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Grading Cowboys @ 49ers: Performances Of Note

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Mike Jenkins, master of the Jedi mind trick. Didn't help his game grades though.
Mike Jenkins, master of the Jedi mind trick. Didn't help his game grades though.

Somewhat lost amid all the post-game celebrations of Tony Romo's heroics is that some Cowboys players did their job well, some others did not.

In Sunday's game, the most obvious discrepancy was between the offensive line and defensive line. On had a stellar outing, one did not.

Today, we look at how the individual efforts on the team graded out, and we'll focus heavily on the big uglies on both sides of the ball. To do that, we'll be using the Pro Football Focus player grades. Some of these grades will be obvious, some others less so.

For those of you unfamiliar with (PFF), the review of the Jets game has a lengthy introduction to their methodology. So without further ado, let's jump into the grading.

Offensive Line

No two ways about it, the O-line had a terrible outing against the 49ers. Per PFF, the Cowboys line graded out at a combined -13.3. Just for perspective, the worst the 2010 line ever graded out was a combined -5.6. Of course, when Dallas announced they were starting two rookies and one first-year UDFA on the line, nobody expected the O-line to play mistake free or that it was going to be smooth sailing for the line all season.

But what does come as a surprise is that it was the veterans on the line who had really, really bad days. Doug Free (-5.6) allowed two QB hits and six pressures and got called for a penalty once. Derrick Dockery (-4.2) allowed a hit and a pressure and had two penalties. Kyle Kosier (-1.2) allowed a sack and a pressure, and whiffed on a block of Ahmad Brooks that resulted in Romo's cracked rib and punctured lung.

By contrast, the young guys had almost passable games. Phil Costa (51 of 70 snaps, -1.3 grade), Kevin Kowalski (19/70, -1.2) and Tyron Smith (-0.1) acquitted themselves well overall.

A lot of the Cowboys difficulties in the run game came from the interior of the line not getting the push needed. Here's how the Cowboys' O-linemen graded out individually.

Free Dockery Costa Kowalski Kosier Smith
Overall -5.6 -4.2 -1.3 -0.9 -1.2 -0.1
Run Blocking
-0.6 -2.7 +0.3 -1.4 -1.2 -1.1
Pass Protect
-4.4 +0.2 -1.8 +0.4 -0.8 +0.6

In their own game review, PFF write that Doug Free was "getting abused all day long",  and  was "being terrorized by Justin Smith throughout the contest". Justin Smith, the 49ers right end, easily graded out as the 49ers best player (+6.5).

Defensive Line & OLB.

In contrast to the O-line, the D-line had a very good outing. Not only did they limit the 49ers to 74 yards on 24 carries (3.1 ypc), the official gamebook also credits the front five with six sacks, six tackles for loss, and nine quarterback hits. That's pretty impressive, any way you look at it, and every single player on the d-line graded out positively:

Spencer Coleman Ratliff Hatcher Ware Spears Brent Butler Lissemore
Snaps (59 total)
54 33 48 34 55 22 10 10 8
+1.4 +0.1 +2.0 +0.4 +2.7 +1.0 +0.7 +0.1 +0.8

Foe this game at least, it looks like Rob Ryan's 'Bullies' played up to the name their coach had given them earlier in the season.

And here's where we take a closer look at the remarkable defensive turnaround in the second half. At halftime, the 49ers had converted an incredible 8 of 10 third downs. In the second half, the 49ers went 0-for-6 on their third down attempts. Here's a look at those 3rd downs in sequence:

49ers First Half 3rd downs 49ers Second Half & OT 3rd downs
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
 Distance 10 2 1 1 10 5 5 6 19 4 8 8 12 13 21 11

In the first half, seven of ten 3rd downs were for six yards or less. After the first half, not a single one of the 3rd downs was for less than 8 yards, and the 49ers failed to convert a single one.

Sean Lee said keeping the Niners in third and long situations was critical to the defensive success in the second half.

"I think we got them behind the sticks more in the second half," Lee said. "Early, we had some third-and-four, third-and-fives, but when you get them in third-and-eight and third-and-10 because you’re stopping the run, you can play a little different defense. We did that in the second half and locked it down. We put them in a second-and-longs and third-and-10 and that’s a hard down for them."

A large part of the credit for the defensive performance has to go to Rob Ryan. PFF observed that of the 20 QB disruptions the Cowboys notched (combined sacks, hits and hurries), nine went through the 49ers offensive line unblocked. Gotta love those Ryan blitzes.


Somebody must have done something right to hold the 49ers to 179 passing yards. Perhaps the week's most underrated story is how Frank Walker was able to come in on short notice and play a good game at left corner in nickel situations. Of course, Alan Ball had to move into the slot on 3rd down and the 49ers targeted him on every 3rd down pass attempt in the first half, completing four of five passes against Ball. The sixth time they threw his way, again a third down, Ball got his sweet revenge and intercepted the ball.

Here's a look at how the secondary graded out.

  • Mike Jenkins (57of 59 snaps, -2.1 grade): Jenkins was targeted six times and allowed four catches for 43 yards, including a 12-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Williams in the corner of the endzone in the second quarter.
  • Alan Ball (56/59, -0.3): In addition to his play in coverage described above, Ball rushed the QB twice and even recorded a QB hit.
  • Frank Walker (20/59, +0.9): Walker was targeted twice and did not allow a reception, and played an astonishingly solid game manning the left corner position in the nickel package.
  • Abram Elam (59/59, +0.2): Elam gave up two passes on two targets but earned his positive grade for a solid game against the run.
  • Gerald Sensabaugh (59/59, +1.4): One pass targeted at Sensabaugh was completed for zero yards and Sensi recorded 5 tackles in a solid overall showing.

Other players of note

Sean Lee (48/59, +2.9) graded out as the best defensive player on Sunday, and once again lead the team with 10 tackles plus one tackle on special teams. PFF credit him with 6 stops, i.e. solo defensive tackles which constitute an offensive failure.In contrast to last week, Lee even received a positive grade in pass coverage. Just about the only thing left for Lee to do is to notch a couple of sacks.

Miles Austin (61/70, +2.0) had a stellar overall effort but at first glance, his grade doesn't seem to match his stellar production. The PFF graders hate drops, and will lower a grade accordingly, which is one reason why DeSean Jackson will probably never look good on PFF. Miles Austin had a drop credited to his name and his grade is impacted accordingly. Another factor that went into the grade is that Austin was targeted 15 times, but only caught nine of those passes. At least some of the blame for those wayward passes and/or routes is reflected in his grade here.

Jason Witten (70/70, -1.3) had 13 passes thrown his way and caught seven, which gives hem a 0.0 grade in the passing game. Witten again received negative grades for his run blocking and pass blocking, making this the second straight week and raising questions of what is going on with the usually reliable blocker.

Tony Romo (50/70, +4.1) gets some love from the graders at PFF and deservedly gets the best grade of all players.

DeMarco Murray (18/70, +1.2) graded out well in limited action. For what it's worth, he did have the highest YPC of the three backs with 3.5 on six attempts. Choice (29/70, +0.4) and Jones (23/70, -2.6) were less effective in the eyes of the graders. 

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