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Grading Cowboys vs Redskins: Battle Of The Trenches Won, Game Almost Lost

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They say games are won and lost in the trenches. On Sunday the 'Boys dominated the Redskins in the trenches, racking up five sacks and seven QB hits per the official NFL gamebook, while allowing only two sacks and four QB hits to the Redskins' front.

For the sixth straight game, the O-line paved the way for a 100+ yards ground game, while the D-line held the Redskins to 55 yards on the ground.

The traditional stats you see above would indicate that the Cowboys had their finest performance of the season in the trenches on Sunday. If games are won and lost in the trenches, the Cowboys should have blown out the Redskins.

But that didn't happen. The Cowboys managed to cough up a 20-point second-half lead and needed a late David Buehler field goal to save the day in the end.

So what happened?

Once again, we'll use the individual player grades from (PFF) to get a better understanding of what happened on Sunday. For more details on their grading system, read this post.

Offensive Line

According to PFF, the Cowboys offensive line had their best game of the season against the Redskins, grading out at a combined +9.4. The graders at PFF assign the blame for only one sack (Kosier) and one QB hit (Colombo) to the line, and this naturally helps their pass protection grade. But it is in run blocking (despite some goal-line futility) that the Cowboys O-line dominated. I never thought I'd ever use the words 'dominate' and 'run-blocking' in the same sentence for the 2010 O-line, but that's just the way the cookie crumbles. This is how PFF saw the O-line performance:

Only Leonard Davis and Jason Witten of the Cowboys’ front line graded negatively in run blocking. Sheer dominance by Dallas.

Here's how the Cowboys' O-linemen graded out.

Free Kosier Gurode Davis Colombo
Overall +4.4 +0.7 +3.7 -0.8 +1.4
Run Blocking
+2.4 +2.3 +3.0 -0.7 +1.9
Pass Protect
+2.5 -0.4 +1.0 -0.4 -1.0

Note that Gurode did not have a single botched snap, which surely helps his cause. Even the much maligned Marc Colombo gets some PFF love: For only the second time this season, Colombo gets a positive overall grade. He is still somewhat shaky in pass protection, giving up the lone QB hit and three of eight QB pressures. Could this be a sign that he is finally getting healthy, and what does this mean for his (previously nonexistent) future with the Cowboys?

Doug Free continues his rapid ascent up the LT rankings: with a cumulative rating of +14.2 for the season, Free is now the number two left tackle behind only Miami's Jake Long who has +21.3 (Note: PFF have only graded 8 of 16 games from last weekend, so the rankings may still change a little. I'll upgrade the post later). Here's PFF's take on Free:

Just a week after putting forth the best game of his career against Trent Cole and the Eagles, he bettered it against Brian Orakpo and the Redskins. This marks the sixth straight game that Free has graded positively as a pass blocker (every week since the Cowboys’ debacle in Green Bay), and he put forth his strongest display as a run-blocker as well.

Defensive Line & OLB.

If you were to look at the traditional stat lines for the defense, you'd probably come up with the same old, same old: DeMarcus Ware two sacks, Spencer and the whole DL with no sacks. But if your preferred storyline is all about how Ware is the only one able to bring some pressure, you may not have been watching the game very closely. According to PFF, Jay Ratliff had one QB hit and three pressures, Stephen Bowen had four pressures and even Igor had a hit and a pressure. And the guys up front also held the Redskins to just 55 yards rushing, including five tackles for loss.

Odd man out: Anthony Spencer who did have a blocked pass and a QB pressure, but that was offset by his roughing the passer penalty on 3-and-11 on the Cowboys 11-yard line that resulted in a six-yard penalty and a new set of downs for the Redskins. That penalty ultimately led to a Santana Moss TD reception and allowed the Redskins to close the gap to 22-30, making the game a one-score-game again. Here's how the front five graded out:

Spencer Bowen Ratliff Olshansky Ware
Snaps 55 43 50 38 59
-0.9 +1.9 +2.6 +0.3 +1.6

For all the accolades due the front five, there is the small matter of the quality of the Cowboys' backup players. Rookie Josh Brent is proving to be a solid backup for Jay Ratliff, but only against the run. He's +5.7 against the run for the season, but -1.8 in pass rushing, and the Redskins game mirrored that trend, solid against the run, room for improvement in the pass rush. But for a rookie who missed all OTAs and only joined the team in mid July, that still must be considered a very good performance overall, and we can only wonder just how good Brent could become with a full offseason of NFL preparation.

Some of the other backups are not rookies anymore and their ratings are all over the place in limited snaps. Victor Butler had a sack and a pressure, Hatcher was largely invisible and Brandon Williams at least had three tackles. Here's how the backups graded out for the game:

Hatcher Brent Butler Williams
Snaps 23 18 14 10
-1.3 -0.1 +0.9 -0.4


When you're winning the battle in the trenches and still giving up 30 points, you'll have to look at your secondary to understand what happened. Here are the three keys to what happened in the secondary:

  • The rude awakening of Barry Church: After Gerald Sensabaugh was knocked out of the game early, Barry Church received his first extended playing time at safety and what a rude awakening his 49 defensive snaps proved to be. Redskins TE Chris Cooley was held without a catch in the first two quarters with Sensabaugh in on most snaps at strong safety. When the game was done, Cooley had five catches for 62 yards and a touchdown against Chruch. PFF additionally 'credit' Church with three missed tackles for an overall grade of -4.9.
  • The ongoing education of Alan Ball: Alan Ball got his third lowest grade of the season (-2.2) against the Redskins in large part due to two TD catches against him.
  • The continuing price corners pay for poor safety play: Mike Jenkins (-1.8) and Terence Newman (-0.8) looked bad once again. When your safeties are not particularly good in providing extra coverage for the corners, your corners struggle. When your safeties are not very good at setting the defense and making some of the coverage checks for the secondary, your corners struggle. The Cowboys corners are struggling.

Other players of note

We've covered Jason Witten's performance (+2.3) at length in recent posts.But what is perhaps most intriguing about Witten's offensive surge in the last four games (32 receptions, 350 yards, 4 TDs) is that the Cowboys apparently don't need to keep him in for blocking anymore. Think about that for a minute: the best blocking tight end in the league isn't needed for blocking anymore.

Felix Jones also had a good day (+2.5), gaining 117 yards from scrimmage. This marks the fourth time this season that Jones has surpassed 100 yards from scrimmage, after achieving that only twice in his previous two seasons. We may be seeing the emergence of Felix Jones as a dual-threat running back. It is also worth noting that according to Stats Inc. Jones leads all players in the NFL with a reception rate of 92%, having caught 46 of 50 passes thrown his way. Witten is 16th on that list with 75.9% (82/108).

David Buehler had another strong game (+1.8), making it four weeks in a row from a PFF point of view. For the season, this gives him a cumulative grade of +7.1 (6.5 for kickoffs, 2.1 for field goals) and ranks him 8th on the PFF kicker ranking.

Chris Gronkowski had his best day yet as a run blocking fullback (+1.6) and finds himself at the number three spot on the PFF fullback ranking.

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