On Sunday afternoon, the Cowboys did what they hadn't been able to do for quite some time: convincingly beat an inferior opponent. After an agonizingly long string of close games decided by four or fewer points, dating back to last Thanksgiving, Dallas got off the close-game schnied, etching a comfortable 34-7 win against a game but woefully undermanned St. Louis team. Oh, and it looks like they might have found a running back (or two).
As I, and several esteemed BTB members, have suggested in these hallowed pages, good teams need to build the kind of leads convincing enough that the game cannot turn on the vagaries of the football gods. In a closer contest, we'd be pulling out our hair at DeMarco Murray's peculiar fall-down after a 43-yard run. But because Dallas won by such a wide margin, gaffes, strange bounces and other peculiarities won't color out analysis of this game in the same way that they would a close loss. Okay, I'm off my soapbox; here, without futher ado, is a look at the game, by the numbers:
253: DeMarco Murray's rushing yards, and 294 total. Obviously, these are the stats of the game, if not of the 2011 season to this point. A rookie third-rounder sets the all-time Cowboys records in his first start (and comes just two yards short of equaling Felix Jones' total for the season); pretty darned impressive. The narratives since the New England game have been the weakness of the Dallas offensive line, the Cowboys' consequent inability to run the football, and how this limits Jason Garrett's playbook. On Sunday, these narratives were transformed into myths dispelled.
64: Montrae Holland's number. One of the reasons for the above transformation was the game that Holland had in relief of Bill Nagy, who was lost for the season in the fourth quarter of the Pats contest. Holland, you'll recall, was visited by The Turk at the end of training camp, largely because he was, well, too large; reports suggested that he was the only Cowboys player to report to camp overweight, a significant problem on a team seeking to change its offensive line profile from fatsos to foot athletes. While in exile, Holland apparently got the message; he returned leaner--about 15 pounds lighter, by his estimation--and showed some nifty feet on Sunday, pulling and making blocks on the second level. The best part of this: he's a powerful man with a strong anchor, so we're less likely to see the left guard pushed into the backfield in future.
27: The Cowboys' margin of victory. The last time Dallas won this convincingly? The final game of the 2009 season, when they pitched a shutout at home against the hated Eagles. That game happened in the midst of a rare stretch of excellence as Dallas roared into and through the first round of the playoffs--and during which they beat some good teams, many of them playoff caliber squads. The last time the Cowboys beat a lesser opponent by 20 or more points? November 1, 2009, in a 38-17 home win against the Seahawks. In other words, its been almost two years since Dallas was able to put its collective foot on a weaker team's neck and keep pressing while they struggled for air.
That's why I was so excited to see the sideline mini-celebration by the Cowboys' defensive coaches after a late goalline stand denied the Rams a meaningless second touchdown. I get the sense that Rob Ryan--unlike Wade Phillip--really enjoys suffocating an opponent and breaking the other team's will. That requires that the winning team keep playing hard long after there's technically little to play for. In the past, Phillips' teams always let up once they got a lead, and often let the other team back into the game. That attitude has continued to infect the team under Garrett; I'd love to look back at today's win as a step towards erasing that pernicious cultural residue.
24: Tony Fiammetta's number. Due to injuries and the fact that he was acquired after season's start, Fiammetta has only played in three games thus far. Its no coincidence that two of those have been Dallas' most successful games running the ball. Against Washington, he helped spring Felix Jones for two big gains; on Sunday, I saw him making several nice blocks on good runs, usually by Murray. Although the coaching staff has praised tight end John Phillips' ability as a lead blocker from the "F-back" position, its clear that Fiammetta is a significant upgrade.
24: Also the number of yards Steven Jackson got in all series other than the Rams' lone touchdown drive, on 15 carries. Coming into the game--and during the broadcast--we were repeatedly told that the Cowboys' top defensive priority would be to stop ferocious Jackson. Look at his carries for the game (with those from the Rams' scoring drive in parentheses): 1, 2, -3, 3,1, -1, 1, 4, 1, 5, (0), (40), (6), 0, -1, 2, 0, 15, -5. Aside from the one significant lapse and a 15-yarder reeled off on a draw late in the game, Jackson wasn't able to do anything. Again and again, he was met by a pile up or by multiple Dallas defenders, who did a terrific job tackling him all afternoon.
12: The number of turnovers Rob Ryan's defense has forced in 2011. On Sunday, they added a fumble and an interception to their total. What is especially critical is that, for the first time all season, the Cowboys limited their own turnovers to a single Tashard Choice fumble. What that means is that Cowboy quarterbacks didn't throw a single interception for the first time all season. We've seen the statistics; teams that are +1 in turnover margin win the game 78% of the time. If this team can protect the ball on offense and make the kind of plays on the ball that Abram Elam made to dislodge it from Cadillac Williams along the sideline, good things will happen.
9: Or, more properly, wide nine, the style of defensive front employed by the Rams. The principle is simple: in a 4-3, the defensive linemen are spread out such that the two ends line up outside the offensive tackles' outside shoulders. The three linebackers line up inside, so they can help stop inside runs yet also flow to the ball. This front is also favored by Detroit, against whom the Cowboys had some success running the ball (27-113) and, more importantly, next week's opponent, Philadelphia. The Cowboys' retooled offensive line seems to have trouble with big defensive linemen--they struggle to root them out to create lanes--but does well against smaller, quicker types--exactly the kind that typically populate the wide nine. Lets hope Sunday's success is a portent of what is to come next week at the Linc.
6.9: Tony Romo's yards per attempt, his lowest figure of the year. To my mind, the most impressive statistic in Tony Romo's career is his all-time yards per attempt figure, which is a staggering 8.1 (he's tied with Aaron Rodgers), the best figure since the post-war passing heyday. In an era of short, high-percentage passers, Romo has been accurate while throwing deep. This season, hampered by injuries and a porous o-line, Romo's Y/A figures have been up and down. On Sunday, they were down, as was substantiated by the eyeball test. Although the Cowboys were hitting on almost all cylinders, the passing game was an exception. Romo and his wideouts looked out of synch: timing was off, he appeared less accurate than usual, and Dallas had trouble stringing successful pass plays together.
In the past week, Garrett and Co. fixed the central woes that contributed to the Patriots loss; in the coming week, as they prepare to face a division foe on the road for the first time this season, lets hope they give the passing game a similar level of attention.
Next Sunday, our brave 'Boys will need to be hitting on all cylinders...