In a game decided by a clutch throw by Tony Romo leading to a phenomenal Dez Bryant catch, followed by the game-winning redemption of Dan ‘Slipt'em' Bailey, the Dallas Cowboys capitalized on several game-changing moments to defeat the Houston Texans in their week five matchup. But on their journey to victory, and a much longed for 4-1 start to a season, the Cowboys survived a tough first quarter by making some game-changing plays to that might get overlooked in the coming days.
The Texans have yet to allow points in the first quarter of a football game this season, but the Cowboys were on course to disrupt that trend. After a disappointing first drive by Dallas, Orlando Scandrick made a big play reading Ryan Fitzpatrick and taking advantage of some miscommunication for an interception. If Dallas was playing man coverage, Scandrick likely doesn't have the opportunity to capitalize on the mistake with a great reaction and catch - another nail he desperately needed to put in the coffin of his former ‘stone hands' phase. The Cowboys looked to turn the turnover into points with a strong, sustained drive, until a strange occurrence, at least before 2014 in which it became all too common, ended the drive in the red zone.
Surely, DeMarco Murray setting the lead league in lost fumbles this season is not something that should be ignored. He leads the league in rushing and is on pace to challenge for offensive MVP, but Murray has shot his team in the foot four times in the first quarter of games this year. And this game-changing moment could have cost the Cowboys dearly and might overshadow some very important plays during that momentum-building drive.
After having gone three and out their first drive, and with a chance to capitalize on the turnover, Dallas desperately needed to sustain a drive. Facing a third and one, the great effort by a rookie taking on the leading defensive MVP candidate must be recognized and celebrated.
JJ Watt lined up between rookie Zack Martin and veteran Doug Free as Dallas came out with their heavy run package. At the snap, Watt tries to cut across the face of Martin, but the rookie is having none of it. Free helps with his chip block as he prepares to get to the second level, but because Watt cut inside, the real block at the point of attack on this short yardage play was a phenomenal job done by Martin. In the second picture you cannot see Murray, it is because he quickly charged into the two-yard gap that Martin created pushing back Watt. James Hanna also does a great job blocking here, which is something I will be writing about in the days to come, the Cowboys skill players' great blocking efforts, including the receivers.
Speaking of which, Dallas has often been running in formations that include Dwayne Harris. Whether lining up in the slot, motioning from out wide, or even motioning into the backfield, the Cowboys have been utilizing Harris' abilities as a strong blocker. In the article I have been preparing on the blocking of the skill players, I was going to mention how I was growing worried that the Cowboys were relying too much on Harris as a blocker and might become predictable every time he is on the field. But Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan were simply setting the stage for some coaching trickery.
In another game-changing moment that might get overlooked, the Cowboys use the predictability they have set up with Harris to call a play-action pass. Things don't work as planned, but some fantastic blocking, including against Watt, and impressive improv by Romo led to a great completion to Harris. Facing a dangerous second-and-long, Dallas calls a play-action pass with a receiver - that has been blocking almost every time he has been on the field this season - motioning into the backfield.
Tony Romo deserves a lot of credit for managing to create some improv work on this play and tell Harris to double back after his initial assignment to the scramble is to go deep. But the offensive line did a remarkable job blocking for a play that lasted just over six seconds. At the start of the play, the Cowboys young o-line is already in position to create a strong pocket. Doug Free and Jason Witten have double-team duties on JJ Watt, but Witten does such a strong job that Free is in a position to help block Zack Martin's man as well. Eventually, the defender on Martin gives up the rush and tries to drop back and deflect a pass. Watt tries to split the double-team with a spin that gets him nowhere but a futile effort to draw a holding flag. Eventually, both men are taken completely out of the play and Romo has all the time in the world as he scrambles out of the pocket on that side. Meanwhile, Travis Frederick and Ron Leary have stonewalled their defender and Tyron Smith has buried his rusher. After avoiding a third down by converting on this second and nine, the Cowboys continue to build on this type of gutsy quarterback performance and strong blocking from their linemen.
The following play gains good yards on the ground as Ron Leary uses Watt's speed and momentum against him, taking him out of the play as the rest of the o-line creates an avenue of a running lane for Murray.
The team faces a hiccup the next play as Murray gets beat in pass protection allowing a sack on the blitz. Facing a long third and thirteen, Dallas manages another game-changing play converting with a pass to Dez Bryant. Houston sends a delayed blitz that almost works as Murray again fails his blocking assignment, this time not even reading the delayed rusher before going out on a pattern. Luckily, Romo's pocket awareness continues to impress as he escapes the pressure and connects with Dez for a big gain. Dallas then calls another play-action pass to Harris, continuing to break that "blocking trend" and eventually getting into the redzone after a six minute, ten play drive.
Now, the Murray fumble is obviously the biggest impact play to occur on this Cowboys drive, and you may feel like I am using the term game-changing plays a little too liberally. But the Dallas offense is one of the best in the league in converting third-downs and these were big plays that should not get overlooked in an exciting game that was decided in overtime. These plays set a tone for the game and helped Dallas at least gain some field position and time of possession to help the defense. The first points scored in the game came on a Cowboys field goal to end the first half, so the game could have been quite different at half time had the Cowboys offense not sustained such a long drive in the first quarter. But they weren't the only unit to come up big in this tightly contested first quarter.
The Cowboys defense was not rewarded with any points for their interception and suddenly had to take the field after the offense committed a turnover of their own. With the momentum built by the Cowboys drive now shifting over to the Texans, it was important for the Dallas defense to respond.
They did just that when they nearly forced a three and out. They began by stuffing a run on first down for just two yards. However, on second down, a far too common motif of the Cowboys defense was again apparent. Rolando McClain gets some big hits on opposing quarterbacks, and while they do a good job of flustering the QB for the next few plays, they have unfortunately come with the cost of a completed pass for the opponent. One day, these big hits will be rewarded by a sack, fumble, or interception, but once again, McClain and the defense are left only with the moral victory of unsettling the opposing QB after allowing a big gain.
The Cowboys nearly force a three and out with another good play by a rookie. Anthony Hitchens reads the run design well and while he slightly over-pursues to cut off the edge, allowing a talented Arian Foster to fall forward far enough to get a first down, Hitchens nearly tackles him for a loss. While Houston still manages to convert the third-down, Hitchens does appear to save the defense from potentially big play.
The Texans manage to gain another first down the following play on a big run, and looked to do even more damage the play after that. It would have been a nightmare if the defense had allowed three first downs on consecutive runs, with one big and one huge gain. However, a possible big gain was stopped by Barry Church. While the play may appear to be unimportant, it was a classic example of Barry Church. Many people may recognize him for his solid efforts, but no one considers Church a big play or game-changing player. And on this seemingly innocuous three-yard gain by Houston, Church displayed how vital his rarely heralded performance is for this defense. The Cowboys are playing with J.J. Wilcox as the single-high safety. Church, and virtually every other defender, is in the box against the Texans heavy run formation. If Church doesn't secure this tackle, after his great closing speed to minimize the gain, Foster has 60 yards ahead of him with only Wilcox in deep coverage to beat for a long touchdown run. It may seem an unspectacular, yet solid, tackle, but it was actually a clutch stop, not only for minimal gain, but in preventing a huge play and possible touchdown.
On the ensuing play, Cowboys fans face the prospect of Fitzpatrick having scrambled for a first down, but the pressure that initially sent him running also drew a penalty flag for holding. As Fitzpatrick finishes dropping back, Tyrone Crawford has already beat his man and is causing havoc in the pocket with pressure up the middle. If not for the holding penalty, Crawford would get his first sack of the season. Instead, he creates a long second-down situation by drawing the penalty.
On second and seventeen, Scandrick's blitz leads to pressure, a quick throw, and a pass-deflecting tip by Orlando. On third and seventeen, the Dallas defense shows why it ranks well in points allowed but so poorly in yards allowed. While they protect against a big play and possible third-down conversion, the defense manages to swarm on a run against their nickel package to stop Foster short of the first down, though give up thirteen yards in the process. The bend but don't break philosophy at work, the Cowboys force a punt at the end of the first quarter.
It may seem odd, but in this scoreless first quarter, the Cowboys made some game-changing plays that should not get overlooked in an exciting contest with many such moments. But in the face of adversity and attempting to set the tone for the remainder of the game, both the Cowboys offense and defense came up with some clutch plays that may have seemed unimportant at the time. In the coming days, we may not hear or read much about the Cowboys long, scoreless drive, just the fumble that ended it. But it's important to note how well the Cowboys offensive line and Romo played during that drive and how they continued to build on that gutsy performance throughout the remainder of the game. The Cowboys defense again managed to shut out their opponent in one half of a game, but their ability to respond to the Murray fumble and hold the Texans from scoring points and taking over the momentum was incredibly important in a game that was decided in overtime. Let's not forget these first quarter heroics or miss their tremendous influence on the outcome of a hard fought overtime victory.