After watching the Cardinals game again, below are my observations from one of the better played games by Dallas all year.
Let's start with the offensive line, which had a stellar day in pass blocking. Almost every time I review the games there are a plethora of mistakes made by the offensive line, especially in pass protection. Not so against the Cardinals. Dallas was helped by the fact that Arizona chose to play a straight-up defense for most of the game and they did very little blitzing compared to most of our opponents this season. On the occasions they chose to blitz, the line (and the backs) did an excellent job of picking it up and giving Tony Romo plenty of time to find a target.
The few mistakes they had in protection were evenly spread out along the line. Early in the game, Kyle Kosier got bull-rushed back into Romo, and Romo threw the ball without being able to step into his throw which led to a very dangerous pass. This one play was reminiscent of the Drew Bledsoe era, but we were fortunate enough to have the pass fall incomplete. Marco Rivera got beat on one play but Romo was able to get away from the defender, but it was too late as Rivera had already committed a holding penalty. Marc Colombo also got beat around the edge on one play, but Romo was able to buy time and complete the throw. Finally, there was one play where the Cardinals ran a delayed blitz with a safety who came through unblocked, but once again Romo used his ability to avoid the rush and completed a nice pass. But that was basically the extent of the breakdowns in pass protection. Normally when reviewing the Cowboys games there's a whole slew of breakdowns, but this week, there were only the few described above.
One thing stood out in the offensive line's play, they seem to be getting better about passing defenders off to each other on blitzes and stunts. They aren't over-reacting to movement and players coming from different angles, instead they calmly picked up the defender or chose the right player to help with double-team blocks. The running backs were also very instrumental in keeping the Cardinals from getting even one sack on the day. On the Crayton TD, MB3 picked up the defensive end who had come unblocked and held him up to give Romo time. On the Owens TD, JJ picked up the blitz coming from the backside and Romo had time to deliver a strike. They did this same thing on several plays, helping the line to create a nice cocoon for Romo to work from.
The run blocking was a little suspect, not as good as we've seen from them in some games. There were times when they were getting no push on the defense and JJ was running into a brick wall. MB3 had some success in the second-half, a lot of it coming when they used Oliver Hoyte as the FB. Again this week, Hoyte was getting some crunching blocks on the defense. It appears the Cowboys really found something when they converted Hoyte to FB. He has a future there, especially if he can start getting the pass-catching aspects of the FB position down by next year.
Tony Romo statistically had his best game so far in a very young career. The numbers were great, and he managed to avoid interceptions and sacks, while once again converting 3rd downs through the air at a delightfully high percentage. But there were a couple of issues that need to be smoothed out as we move along in the season. Romo was throwing the ball high throughout the game. Early in the game, he was consistently high with his passes and later in the game he was still throwing a few intended for Yao Ming. His receivers did a good job of catching some of them, but it's still a concern. The other thing he did was return to his gun-slinging ways on occasion, but he was fortunate to get away with it. Besides the not-so-smart choice to run the fake spike play, he threw a few very dangerous passes. Against a more talented defense, those plays could've been detrimental. Still, it's very hard to quibble with his performance, because the end-result was a sparkling stat line and an easy victory.
On defense, the Cowboys employed a new look they haven't used previously. Instead of going to the standard nickel defense to cover the Cardinals 3-WR sets, they simply pulled a linebacker and inserted Aaron Glenn, moving Terence Newman to the slot. This resulted in a 3-man line with one OLB lined up near the line of scrimmage. Most of the time it was DeMarcus Ware, and he lined up on the left-side of the line on quite a few plays. With the Colts running similar sets in their offense, we might see more of this in the upcoming game.
Greg Ellis and DeMarcus Ware did a great job of applying pressure from the edges. While they only managed one sack (Ware), they did have Matt Leinart moving often while trying to throw, resulting in some poor passes and bad reads. The Cowboys didn't blitz much in the game, they mainly beat the Cardinals tackles with outside speed rushes or by Ellis using up-and-under moves. Since were on the subject of the pass rush, I watched Bobby Carpenter closely when he was substituted in for Ellis after the injury. He wasn't bad in the pass rush. In the beginning, he was relying mainly on a straight-ahead bull-rush which wasn't very effective. He doesn't look like he has the strength to make this work yet. But late in the game, he used a nice spin-move to get some pressure on Leinart and he also used an up-and-under move that allowed him to hit Leinart as he was trying to dump the ball off to the flats. If he's going to be effective as a pass rusher, it appears he'll need to rely on his quickness and agility because he doesn't have the strength yet to overpower a blocker. But at least he flashed a couple of pass rushing moves that provide hope he can put pressure on the QB.
In the secondary, Anthony Henry turned in another inconsistent game. The Cardinals all but abandoned any hope of throwing to Newman's side of the field and repeatedly attacked Henry. The ratio of passes to Henry's side of the field compared to Newman's was absurd. While Henry didn't get burned for a TD and only had one pass interference call, he did give up a big pass play on a scramble drill that led to Arizona's FG. He still has trouble closing on the slant pattern; opposing teams are exploiting this more and more. Where he does excel is in tackling and he laid two very nice hits on Cardinals receivers after they caught short dump passes. The Cardinals stayed away from the deep middle for the most part, so we didn't get a real read on the Keith Davis/Pat Watkins combo at FS. Watkins did get an interception after Henry provided nice coverage on an `in' pattern causing the ball to deflect off the receivers hands.
The Cardinals tried to run the ball and had some success early, but not enough to rely on it as the game progressed. One reason for that is the continued outstanding play from Jason Ferguson. The guy was an immovable object in the middle of the field, forcing the Cardinals to go outside where the 3-4 is most effective against the run. I can't say enough about the importance Ferguson has played in our run defense this year. It's well-known that the best way to exploit a 3-4 defense in the running game is to go at the two `bubbles' in front of the offensive guards. But this doesn't work if you have a NT who can stand-up the double-team blocks. Ferguson has more than adequately filled this requirement.
Both inside linebackers had good games. Bradie James continued his steady work in the middle by amassing 9 tackles to lead the team. Akin Ayodele is getting better and better as the season is progressing, he's getting much more comfortable playing inside in a 3-4 scheme. Last week he had a very good game, this week he had a QB pressure on a blitz and he also had an interception. He is getting more aggressive in filling the holes against the run. With Ferguson, James and Ayodele manning the interior, the Cowboys are giving opposing teams limited options in the run game. If there is one problem with our run defense, it's the propensity for the OLB to lose outside contain. DeMarcus Ware did it a couple of times in this game, and he both he and Ellis have done throughout the season.
Mike Vanderjagt's kickoffs are consistently hitting the 5-yard line, except for one extra-short one that hit around the 10-yard line. So far, this hasn't cost us too badly, as the kickoff coverage has been fairly good. Miles Austin, Bobby Carpenter and Ryan Fowler are doing a good job on the coverage unit. But it is a concern, the opponents starting field position is further out than the team would like, and the Colts have a dangerous return man.
It was nice to see Terrell Owens celebrate his TD with his teammates and simply spelling out `T.O.' with his arms. Celebrate any way you like T.O., just don't get a penalty. Also, after the Owens TD, the TV camera caught a brief shot of Tony Romo actually celebrating the TD with the referee, by laughing and giving him a playful punch in the chest. The kid really looks like he's having fun out there.