Yesterday, we all - at long last - received the gift for which we had been long waiting: a comfortable victory. I'll be writing a lot more in the next couple of days about why this was, and is, so important; for now, let us bask in the warm glow of a Cowboys rout, a game in which the Cowboys enjoyed a sizeable statistical imbalance in almost all categories. Want some numbers to support that claim? Your wish is my command, BTB brethren (and sistren). Here we go:
7: The percentage of successful third down conversions by the Rams. On the afternoon, the Cowboys held St. Louis to one of thirteen on third down tries. Amazingly, the lone conversion came on the last play of the game against a disinterested prevent defense. And the Cowboys success wasn't merely a matter of limiting the Rams to six yards on third and seven. Take a look at all the St. Louis third downs on the afternoon, with the yards-to-go and the result. I've added in a couple of other third downs that don't show up on the official stats because a penalty occurred:
12: gain of seven
10: gain of six
10: pass interference on Mo Claiborne, first down
6: defensive holding on Orlando Scandrick, first down
6: nine yard gain, first down
The Rams average yards-to-go on third down? 7.87. A little simple math shows us that they were gaining a mere 2.13 yards on first and second down combined. That's some mighty good defense. In fact, it got so out of hand that the Rams ended up going for it on fourth down six different times, converting three times (two of these occurred on their lone scoring drive, with another fourth down converted via penalty, nullifying an electric J. J. WIlcox interception return).
175: DeMarco Murray's rushing yardage, on 26 carries - or exactly one more carry than he had yards the previous week. The credit for this turnaround can't be heaped upon a single player or even a single unit (or even a single team). To wit:
- Murray showed considerably more decisiveness and vision than he has at any other point this year. The Cowboys have collected a stable of "one-cut" runners, guys who don't dance around the line but, rather, plant a foot and accelerate through the hole. In recent weeks, Murray had been a dancer; yesterday, he planted and cut with impressive crispness. Moreover, he seemed to see holes develop more clearly than he had thus far in 2013 - nowhere more so than on a first quarter power play off left guard in which he cut back against the grain just as a backside hole developed, for a 36-yard gain.
- The offensive staff made some crucial scheme adjustments. We have heard all offseason abotu their desire to operate at a faster tempo. Thus far, what this has meant is that the offense gets in and out of the huddle quickly, and Romo spends 25 seconds making checks and adjustments at the line. Yesterday, we saw none of this. Instead of running the clock down to under five seconds before snapping the ball, the Cowboys lined up and ran the play that was called in the huddle. This made me wonder: how much of Dallas' pass-heavy imbalance should be attributed to Romo checking out of running plays at the line?
- One of the reasons he might not have checked out of runs much on Sunday was the fact that the Rams defensive gameplan appeared to have stopping Dez Bryant and the passing game as priority one. For the better part of the first half, St. Louis had only seven (and often six) men in the box. Taking a look at this, any NFL quarterback would see that the running game had an advantage and would stick to the run call. To my mind, the looming question is whether or not Romo will continue to stick with the running when he sees more men in the box.
70.8: Romo's completion percentage, the lowest of the young season.Strangely, in what was his most precise and efficient performance of the season, Romo was less accurate than he had been while under considerably more duress in weeks one and two. Ah, but here's the rub...
8.8: Romo's yards per attempt, his highest mark in 2013, by a goodly margin. Lets take a look: in game, one, he averaged 5.4 yards per pass, one of the lowest marks of his career; in game two, he raised this to 7.1 per dropback, a respectable figure that was buoyed by several early long passes to Dez Bryant, whcih disguised the fact that, overall, the Cowboys passing game struggled to complete passes beyond the linebacker level.
That was not the case yesterday. Romo was able to complete passes over the linebackers, and in gaps between corners and safeties with regularity. As a result, he finished with a passer rating of 137.2, by far his highest mark of the year. I'll take a good running game and a high yards per attempt over a high percentage, low-yardage passing game any day.
24: Distance of Romo's touchdown passes to Gavin Escobar and Dwayne Harris. Both passes were, in a word, perfect. On the TD to Escobar, Romo dropped the pass into the proverbial basket, over the linebacker and into the tall rookie TE's soft hands. Harris's TD was scored against perfect coverage; it was located in the smallest of windows. When he took over as the Cowboys' signal caller in 2006, Romo often showed such preternatural touch on his passes. Images of his work in the 2006 Thanksgiving game against the Buccaneers or beautiful TD passes to Patrick Crayton in the week against the Rams in 2007 are indelibly burnt into my memory.
Back then, Romo was operating behind a veteran offensive line that afforded him time to scan the field, set his feet and make passes. On Sunday, seeing an uncanny accuracy that I hadn't seen in some time, I wondered to what degree it could be attributed to trust in the big uglies up front.
Moreover, it was terrific to see Escobar and Harris get into the offensive mix. SInce the draft, we have been talking about the abundance of weapons with which the team has surrounded Romo. The more opposing defensive coordinators see guys like Escobar and Harris make plays on tape, the more reluctant they will be to crowd the box or roll safeties over to Bryant's side on every snap. The next step? Get rookie wideout Terrance Williams behind the defense for a long pass, so that safeties are forced to be aware of his ability to "take the top off a defense."
6: The number of sacks collected by the Dallas defense, against a Rams O-line that hadn't given up a single sack all season. After three games, the Cowboys have totaled 13, which puts them on pace for 69.3 on the season. And they are doing it without the left side of the D-line; how high might the ceiling be is Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff can come back healthy at some point in the middle of the season?
Moreover: Monte Kiffin's scheme seeks to generate pressure with the four down linemen, and thus blitzes infrequently. That said, when he does call a blitz, it usually works. After so many years of seeing Wade Phillips's and Rob Ryan's blitzers get swallowed up by the offensive line, its comforting to see free rushers getting instant pressure.
And finally: Thus far, Bruce Carter has 2 sacks, Orlando Scandrick has one, and Sean Lee has had several pressures on up-the-middle blitzes. Carter and Lee's presence is particularly important; the threat of "A-gap" blitzes, which, when successful, can instantly derail a play, has rival O-lines worried and confused, such that, when the likes of Lee and Carter drop back after showing blitz (its called "sugaring"), it opens things up for the four down linemen.
.964: Dan Bailey's field goal percentage on kicks between 30-39 yards, after missing a 35-yarder yesterday, the first miss from that distance in his career. In two plus seasons, Automatic Dan is now 27-28 from 30-39, and a staggering 61-65 from 49 yards in, converting at a neat 94% clip. Bailey is so good that we now seem to take him for granted, a surprising development after the succession of inconsistent kickers the team ran onto the field for the previous several years. I still maintain that's he one of the Cowboys' top five players, and think an argument can be made that he's the best player on the team, if we limit the conversation to who is best, league-wide, at what they are asked to do.
677: The number of days since the Cowboys enjoyed a start-to-finish home victory. That came on November 13, 2011, with a thrashing of a Bills team that would finish 6-10. But that game featured a +4 turnover margin; yesterday's contest was even-steven in terms of turnover margin. The last time the Cowboys won big at home with an even turnover margin? The final game on the 2009 campaign, a 24-0 shellacking of Philadelphia.
Yesterday, I thought several times that I hadn't see the Cowboys defense play with such confidence since that 2009 stretch run during which, you may recall, they upset the high-flying and undefeated Saints on the road, then followed that up with shutout victories over the Redskins (17-0) and Eagles that powered them into the playoffs. I'm not saying this team will be as successful as that one. But I do think that, when a defense is playing well, a team is more likely to get, and to maintain, the big leads that are the primary earmarks of successful seasons.
1: The Cowboys lead in the admittedly weak NFC East, after three games. Yes, its early and, given the Cowboys' uneven performances against the Giants and Chiefs, terribly premature to talk about them winning more than eight games, much less the division. Nonetheless, the lesson of Sunday's game - get a big lead and thwart any attempts at closing the gap - can be applied to the division race as well. There were times yesterday afternoon when our 'Boys in Blue stepped on the Rams' necks, curtailing any hope of a comeback; afterward, Jason Garrett praised the "relentless nature" of the team. I think part of what's he's referring to was this stepping-on of necks.
It's my fervent hope that they enjoyed this feeling, and will continue to seek it out, not only in each game, but over the course of the season. Time will tell...