Sunday's convincing win over the Titans in Tennessee had a lot of numbers to be happy about. I'll start with the most obvious, those that pertain to the running game. Here's a thumbnail gallery featuring a few of Sunday's glorious rushing numbers:
220: The Cowboys total yards rushing, the highest total since 2012's week six loss to Baltimore, during which Dallas rushed for 227 yards. Of that 220, 167 (on 29 carries) belonged to DeMarco Murray, figuring as the third-highest total of his career (and the highest against any team that is not the Rams).
19: The number of times Dallas offensive coordinator Scott Linehan called Murray's number on first down Sunday. On those carries, Murray totaled 116 yards and a touchdown. That is what is know in football parlance as "establishing the run."
40: DeMarco Murray's rushing yards on the Cowboys first touchdown drive, on four carries. After a Barry Church interception set the Cowboys up on the Tennessee 40-yard line, Murray carried for 18, 6, 13, and then the final 3 yards for the score.
57: The percentage of Cowboys plays that were runs (for the day, Dallas totaled 43 runs and 33 passes). For a team that employed a 63-39 pass-run ratio in 2013, running on well more than half of all offensive snaps represented a real change in philosophy - and an absolute necessity, given the team's need to manage a poorly-functioning quarterback.
6: The number of years since the team won a road game when Tony Romo threw for fewer than 200 yards (in a 14-10 win at Washington, in the game Romo returned from the broken pinkie he suffered in the middle of the 2008 season, against Arizona). In the recent past, a period when the team relied almost exclusively on Romo and the passing game, such an afternoon was an almost certain harbinger of a loss - and often an ugly loss. But today, that sorry tradition was trampled, under 1,500 pounds of Cowboys offensive line.
Not coincidentally, that game was clinched by a 13-play drive that began with 6:40 left on the clock. The Cowboys handed off to Marion Barber on 10 of the 11 plays on the drive that mattered (the final two were Romo kneel-downs), and drained the clock by converting four times for first downs. Which brings me to...
19:30: The Cowboys time of possession in the second half. Holding a 16-point advantage at the half, Dallas' goal was to shorten the game, which they did masterfully by limiting the number of Tennessee possessions. The Titans engineered only four second-half drives because the Cowboys' second-half drives (with the exception of their first drive of the second half) consumed so much clock. Here are Dallas' four second-half drives:
First drive: 1:47 (3-and-out and punt)
Second drive: 5:36 (12-plays, 80-yard TD)
Third drive: 6:08 (11 plays, 38 yards, FG)
Fourth drive: 5:59 (11 plays, 40 yards, punt with 23 seconds remaining in the game).
On drives 2-4, the Cowboys ran 34 plays (23 runs) and took 17:43 off of clock. That, my friends, is how you protect a 16-point halftime lead.
17: The number of times Dallas offensive coordinator Scott Linehan called runs on the Cowboys' final 21 fourth-quarter plays. And, when the Cowboys took over at their 6 with 6:22 left after stopping Tennessee on fourth down, Linehan called 11 consecutive running plays - five to Murray and six to Lance Dunbar, effectively ending the game in the process.
14: Targets for Dez Bryant on the afternoon, of which he caught ten, for a cozy 103 yards. Although those aren't huge numbers, they were all clutch. During the game's most critical drive, the 12-play, 80-yard march for a touchdown after the Titans scored 10 quick points in the third quarter to pull within six, Tony Romo targeted Bryant eight times; Number Eighty-Eight caught five of them for 57 yards and a touchdown (on a pretty catch on a back-shoulder fade). Most clutch was Bryant's 18-yard gain on third-and-15. After the game, Jason Witten said that this conversion was the play of the game; I'm inclined to agree with The Senator.
6: Tony Romo completions on this most important drive. After struggling for the better part of the day, Romo stepped up when it got down to the nitty-gritty - and when the Titans decided to crowd the line and dare Number Nine to beat them - completing 6 of 9 passes for 65 yards and the above delineated clutch passes to Dez.
9: The number of total hits on Romo on the afternoon. Tennessee, behind the super-dynamic Jurrell Casey, sacked Romo four times and hit him on five other occasions. This is a good news-bad news situation: while the offensive line was clearly dominant in the running game, there were some legitimate pass protection issues that hampered them, particularly in the first half. And, while it's good to see Romo take hits and get back up, few of us believe he can hold up to being sacked and hit at this rate (seven sacks and in the range of fifteen hits in the first two games). That has got to get cleaned up.
6.1: Romo's YPA (4.5 subtracting sack yardage), one of the lowest of his career. Only three times since 2006 has Romo had a YPA of 6.1 or lower and emerged victorious: the awful 7-6 home win over Washington in 2009; last year's home win over the same team (thanks to Dwayne Harris' colossal 222 return yards); and the 2013 season-opener, when the Cowboys enjoyed a massive +5 turnover advantage. A strong argument can be made that all three of these were fluky wins. Sunday's was not, which makes it all the more impressive; the Cowboys won despite receiving Quincy Carter-level quarterback play.
34: The 3-4 defense, which is the Titans' new front. Historically, under Jason Garrett's offensive tenure, as both coordinator and head coach, the Cowboys have struggled most particularly when two planets align: they are on the road and facing a 3-4 defense. Recall some of the most frustrating losses of the Garrett era: the 2008 debacle in Pittsburgh; losses on the road to the Packers and Broncos in 2009 (the Cowboys scored seven and ten points, respectively); 2010's opening night against Washington (seven points); 2011 defeats At New England and Arizona; last season's week two heartbreaker in Kansas City. In each of these, the Cowboys' defense limited the opponent to 20 or fewer points...and lost
Thus it was with particular trepidation that I went into Sunday's contest, particularly after watching the Titans' defense dismantle Kansas City. What I saw on tape was exactly the 3-4 team, capable of attacking from multiple angles, that had given the Cowboys fits in recent year. Although undersized, Tennessee's defenders were quick and fast, again traits that had given previous iterations of the Cowboys offense fits. Would this offensive line follow in the footsteps of those led by stalwarts like Leonard Davis and Flozell Adams.
Yesterday's effort provided an answer: a resounding "no." While the Cowboys did struggle a bit with some pass protection issues and had difficulty on perimeter runs against the faster Titans, they did a nice job diagnosing their blitz packages and line games, and absolutely gouged them between the tackles in the running game. As a result, Dallas was able to do something they haven't done since November of 2012: win by more than 14 points on the road (and that took a flurry of lucky plays to beat a terrible Eagles team; the last time they've accomplished the feat in a game without aberrant turnovers? In December 2011, in a convincing 31-15 win at Tampa Bay).
141: The yardage advantage enjoyed by the Cowboys at halftime. In the first half, the Cowboys built a 16-0 lead, out-gaining Tennessee 209-68 (the Titans' 68 yards came on 21 plays), forcing them to punt on five of their first six drives (which gained 8, 4, 20, 20 and 8 yards, respectively) and ending the sixth, a seven-yard drive, with a Barry Church interception. In so doing, they held Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker to 7.6 passer rating (on 4-12 passing for 26 yards). After having their way with the Chiefs last week, the Titans could not solve the Cowboys defense until they went to a no-huddle operation in the second half.
.750: The Cowboys' defense's second-half success percentage. The Dallas defense prevented touchdowns on three of the Titans' four second-half drives, all in "unconventional" ways (i.e., not by forcing a punt with a third-down stop). In order, they held the first Titans drive to a field goal; gave up a TD on the second; halted the third with spectacular Rolando McClain interception; and effectively ended the game with a goal-line stand on the Titans' fourth possession.
7: The amount of times, on the Cowboys eleven drives, when they gained 34 or more yards. By contrast, the Titans gained as many yards on only four of their 12 drives. The result of this inequity was not that the Cowboys had prohibitively better field position throughout the game (the Cowboys' average starting field position was 27.9; the Titans' was 20.5) so much as that, by repeatedly putting together 35+ yard drives, they forced the Titans effectively to start every one of their drives 80 yards from a score. That's huge for a defense predicated upon forcing the offense to execute, with the idea that they'll eventually make a mistake. With so far to go each time they began a drive, Tennessee was more likely to commit a drive-killing error. And, most of the time, they did.
13: The number of first downs yielded by the Dallas defense, exactly one half of the number (26) accumulated by the Cowboys' offense. The last time the Cowboys gave up 13 or fewer first downs (and had a 2:1 or better first down differential) was the strange "Dez Bryant finger" game, a 29-24 loss in which the Cowboys had six turnovers and a -4 TO differential. The last time they enjoyed a 2:1 first down differential in a game with a "normal" turnover margin was in the above-mentioned December 2011 rout of Tampa Bay (when they coasted to a 28-7 FD advantage).
2: Tennessee's third-down conversions, on ten attempts. In 2013, the Cowboys set a slew of ignominious records for first downs surrendered. The long and the short of it was that they simply couldn't get opposing offenses off the field on the "money down." On Sunday, they reversed this narrative, if only for an afternoon; a defense that was disparaged the entire offseason shackled the Titans for the better part of the afternoon, forcing two turnovers, and limiting Jake Locker to a pitiful 13.7 quarterback rating.
316.5: The average yards per game allowed by the Cowboys defense in 2014. That total is almost exactly 100 yards a game less than 2013's nasty 415.3 average. Yes, it is early, and there are many imposing teams ahead on the schedule, but the synergy between offense and defensive styles appears to be more cohesive than it ever was last year, with the possible exception of the Rams game.
55: Rolando McClain's number. The former 'Bama great led the Cowboys with seven tackles, and added a sack and a pretty, pretty interception, on a play in which Henry Melton deflected a pass at the line of scrimmage. With the ball in the air, McClain changed directions, dove, kept the ball from hitting the ground with his right hand, rolled over, and made the juggling catch. It was the kind of grab that would be impressive for a player like Dez Bryant; for McClain to make such an athletic play was doubly impressive.
17: Dwayne Harris' number. Because he always shows up. On Sunday, he gave us a nice 15-yard punt return that helped set up a score (after changing direction and outrunning the entire Titans' coverage team to the right sideline) and also made a couple of terrific plays on kick coverage units.
5: Dan Bailey's number. On Sunday, he made four of four field goals, all from substantial distances: 44, 48, 48 and 51. And every one of them was within a football's length of dead middle. Automatic Dan has not missed a field goal since Week four last year in San Diego, and has made 26 field goals in a row for the second time in his career. I have often said that Bailey is among the team's top five players; I now think he might be their best (when we toss pure athleticism aside and consider what each position is asked to do; who does that better than Number 5?).