The Cowboys embarked upon the "soft" part of their schedule by notching a less-than-impressive victory over a visiting Seattle Seahawks squad early Sunday afternoon. Curiously, they dominated the first half in terms of yardage, yet earned only a 6-6 halftime tie. The 'Hawks moved the ball well in the second half, and the Cowboys didn't, yet Dallas outscored them 17-7 to secure the win. The key to these two uneven and peculiar halves of football? The same that it has been all season: turnovers and red zone play.
In terms of both of these key indices of football success, the game was a tale of two halves: In the first half, the Cowboys' lone turnover happened at the most unfortunate of moments, as Dez Bryant was completing a scintillating 3rd down catch-and-run only to have the ball knocked out at the opposing one-yard line. That contributed to their underwhelming 0-3 first-half red zone touchdown mark. In the second frame, Dallas' defense collected three picks, and significantly more red zone success. These numbers are important for a team that, with the exception of last week's butt-kicking, has out-gained their opponents all season, but come up on the short end of too many scores, largely because of turnover and red zone failings.
With that in mind, lets take a closer look at the game, by the numbers (in descending order):
Numbers after the jump...
279: Tony Romo's passing yardage total. After the lowest two-game passing total of his career, games in which neither he nor his receivers looked sharp or in synch, Romo looked better passing the ball than he had since the Detroit contest. On a couple of passes in particular, he reminded me why people from scouts to media pundits think he has the stuff to take the Cowboys to the promised land. On the Cowboys second drive, he drilled a laser to a sliding Miles Austin, then dropped a sideline pass right onto Dez Bryant's bucket; in the second quarter, he threw perhaps his prettiest pass of the season, a gorgeous ball to Austin before the safety could get over to the sideline.
Unfortunately, Austin tweaked his hammy on the play, and we weren't able to see how the Dallas passing game might have used the rest of the time to develop the chemistry it has been missing. This has been a recurring theme all season: either Bryant or Austin, or both, has always seemingly been out of the lineup and, when they have been playing, their play has often been compromised. As a result, the Dallas passing game--the one aspect of the team that I would have predicted we could hang our hats on--has struggled to establish an identity. Now, the Cowboys will have to soldier on for a while without Austin, again. I suspect that we may never see a completely healthy Austin in 2011.
One thought: thank God for Laurent Robinson.
22: DeMarco Murray's carries, for an impressive 139 yards. I think we can dismiss the Murray-as-fluke conversation: for the third week in a row, Murray has run the ball with vision and patience. Oh, and with 466 yards, he has tallied the best three-game rushing stint for any Dallas Cowboy. Ever. Of his three games, however, I found this one the most impressive, largely because of the aforementioned patience: he waited for holes to develop and then quickly got into them with one cut. Moreover, he showed good acceleration, and once through the hole, he broke tackles. When was the last time the Cowboys nailed a third-round draft pick? Too long, for a team that expects to play at a championship level (P.S. the answer wears # 82). If this franchise is going to turn the corner, hitting on third rounders will be a critical part of the equation, so I'm happy to imagine a new precedent has been established.
19: straight field goals made by Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey. While several--too many--of Dallas' preseason questions remain unanswered, Bailey has offered a clear solution to one of them, adding a couple of exclamation points for good measure. His success does, of course, bring up another question: why in the heck is David Buehler still on the roster? Baby steps, Rabble, baby steps...
6: Seahawk drives of more than 18 yards. I know that Rob Ryan's defense has received a lot of accolades this season, and rightly so. To my mind, however, there have been too many moments when they have resembled Wade Phillips' defensive squads. More precisely, there has been a maddening break-but-don't-bend quality to their play. On repeated occasions this season, we've seen the D stop opposing offenses several times in a row and look dominant only to surrender a long scoring drive when they need a stop. On Sunday, this frustrating inconsistency continued: five Seattle drives went for fewer than 18 yards; five others went for more than 50, including 70 and 81-yard scoring drives (and two other 40+ yarders were curtailed by interceptions). This defense plays very hard and is well-coached, but I wonder whether they have enough playmakers, the kind of guys who can step up and make a drive-stopping play. Other than DeMarcus Ware, who are those guys?
3: the number of Dallas' interior runs. As suggested above, the Cowboys moved the ball well on the ground for the third week in a row, which should be a much-welcome development for those of us who would like to see Tony Romo last the entire season. A closer look at the kind of runs Jason Garrett is calling it telling: on Sunday, Dallas ran outside (either off tackle or end) on all but three of their 29 rushes. What this suggests should not surprise: they have little confidence in their interior linemen, especially in their ability to root out opposing defensive tackles at the point of attack.
Why this is no shock: the offseason o-line overhaul was specifically designed to assemble a group of foot athletes who are built for the edge runs that were the bulk of the run calls.
But here's the strange part. On Dallas' three interior runs (over guard or center), they totaled 56 yards, largely on Murray's two longest scampers of the day (of 22 and 32 yards). I haven't yet had a chance to review the tape of the game, but when I do, I'm going to pay special attention to why this was. Were these two runs flukes or indicative of something larger (like defenses loading up on the outside)? Its a storyline to continue following...
2: The number of Seattle field goals blocked by the Cowboys--one of which, strangely, was good anyway. The first, partially blocked by Orlando Scandrick, was a low-flying duck that was never more than 20 feet off the ground but still managed--somehow, by some miracle--to scrape over the crossbar. The second was the most athletic play Anthony Spencer has made since 2009, if not in his entire Dallas career: he jumped over Seahawk long snapper Clint Gresham, landed, and extended a hand in time to deflect a kick that would have further tightened a tight 13-6 contest. Which leads us to...
1: number of Dallas sacks--a Spencer run-down of Tavaris Jackson in garbage time. Coming into the game, the Seahawks' young and porous offensive line (on the season, they had yielded a staggering 28 sacks) appeared to be the tonic for all that had ailed the Cowboys' sagging pass rush. And sag it has: after notching 13 sacks in the first three games, Dallas had a grand total of eight in the next month, seven of which were by DeMarcus Ware, who has become the Cowboys' one-man pressure package.
Seattle's presence at Jerryworld threatened to provide an auspicious moment of revival for the likes of Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher, Spencer and Victor Butler to get some pressure on Jackson. But they didn't. One reason for this was that the offense's red zone woes kept the game close enough for Seattle to run their offense. From my vantage point, therefore, the most telling drives to this end were the Seahwaks two fourth quarter possessions: a ten-play 70-yarder for a TD and a 6-play, 43-yarder that ended in a questionable Gerald Sensabaugh interception. On the latter drive in particular, the Cowboys, Ware included, struggled to generate any noticeable pass rush.
The dwindling pass rush reminds me of last year, when the defense fell apart in no small part because of Wade Phillips' efforts to compensate for his guys' lack of pressure by blitzing wildly. In my season prediction post, with these horrible memories in the forefront of my imagination, I opined that the Cowboys would go as far as their pass rush would carry them. Early in the season, it looked like Rob Ryan was going to take them a long way. But that has changed; either he's reluctant to pull the exotic blitz trigger, they missed Hatcher more than we could have imagined, the league has caught up to them or something. Whatever the reason, the absence of pressure is very worrisome going forward.
A win is a win, and should be savored. Then again, some are more savory than others. I'll enjoy the taste, but look forward to better cooking, hopefully in the near future...