The Cowboys lost one of the most disappointing and frustrating games in recent (or any other) memory, a terrible come-from-way-ahead loss to a resurgent Detroit Lions squad. One of the primary reasons for the collective frustration felt across Cowboys Nation is that our 'Boys in blue were, frankly, destroying the Lions, dominating them in every conceivable way well into the third quarter. But, alas, it was not to be...
Because of the Cowboys' dominance, and because Detroit go so many of their points on odd plays (the lead-footed Bobby Carpenter runs back a pick for a TD? Really?) there were a lot of impressive numbers in the Dallas' favor, even at game's end. Let's take a gander at some of these, as we try to rationalize the irrational (which, by the way, is how Freud defined the central mental activity of neurotics who have suffered irreconcilable traumatic events...sounds too familiar, eh?).
252: Dallas' yardage advantage at the end of the third quarter. As the third frame ticked down to :00, the Cowboys had run 63 plays for 407 yards, a very strong 6.46 a pop. Detroit, meanwhile, had snapped the ball a mere 36 times, accumulating a paltry 155 yards, at an anemic 4.3 per clip. Two pick sixes kept them in the game long enough for their offense to wake up, in no small part due to an injury to Gerald Sensabaugh (see below).
More numbers after the jump...
116: Laurent Robinson's receiving yardage, on 7 receptions. After the receiver debacle against Washington, my primary concern all week was the Cowboys' wideout corps. Even if Dez Bryant was able to go, I thought, who would play opposite him--and would that guy provide any threat whatsoever. Although he's only been on the team for three weeks, Robinson showed solid NFL skills--and will almost certainly be the third receiver once Miles Austin returns. His game not only cements Kevin Ogletree's fall down the wideout depth chart, but might well push him off the roster entirely.
43, 42: On Detroit's second play of the second half, Matthew Stafford threw a short pass to Nate Burleson, who was tackled by Gerald Sensabaugh, with Anthony Spencer trailing behind. Spencer sandwiched Sensi, who suffered a concussion on the play and didn't return. He was replaced by Barry Church who, though game, doesn't possess Sensabaugh's coverage skills. Look at Lions TE Brandon Pettigrew's numbers before and after the injury: Before: 6 targets, 3 receptions, 21 yards; After: 3 targets, 3 receptions, 43 yards, and the pass interference penalty that set up the winning score.
Suddenly, the Cowboys were vulnerable up the seam and could no longer afford to focus so exclusively on the Lions outside receivers, especially Calvin Johnson. Look at Johnson and Titus Young's numbers after the Sensabaugh injury: all three of Young's catches (and 4 of his five targets), and five of Johnson's eight catches, and 58 of his 96 yards. And, of course, we'll all be haunted into the foreseeable future by the image of Johnson skying far above a flailing Church for his early fourth-quarter score.
11: straight field goals made by rookie kicker Dan Bailey. In retrospect, one of the game's biggest plays was the decision by head coach Jason Garrett not to give Bailey an opportunity to add to his streak with a chippie from the Detroit one yard line in the first quarter. Instead, Dallas went for it and Felix Jones was stuffed at the line. Sure, Detroit managed only 17 yards before punting, and the Cowboys subsequently drove the ball in for the score that made it 14-0. But that three points began to loom large as the game tightened up.
Along these lines: Garrett's behavior, in going for it, seemed to mirror that which he exhibited in his first game as a head coach, last year's win at New York. The 1-7 Cowboys, with Jon Kitna at the helm, were overmatched going into that contest, and Garrett's play-calling reflected a feeling on his part that they were going to have to take chances to secure a victory. Against the Lions, his decision making, play-calling and game plan conveyed that the coaching staff felt they were overmatched. So, the same impetus that compelled him to go for it on fourth-and-one led, I think, to throwing the ball with a 27-3 lead (and to them building that lead). The Cowboys lived and died by the sword on Sunday...
4: times in the late third and fourth quarters the Cowboys' defense took the field protecting a lead. On these four drives, they gave up two touchdowns and a field goal, after giving up a solitary field goal through the first three frames. One of these touchdowns came after Romo's third pick, giving the Lions a short field to work with. Nevertheless, Rob Ryan's guys, who had been thoroughly excellent in the first half (and hadn't been on the field in the third quarter), suddenly couldn't stop the Lions. As I suggested above, some portion of this can be attributed to Sensabaugh's injury--but, as we digest this nauseating loss, it must be remembered that, while Romo cut into the lead, he didn't surrender it. Just as the wins over the 'Niners and 'Skins were team wins, this was a team loss.
3: Romo's interceptions. This is the number that will be harped on all week, ad nauseum. In reviewing each of these, the only one that was truly a bad decision, to my mind, was the first--which looked like a carbon copy of the Darrelle Revis pick against the Jets: an out to a bracketed and double-covered (and not remotely open) receiver. The second pick was Robinson's fault; on a slant, the wideout must, above all else, not allow the corner to gain inside position. Detroit corner Chris Houston obtained inside position--and got the Lions back into the game. On the third of these, inside pressure caused Romo to throw off of his back foot.
2:30: Detroit's third quarter time of possession. In that frame, the Lions ran 7 plays, gaining 41 yards, with 22 of those coming on the penultimate play of the quarter. Dallas ran 23 plays, for 146 yards and held the ball for 12:30. Yet, Detroit outscored the Cowboys 14-10 and, despite this seeming domination, managed to get back into the game.
2: consecutive three-and-outs by the Dallas offense in the fourth quarter. With Mr. Momentum setting up residence on the Detroit sideline, a Dallas offensive unit that had moved the ball at will the entire game suddenly couldn't generate a single first down. I couldn't help wondering whether how much the third-quarter play in which Robinson secured a first down on a sideline grab and came up gimpy might be a factor. Two plays later, he failed to get inside Houston on the second Romo pick six; the sideline catch was Robinson's last. And this talk of fading receivers brings us to our final number:
0: Number of Dez Bryant catches in the second half, on two targets. The first of these was the first Romo interception; the second was the long sideline pass in which Bryant couldn't get both feet in bounds. It appears that the Lions doubled Bryant after he had burned them in the first half, and once Robinson was dinged all they had left was Jason Witten. The Cowboys dialed up the perfect play against a defense focused on bracketing Bryant, but, instead of a big play, it resulted in Romo's third pick.
In close games like this, there are always several plays that one can point to that were the difference between victory and defeat. While most pundits will be pointing to Romo's interceptions, with reason, its the third of these that, to my mind, really shows how wafer-thin is the line between victory and defeat. The replay showed that Witten had worked his way behind two linebackers, with no safety help in the middle. If Romo could have stepped into the throw, Witten would have caught it around midfield with nobody between him and the end zone. If not an easy score, the play would, at the very least, have given Dallas a first down in the red zone and a chance to extend a three-point lead.
Alas, it was not to be.