The Cowboys overcame a sluggish start on offense yesterday with strong defensive play, particularly by the secondary to defeat Houston 21-9. The offense wore its throwback Thanksgiving Day uniforms. Fittingly, it played as if it were in a short Thanksgiving week, blowing numerous assignments in a sloppy first quarter.
The Texans played an agressive 3-4 front and brought a variety of blitzes at the offense. In a surprise, most of the exotic rushes were thrown at the left side of the offense, where Keyshawn Johnson, Flozell Adams and Larry Allen reside. Very little overshifting and early blitzing was done on the Cowboys right, where rookie Rob Petitti and backups Tyson Walter and Ben Noll were playing. The Texans may have figured the Cowboys were going to shift protection that way to help Petitti and hoped to catch the veterans off guard.
Whatever Houston's thinking, it worked. Adams was briefly confused by a corner blitz thrown to his side and let Antwan Peek get past him for a sack that sabotaged the Cowboys opening drive. Adams was fooled again on the next series by another blitz off the perimeter. He recovered but allowed his man to rush a Bledsoe throw on third and long, necessitating another punt.
What was doubly disappointing was that Dallas anticipated heavy pressure. Most early plays saw the offense in a pro set, something they rarely use. The back, Julius Jones and Lousaka Polite, were effective in picking up linebackers and corners but did not get early help from the line. Allen and Johnson added to the frustration on the first series of the second quarter. Keyshawn threw an ole block at a blitzing corner Philip Buchanon and the Texan dropped a promising Julius Jones off tackle run for no gain. Next, Allen blew a snap count, throwing Dallas into third and long.
On the other hand, the defense took an almost nonchalant approach to stopping the Texans offense. Houston's attack at the moment consists of passes to Andre Johnson, some occasional bursts from the running game and prayers to the heavens to keep David Carr healthy. Houston opened the game in a three receiver, one back set, with Johnson in the slot. The Cowboys stubbornly remained in their base 3-4 package on first and second downs, putting linebackers Al Singleton and Demarcus Ware into the slot to jam Johnson and offering safety help over the top. When Dallas got the Texans into third and long the Cowboys would go into the nickel and put Terence Newman on the Houston star.
Houston got some chances to Johnson on early series against the linebackers but Johnson dropped two passes. Houston was able to move the ball rushing, as the spread formation left Dallas with only six men in the box and opened running lanes. Houston also relied on some daring -- and foolish -- trickery, running Carr on a naked bootleg left early in the second quarter that pushed Houston past midfield. Three plays later, Johnson slipped inside tight Newman coverage on a slant and moved the ball to the Dallas 25.
Carr has had a brutal start to his career, topping the NFL charts in times sacked. He's a tough guy, but it was amazing to see the Houston coaches expose him to hits. Two plays after the Johnson completion, Carr again ran a bootleg, this time to his right and looked for Johnson, who was running an out and up against Newman. Carr was pressured by LaRoi Glover and his flat pass to the back of the end zone was intercepted by a leaping Newman, who never let Johnson escape his reach.
The offense finally got untracked with 6:53 left in the half. The staff stuck to the game plan, staying with the split backfield. However, OC Sean Peyton started calling a sequence of three step throws for Bledsoe, allowing him to finally gain a rhythm. From the 20, Bledsoe found Terry Glenn for a quick twelve yards on the left sideline. On the next play, Bledsoe got sound protection from a seven man pocket and again found Glenn, this time on a deep comeback at midfield. Bledsoe went left a third time, this time zinging a pass to Patrick Crayton for nine more yards. A play action fake to Julius Jones sprung Dan Campbell for six yards and a first down at the 35.
Jones broke the string of passes with a slash off left guard for nine yards. Bledsoe again passed on second and one, rolling right and passing up an open Lousaka Polite while he waited for Jason Witten to clear coverage on a delayed cross. The completion to Witten moved Dallas to the 20 at the two minute warning.
On the following play Peyton and the offensive line read a Houston blitz to perfection. The Cowboys lined up in a three WR, one back set with Keyshawn in the left slot. The Texans countered with a 4-2 or a 2-4 if you prefer, with two tackles in four point stances and two outside linebackers in two point stances on the line. All four of these players and both Houston linebackers rushed. The Texans also blitzed Phil Buchanon off the slot from Bledsoe's left, giving them seven rushers.
Dallas ran Jones on a delay to the right, away from the pressure. Petitti swung wide to push the blitzing Jason Babin past the play and Witten blocked down on the blitzing inside backer. Ben Noll locked up the tackle and when Terry Glenn came down the line and took out the Texans' safety, Jones had an open lane to the outside, with only cornerback Dunta Robinson standing between him and the end zone. Robinson's angle to the ball was too steep and Jones burned him with a sharp cut outside. Buchanon could not run Julius down from the backside and his 20 yard romp put Dallas ahead 7-0, after Jose Cortez' conversion.
Dallas got another chance in the final minute when Dat Nguyen picked off a pass at the Dallas 44. The ball was the product of a vicious hit on a Texans TE by Roy Williams, which popped Carr's pass free. The TE batted at the ball and kept it alive for Nguyen.
On the next play the Cowboys beat a Houston zone blitz with a Bledsoe dart to Crayton who blew past Babin and took the cross right to left across the field to the Houston 20. The Cowboys took a risk three plays later by running a quick flanker screen to Glenn. Glenn made it to the fourteen, but his failure to convert the third down prevented Bledsoe from spiking the ball and stopping the clock. Dallas ran the kicking team on the field with fifteen seconds left -- something they practiced at Oxnard -- and were able to snap the ball with three seconds left. Cortez pulled the 32 yard attempt badly to the left, leaving the halftime lead at 7-0.
The first team offense was pulled after two three-and-out series in the third quarter. Tony Romo played the remainder of the game and passed with some efficiency, showing a nice touch on his passes. He led a long third quarter drive that was cut down by a Quincy Morgan drop of a post pattern at the Texans' 10. Morgan heard the footsteps of the Houston safety and let a potential TD reception slide through his fingers. The drive came to nothing a few plays later when Romo dropped a center snap on a long Cortez attempt.
The backup defenders made up for a Texans field goal drive by forcing a key fumble early in the fourth quarter. Kevin Burnett had been fooled by the first Carr naked bootleg in the first quarter and was ready when Tony Banks tried the play against him. Burnett stayed home, corralled Banks and batted the ball from his hand. Jay Ratliff recovered on the Houston fifteen. After Terrence Copper moved the Cowboys to the one with the team's first third down conversion of the day Tyson Thompson did his best Herschel Walker impersonation, leaping over the pile for six.
The conversion put Dallas ahead 14-3 but the eleven point lead was short lived. Former Cowboy, Lion and now Texan Reggie Swinton ran the kickoff back 103 yards for Houston's only TD of the night. Houston tried running the ball in for two points but was stuffed by the Dallas second team interior line.
Thompson provided an electric 23 yard run on the final scoring drive. He followed strong blocks from Andre Gurode and Stephen Peterman inside, hesitated and then accelerated past the Texans linebackers to the Houston fifteen. Morgan redeemed himself somewhat by snatching a stop fade away from a defender in the short front corner of the end zone.