa's inability to move New England's big uglies Vince Woolfork and Ty Warren, one of the team's offseason goals was to get bigger and stronger along the offensive line. Enter free agents Nate Livings and MacKenzie Bernardeau, who offer significantly more heft and raw power than Nagy and Kyle Kosier. When matched up against Baltimore's big dudes, the plan appeared to be a success, as the Cowboys sustained blocks and consistently chewed off big chunks in the running game.
When facing four-man fronts against Seattle and Tampa Bay earlier in the year, however, the interior O-line appeared slow and was exposed by quickness. By trading quickness for size, in other words, the Cowboys appeared to have robbed Peter to pay Paul; in Carolina, this thesis seemed to be further substantiated, as they struggled to run the ball consistently against the Panthers' front four, especially in the second half. With smaller, quicker foursomes on the horizon in six of the next seven weeks (and with Costa likely to miss at least the next few games), we'll soon know more concretely if struggles against four-man fronts are to be one of the season's dominant storylines.
291: The combined total of the Cowboys starting linebackers' jersey numbers (94+50+54+93). For the first time since the team switched to the 3-4 in 2005 - DeMarcus Ware's rookie campaign - Dallas has four quality starting linebackers. One series in the second quarter offered a demonstration of this unit's ability to affect the game. On first down, Anthony Spencer made a great play on a DeAngelo WIllaims run; on second and nine, Ware ran a twist with Jason Hatcher, sharing a sack and creating a third and very long. On that third down play, Sean Lee knocked a pass out of Panther wideout Lewis Curry's hands, preventing what would have been a first down. In successive snaps, the Dallas 'backers made plays against the run, in the pass rush and in pass defense. And the quartet's fourth member, Bruce Carter, made several nice plays - and might just be the most athletic of the bunch.
67: Phil Costa's number. Costa was hurt (out 4-6 weeks) on what amounted to the Cowboys' final play of the first half, and the offense appeared to miss him thereafter. Look at the numbers: with him in the game, they ran 29 plays for 152 yards (5.2 per). After he left, they snapped the ball 41 times, gaining 176 yards (4.3 per), almost a full yard less per play. The dropoff was most noticeable in the running game, where Dallas eked out 38 yards on 18 carries (one of which was negated due to penalty) after the half. That equates to the 2.1 yards per carry that DeMarco Murray was averaging in weeks 2-4, when Dallas couldn't run the ball and, as a result, was always playing "behind the chains." The center for those games? Fellow by the name of Ryan Cook, who will return to that role for the foreseeable future.
64: Cam Newton's rushing yards in the first half...and also at the end of the game, after the Dallas defense held him to a second half ziggy. In the first two frames, Newton was essentially the Panthers' offense, carving out big gains on option keepers or scrambling out of the pocket on passing plays. The Cowboys defensive braintrust made some effective halftime adjustments; the front seven shut down the option and did a better job maintaining lane integrity when rushing the passer, taking away the running lanes that Cam exploited in the first half.
18: The number of plays in the Cowboys' first scoring drive, which netted three points. On the drive, they converted four third downs, but came up a yard short on a fifth, on third and goal from the Panthers' seven yard line. Although impressive, such a grinding drive has a clear downside; Dallas gained ten or more yards only twice, and gained four or fewer yards on eight of the eighteen plays. For those of you who failed math, that's six plays per point, which, if it remains an operating mode, a) isn't going to generate a lot of high-scoring games and b) requires that a team be almost perfect in its execution (when an offense averages four to five yards a play, any negative play almost certainly becomes a drive-killer).
9: Romo's number, as well as his suitably perfect start to the game, wherein he completed his first nine passes. This perfection was tempered by the fact that only two of them went for more than ten yards, with the longest being fourteen. For the game, the Cowboys QB had a good game, finishing 24-34 with no interceptions. However, he threw for only 227 yards, for a 6.67 YPA. For a quarterback who has the one of the best career YPAs in league history, with four seasons over 8.0, this is a very low mark - and is made more so by his high completion percentage. The upshot is that the Cowboys, who recently had one of the league's best deep passing games, are struggling to get receivers open deep.
On Sunday, I thought this spoke more to the game plan than to anything the Panthers' defense was doing. After outplaying opponents but losing the turnover battle, it seems the Cowboys' offensive braintrust wants to play a higher percentage game, mixing runs and short passes with the occasional downfield throw. This will serve to limit several drive-killing negatives that have stymied the Cowboys in recent losses: turnovers, negative plays and sacks. Hopefully, the unit can delimit the number of penalties as well. Those are all good things. The bad news? Expect more offensive struggles, less scoring, and more close games that can be won or lost on a bad bounce, a dropped pass or a questionable call, be it by the coaches or the refs.
7: The number of times the Panthers sent more than four pass rushers on Sunday. Its also the number of times they lined up in a blitz look and then backed off at the last minute, playing coverage. On those seven plays, Dallas gained a mere 38 yards. One notable example came on the Cowboys' first second half drive when, on third and nine, Carolina placed a linebacker over each side of the center, suggesting the "A" gap blitz that Philadelphia ran for years under Jim Johnson. Romo audibled into the perfect play to combat the blitz - a wide receiver screen - but the Panthers pulled out and, instead of an open middle, Kevin Ogletree found a passel of Panthers in pursuit, netting only three yards. I'm sure other NFL teams will take note of the success Carolina had with this gambit, so we should expect more fake blitzes in future weeks, or at least until the Cowboys can burn them for doing so.
4: The number of passes in the game over 11 yards - all to Miles Austin (one of which resulted in a fumble). In total, the Cowboys had a whopping nine completions result in double-digit yardage. In this game, as they did against Baltimore, the Cowboys completed a grand total of one pass that traveled more than 20 yards in the air - on Sunday, this was the 26-yard TD that punctuated the third quarter drive that allowed the Cowboys to take a 10-7 lead
Four is also the number of plays in that drive, which featured completions of 11, 36 and 26 yards, and was in stark contrast to the 18-play meat-grinder that led to a first-quarter field goal. With the nastiest section of Dallas' nasty schedule on the immediate horizon, Jason Garrett and the Cowboys coaching staff are faced with a conundrum: do they continue to play a low-risk, dink-and-dunk offense and rely on the defense to keep the score close, or do they open it up, risking all the potential negatives outlined above?
1: The number of first downs allowed on each of the Panthers' final two drives, with the Cowboys holding onto a precarious (i.e., less than a touchdown) lead. In short, the defense came up big, forcing Carolina to turn the ball over on downs on two consecutive drives. The last time the Dallas defense held a similarly precarious lead over two or more opposing drives? The Tampa Bay game in 2008. In fact, they have only accomplished such a feat four times in the past decade, notching similar wins at home against Philly in 2008 (after not stopping the Eagles all night); the Redskins in 2007 and the Bills in 2003. All of these were at home; Dallas hasn't gone on the road and held a close lead for more than one drive since...wait for it...December 1996 (!!), when they held Arizona scoreless in the second half of a very dull 10-6 win.
With all the other concerns surrounding the team, and the mounting list of injuries to key contributors, and the prospect of tougher games against better teams looming in their near future, the Cowboys should take solace in the late-game performance of their defense. Indeed, if they are to avoid kissing the season goodbye by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, they'll need to notch some repeat performances, winning by holding onto the ball, avoiding mistakes, and playing good defense. Can this formula lead to winning and, if so, when? With the NFC East-leading Giants next up on their dance card, Sunday would be a great time to start.