A Thanksgiving Day game is usually the last place a struggling offense expects to regain its swagger. The short week often produces sloppy games, with lots of drops, slips, bobbles and missed assignments.
Jason Garrett's bunch found their mojo somewhere between the tray of stuffing and the cranberry sauce dish yesterday, creating a new category in process. Coaches refer to explosives as running plays of 12 yards or greater and passing plays of 16 yards or more. Against the Raiders, the Cowboys went beyond explosives, unleashing six "thermonuclear" plays: runs or passes of 35 yards or greater. The big bomb approach is Garrett's style and will hopefully end the hubbub about his play-calling skills.
Garrett threw a 54:46 pass-to-run mix at the Raiders, which has been his normal mix all year. He runs a big-play attack, through the air and on the ground. The problem the prior two weeks has been execution. The same calls got receivers open but Tony Romo and his receivers were not synchronized. Yesterday, they showed the best execution in a month and knocked the Raiders off-balance from their first series on.
The early problem for Dallas was that the big play was their only option. Tony Romo found Miles Austin for 46 yards on the Cowboys first attempt of the day. Austin turned Nnamdi Asomugha inside out with a feight upfield and got inside separation. Austin probably got a bonus 20 yards when Oakland's free safety jumped Martellus' Bennett's shorter post route, leaving the deep middle unoccupied. The play took Dallas to the Oakland 30, but the Cowboys could not advance and a Romo sack forced a punt.
Tashard Choice opened Dallas' third drive in the Razorback set and ran a designed cutback up the middle. Choice lined up as a shotgun QB and followed offset FB Deon Anderson towards the guard-center gap on the left side. Choice cutback to his right, where Andre Gurode and Leonard Davis had created a seam in the right A gap. Oakland's middle linebacker lost Choice in traffic, meaning once Choice was past the linebacker's level he was free. Asomugha ran Tashard down at the Oakland eleven 66 yards later. Here, an Anderson holding call put Dallas in a first-and-20 they could not overcome. Nick Folk salvaged the field goal for a 3-0 lead.
Dallas next drive showcased Garrett's most significant adjustment from the past few weeks. Dallas had been using its receivers almost interchangeably, with Roy Williams playing the split end and working the middle of the field on deep posts, square ins and shallow crosses.
Yesterday, Austin was given the inside responsibility and the lion's share of the receiver attempts. The adjustment seems sound. Austin is the stronger player of the two and therefore breaks tackles better. He can run routes with multiple cuts, whereas Williams appears to be a one-cut-and-go type of guy. Austin also has much better acceleration. Patterns over the middle of the field require stopping to freeze linebackers and safeties and then quick starts to dash away from them.
Austin demonstrated those skills on two key receptions. With the Cowboys in 3rd-and-11, he caught a short crossing route at eight yards and dragged a Raiders defender the final three yards, pushing the ball inches past the yard marker. On the next play, he lined up wide left, ran a short curl route, and then pushed it hard back outside. Romo hit Austin in stride and the WR ran away from a safety for 27 yards.
On the next play, Dallas lined up in its 22 package, with two TEs, two backs and Williams the line receiver. Both Martellus Bennett and Jason Witten lined up right, outside of Doug Free, with Bennett as the TE and Witten outside him as the F-back. Dallas called power right, its stock counter play, with LG Kyle Kosier and FB Anderson leading Felix Jones behind the overload.
Bennett and Witten rolled the Raiders DE Greg Ellis inside. When they got him moving, Witten released Ellis -- whom Bennett drove to the turf -- and picked off the Raiders weakside linebacker. Anderson blocked the strongside outside backer and when the pulling Kosier hit the middle linebacker, Felix had a wide crease off the RT gap. He bolted upfield, broke an ankle tackle attempt by SS Michael Huff and skipped the last five yards of his 46 yard touchdown romp. Felix looks healthy again, his blocking looks healthy again and the 10-0 lead looked tasty to a Cowboys Nation which had grown hungry for points.
Garrett blew up Oakland with another thermomuclear play on the next series. Dallas deployed in a bunch package left, with Bennett spearheading a triadjust wide of LT Flozell Adams that had Austin flanking Bennett on the left and Witten to Bennett's right. Williams was split alone to the right and Marion Barber stood to Romo's right in the shotgun. At the snap the bunch scattered, pulling Oakland's coverage to their side. Williams ran a shallow cross, pulling the corner with him and creating acres of space up the right sideline. Barber ran a swing route, caught Romo's pass about eight yards upfield and raced untouched for another 34 before he was pushed out of bounds at the Raiders' 30.
The drive again sputtered and Folk's second attempt clanged off the right upright. Even the misses had the look of improvement yesterday. The execution improved, and while rough edges remain, the character of the offense is back.
This is who the Cowboys are, folks. They have a line that can create big running plays, but which leaks too frequently on passing downs and draws too many penalties to generate regular ten or twelve-play, ball-control drives. They play fast break football, and they regained some of their flash. Now, to maintain it...
How Will They Replace T.O.?
It's been a while since we have had that question ground into our collective consciousness. The answer appears to be, quite well. Yes, Roy Williams continues to struggle, but Garrett's use of Miles Austin showed he has finally settled on a role for the newbie starter and views Austin as the fulcrum of the Cowboys passing machine.
-- Austin had ten balls thrown in his direction, compared to three for Williams. Eight of those ten came in the first half. Garrett wanted to establish Austin early and he succeeded. Many of his tosses were short, at distances of 8 to 12 yards downfield.
Mike Martz made a similar move in Detroit in late '07, when he gave up on centering his passing attack around Roy Williams. He dialed the pass mix rich for Calvin Johnson and never looked back. We probably saw Jason Garrett cross his receivers Rubicon yesterday. Austin can play the Michael Irvin role. Roy Williams can't, and the offense can't wait. He's playing Alvin Harper now, running most of his attempts upfield and in the red zone. If he can accept this and chip in his 3-4 catches and red zone snags, he'll do his part.
-- Notice what Austin's breakout did for Jason Witten. As I noted earlier in the story, the Raiders appeared to game plan for the tight ends, as other teams have in recent weeks. The Raiders safety was looking for Martellus Bennett on an intermediate post, not Miles Austin running a deeper post over the top.
Once Austin put some big catches on the stat sheet, the safeties backed off, and note what Witten was able to do: He made a 37 yarder running an "F-post" on Dallas' first offensive play of the second half. On the Cowboys final TD drive, Witten caught an intermediate pass, shook free from the linebacker and meandered his way for a 44 yard gain that put Dallas on the Raiders' eight. He may have had a sprained foot, but he also had the best therapeutic option a tight end can have -- a legit wideout threat.
(While we're on the subject, it appears Witten played more F-back yesterday, with Martellus Bennett in the traditional tight end spot on the line. This shifts more of the blocking duties to the kid and puts less stress on Witten's crocked foot.)
How well can Miles Austin perform in the top slot? Let's compare Austin's '09 production to Terrell Owen's monster '07 after 11 games:
- Austin '09 -- 7 starts, 42 catches, 824 yards, 19.6 YPC, 8 TDs.
- Owens '07 -- 11 starts, 64 catches, 1093 yards, 17.1 YPC, 13 TDs.
The big difference lies in that first number; Austin has only seven starts through eleven games, versus a perfect eleven for T.O. Austin spent the end of the preseason on the injured list and didn't hit the lineup until Williams left the lineup with banged up ribs. He had just 5 catches for 81 yards the first month of this campaign.
It may turn out that D.J. Williams' kill-shot in Denver was the happiest Cowboys accident this decade. Let's return to peak T.O. and compare Austin's and.Owens' production per start:
- Austin '09 -- 5.6 catches per game, 19.1 ypc, 106 yards per game, 1.0 TDs per game;
- Owens '07 -- 5.8 catches per game, 17.1 ypc, 99 yards per game, 1.2 TDs per game.
Almost identical, no? And remember, this was Owens' career year in Cowboys white, the second best of his career. We still have no idea if we're seeing Austin's peak, giving the tiny sample size of work. It's possible Austin may get even better. Garrett's game plan suggested that Austin is his guy. If he continues to see 9-10 balls per contest, his numbers could explode even more.
Feed the Teeth, Jason!
The defense did its part, holding Bruce Gradkowski and the Raiders offense to just under their season average of 11 points per game. Oakland did muster an impressive 88 yard drive in the 3rd quarter, but the Dallas rush kept them from finding their early rhythm and from sustaining it once, found.
-- Oakland needed 36 minutes to cross mid-field.
-- stress fracture? Who said anything about a stress fracture? Demarcus Ware looked like his old self yesterday. The acceleration and constant motion was there. He only logged one sack, but he was on Gradkowski on many more passes.
-- Finally! After weeks of bad luck, Anthony Spencer bagged a quarterback. Not once, but twice. Had the shifty Gradkowski not dashed half a yard beyond the line of scrimmage before Spencer dropped him, number 93 would have a hat trick of sacks today.
-- The defense's climb continues. They now sport a 16.5 point- pe- game average, which has them knocking on #2 New England's door. If the Saints hang some points on the Pats Monday night the Cowboys will enter the home stretch in rarified air. It's too early to get smug, however. The Giants, Chargers and Saints loom on the schedule's horizon and they can all score.
-- Your wrinkle of the game. On a 3rd down early in the game, Wade Phillips threw a Bears nickel look at Gradkowski. Operating from the 3-3 look, Dallas kept Jay Ratliff slanted on the nose, Stephen Bowen in the left guard-tackle gap and Jason Hatcher in the same gap on the right side. Bobby Carpenter lined up in the left OLB spot and Bradie James and Demarcus Ware floated behind the linemen. Just before the snap, James dashed wide and lined up next to Carpenter. Ware dashed wide to the other side and lined up outside of Hatcher.
The look was a Chicago front, with an overload on the weakside and Ware charging from the right. Carpenter occupied the left tackle, Bowen crashed the guard and James charged untouched between them. His pressure forced an incompletion.
The defense was a one-off, however. As formation afficionados will note, there was no middle linebacker behind Ratliff to handle the back. Darren McFadden stayed in to block Demarcus Ware, but had Dallas shown this look a second time, it's likely he would have run a hot route, as Rock Cartwright did last week, and caught a quick pass over the middle in space. Cartwright has some speed, but he doesn't have McFadden's top gear. Wade took his gamble, won the down, and knew to walk away, as good poker players do.
-- David Buehler's toe problems appear to be behind him. He boomed three kicks for touchbacks.
-- Everybody is aware of this fact, no? Broncos 26, Giants 6. Dallas gets ten days off but so do the Giants. The last time Dallas faced a desperate team on the road we got the Lambeau Letdown. The game will be Dallas' last in Giants Stadium. Let's hope for a memorable result. A happy memory.