The overtime 24-21 loss to Denver Thursday offered Dallas the chance to measure itself against one of the NFL's elite. It showed Dallas matched up very well. The defensive line is already a joy to watch and it spent the last 20 minutes of the game overwhelming Denver's line. The seemingly flawless Jake Plummer was exposed as a QB who will serve up interceptions when you press him. The Dallas offense showed it can move against a pressure defense, answering three Denver leads with tying touchdown drives.
On the other hand, the game probably revealed the limits of the '05 team, as Dallas has four glaring areas of need, two on each side of the ball, that will probably end this season short of the Super Bowl.
Defense: nine strong and two missing.
The defense turned in a very impressive line Thusday. Denver had eleven possessions in regulation. Two were methodical touchdown drives, one in each half. Remarkably, Denver did nothing with its nine remaining possessions. Absolutely nothing. Six were three and outs. Two were four and outs, where a first-down-producing pass was followed by a three weak plays. The ninth was a one play drive where Plummer was baited by Terence Newman into throwing a deep interception.
The secondary played superbly, in spite of missing RCB Anthony Henry. The Broncos made backup Aaron Glenn one of their targets, yet failed to abuse him. Here is his line for the day:
Among those eight passes were four long bombs. None of them were completed.
Shanahan was wary of throwing right at LCB Terence Newman, with good cause:
Dallas, with Glenn and Jacques Reeves getting extensive playing time, took the Broncos receivers out of the game. Denver's wideouts caught only six passes and just one for more than ten yards. They might have performed more poorly had Henry been healthy.
Denver moved the ball aerially in two ways. The first was in the deep middle, against safeties Keith Davis and Roy Williams. Tight end Jeb Putzier got 23 yards on Denver's first TD drive when Davis was slow to close on him. He got a key 20 yards on a third and seven play early in the third when Williams was picked by a criss-crossing Broncos receiver. He also got fourteen on a first down cross on Williams that the SS just missed tipping away. Safety coverage has been an issue all year and would benefit from some more speed and recognition skills at the free position. However, these are not the types of plays that beat a team.
The one position that Denver exposed consistently was the left outside linebacker. The Broncos managed only eighteen runs in regulation and shied away from the middle of the Cowboys front, choosing to attack the left and right perimeters. Shanahan called most of his plays to his left at Demarcus Ware. Ware held his end. Denver's big plays came on the few times they ran right:
Denver also threw three passes at LOLB's Scott Fujita and Kevin Burnett for 24 yards. Dallas furiously rotated the two, hoping to find some consistency, but neither could close off his side. Denver targeted Fujita for early passes. One, a 13 yard shallow cross to Mike Anderson, kept Denver's first TD drive alive. On Denver's second half TD drive Burnett got a chance but was lost in space. He gave up contain on a Plummer bootleg that let the QB get ten yards and a first down. On another third down Burnett lost track of TE Putzier, who gained eight yards and another first down. On Ron Dayne's 16 yard TD run Denver ran a counter play at Burnett. Burnett dove inside Kyle Johnson, allowing the Denver fullback to hook him inside. Dayne ran around the exposed end untouched for a score.
LOLB has been a weakness all year and has become worse since Al Singleton was lost to injury. Fujita and Burnett's poor play might explain the Cowboys' signing of former Giants LB Michael Barrow today.
The perimeter weakness also undid the strong play of the Cowboys' linemen. Jason Ferguson was a nuisance, stuffing the Broncos center and guards and pushing all runs wide. Chris Canty was unstoppable on runs and on passing downs. He and Ware prevented Denver from getting any push on runs to their side. Canty abused left guard Ben Hamilton. He drew a holding penalty that ended on Denver drive in the third quarter. Later, Canty's pressure forced an errant throw that Newman dropped at the Denver 30. In the first half, he and Greg Ellis combined on a stunt that resulted in an Ellis sack. Dallas also had a mismatch at right tackle, where Ellis got the better of George Foster.
Dallas had Denver measured, and if they had a bookend to Demarcus Ware, they could have shut the Broncos down completely. I've been predicting the Cowboys will draft an OLB in the first round next April, and this game only intensifies that belief. One more big playmaker outside would take this defense from good to nasty.
Offense: understudies underwhelm
Two huge offensive mistakes linger in the mind. The first was Drew Bledsoe's inexplicable first quarter interception, where he overthrew an open Dan Campbell on an easy five yard out. The other was Billy Cundiff's 33 yard miss of a field goal that would have given Dallas the lead with five minutes remaining in the game.
The play calling, as it does after every loss, also drew scrutiny, in particular the hitch pass thrown to Terry Glenn on a 3rd and one on Dallas' last possession. That was a poor call, but critics should look at the overall game plan, which was the Cowboys' most aggressive since the blowout win over Philadelphia. The Cowboys attacked from the beginning, throwing on nine of their first eleven offensive plays. Dallas moved the ball but was undone by two drops and the Bledsoe interception.
Sean Payton set up CB Champ Bailey with some hitch passes and then torched him when Bledsoe faked a hitch and snuck Keyshawn Johnson behind him for a TD. Dallas ran a new rollout-throwback pass to Terry Glenn that worked for 38 yards. The first half ratio of passes to runs was 60:40.
There was even good news on the pass blocking front, as Torrin Tucker had his best day. Dallas turned him loose Thursday, offering almost no back and tight end help. And Tucker responsed; by my count he was only beaten once all day. Denver did get to Bledsoe a few times but needed heavy blitzes to faze him.
Dallas' offensive troubles can be summed up in three simple words -- backside run blocking. The running game stumbled against the league's second-ranked run defense. The Broncos' linebacking corps is probably the best Dallas has faced all year. They're fast, smart and hard to block. They play in an agressive scheme that has them moving a lot just before the snap, making them harder for linemen to locate and reach. The Denver linemen also slant and loop a lot, using their speed to overcome their lack of size.
That speed tripped up the Cowboys linemen. In the first half, Broncos linemen caught several running plays from the backside on run blitzes. On one notable play, Dallas ran the counter play it had used so effectively against Arizona and Detroit, with center Al Johnson and Larry Allen pulling left to lead Julius Jones. Denver's weakside backer D.J. Williams raced through the hole created when Johnson pulled and caught Jones for no gain.
These plays are to be expected against a good front. But they were not the sole reason the running game sputtered. As is the case with the FS and SOLB positions, this game exposed weaknesses at fullback and tight end that Dallas cannot resolve this season.
Several Cowboys runs failed because the lead blockers and backside blockers for Julius Jones and Marion Barber failed to do the job. FB Lousaka Polite and TE Jason Witten were the most frequent culprits. Polite's whiffs denied Dallas several long runs. An example came in the second quarter. The Cowboys were facing a second and twelve from their own one after a stellar Denver punt. Dallas called a stretch play left from a two-TE, I set. All of the Dallas linemen and the tight ends locked up their men and a huge seam developed between LG Larry Allen and C Al Johnson. The Broncos' safety was set deep, fifteen yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The play would turn on the duel between Polite and Denver MLB Al Wilson. If Polite blocked Wilson, Julius Jones had room for a first down. Polite was beaten to the hole by Wilson, who shed him and dropped Jones after a one yard gain.
In the third quarter, Dallas called a draw for Jones on third and seven. Polite led Jones through the hole and shoved LB Ian Gold enough to spring Jones free for eight yards and a first down. Polite's block did just the bare minimum but no more. Gold was therefore able to herd Jones towards the sideline and out of bounds. Had Polite cut Gold, or locked him up, Jones would have had an open corner and a chance to make a much longer run. Polite clearly lacks the speed and bulk to be a quality fullback. He's regularly beaten to the hole and lacks the ballast to stand defenders up.
Polite had company in his infamy. Witten had backside responsibility on Denver ends for much of the day and failed to cut them. Far too often, they slashed across his face and were able to dive and trip up the Dallas runners after one and two yard gains, when the frontside blocking was strong. I gave Witten poor marks after the Raiders loss and saw the same inconsistent blocking Thursday. Sadly, Witten's bad blocks helped undo his season-best receiving day.
The final backside failure came on the second and two play from the Denver 49 at the two minute warning. This time, RT Rob Petitti whiffed on a slanting Courtney Brown. Brown dropped Julius Jones by the ankles for no gain. This consistent failure to convert simple running plays factored into Payton's decision to pass on the next play.
The question, which I asked after the Raiders loss, is what to do? Witten is too valuable to take out of the lineup. Dan Campbell is a steady blocker, but he seems to have lost the step he never had after last year's foot injury. He's stiff and has average hands at best. His presence in the lineup compromises the passing game. It has not been mentioned as a top priority for the '06 offseason, but add a quality tight end to the wish list.
The bigger need, perhaps the biggest on the offensive side of the ball, is fullback. The Cowboys short yardage and goalling rush has all but disappeared since the bye, and it was not that strong before. DE Marcus Spears' play as goalline FB tells you everything you need to know about Polite's blocking skills.
Lost in the dreck was a promising game by Al Johnson. The young center had his best day run blocking, handling Denver's slant nose tackles with regularity. On a couple of plays he turned and pancaked Broncos' NTs. This after he injured his knee in pregame warmups. Bill Parcells mentioned that Johnson will probably need a minor scope procedure but is expected to play against the Giants. He and Torrin Tucker show signs of life after slow starts to their Cowboys careers.
On the whole, the team showed that it will soon belong among the league's elite. Bill Parcells wanted to build a defense that could line up and physically overpower opponents. He's close to completing the job, as top offenses like the Giants, Seahawks and now the Broncos have learned. The offense continues to stubbornly pursue a power running attack and has found two quality backs for its trouble. It also may have found keepers in Tucker, Johnson and Petitti. However, those four holes, two on the offense and two on the defense, mean that the glory everybody craves will probably have to wait until next year.
Notes: Some readers have asked if there was holding on Ron Dayne's 55 yard run on the second play of overtime. There was and there wasn't. The play was run to the left. For the only time all day, Denver got the Dallas interior linemen to overpursue on that side.
On the backside, in contrast to the Dallas linemen, RG Cooper Carlisle was able to cut Jason Ferguson and get his back turned to the play. The holding, which I'll call a loose hold, was by RT George Foster on DE Marcus Spears. Foster grabbed and held Spears' jersey, slowing his pursuit. It was not a glaring foul and being on the backside, not something the back judge was likely to see. I also don't think that Spears would have been able to catch Dayne from the backside anyway, had he been able to run free.