Thoughts on a perception-changing prime time win over the team that had boot-stomped the Cowboys' defense less than a year ago...
24.5: The opening stretch of gametime during which New Orleans had the ball only twice, on drives that resulted in a punt and a missed field goal. At that point, the Cowboys had totaled three possessions and held a 10-0 lead. More importantly, they fulfilled what I imagine must have been a pre-game goal: to keep the ball out of Drew Brees's hands. For the better part of the first half, they managed to do just this - and not necessarily by limiting the Saints' time of possession, but by limiting their number of possessions.
19.9: Saints average starting field position on their first eight drives - and that includes one drive that started at their own 26, but should have begun at the 11, had not Dwayne Harris gotten carried away and thrown Brandin Cooks to the ground well out of bounds. Going into the game, I suspect the Cowboys' defense wanted to keep everything in front of them, with the idea that they wanted to make the opposition have to execute ten or more plays to get a score. By forcing the Saints to start just shy of their own 20 throughout the first three quarters, Dallas gave New Orleans long fields, thus ensuring that they could play exactly that sort of defense.
8: Yards gained on each of the Saints' final three second-quarter drives, which were of 3, 2 and 1 play(s) and resulted in a punt, an interception and the end of the half. So, after the Cowboys extended their lead to 10-0, the Saints helped them out by doing nothing offensively to turn that score around. As a result, Dallas was able to extend the lead with no threat of retribution.
77: the distance of the Cowboys' TD drive right before the end of the half. You know, the one that made it 24-0. To piggyback on the previous entry: the Cowboys led 10-0, got an interception (the 2-play, eight yard drive) and, gifted with a short field and some generous refereeing (the zebras missed Zack Martin being too far downfield on Lance Dunbar's 24-yard screen pass), they scored to make it 17-0. With the momentum snowballing, the Cowboys generated a three-and-out - thanks to Brandin Cook's juggling a pass near the first down marker, so that he made the catch two yards short.
And that's when the first half's key drive took place. The Cowboys got the ball back with 2:34 on the clock and, rather than resting on their laurels after a dominant first half, stayed aggressive and went on a nine-play drive that extended the lead to a much-more-impressive 24 points. The drive's key play was its first: a 22-yard DeMarco Murray run that started out as an innocuous, safe up-the-gut run. Murray found some room, hit a knot of bodies, backed into an eight yard gain, then spun and suddenly found himself in the open field, rumbling for fourteen more. Just like that, Dallas had the ball at their own 45 at the two-minute warning.
Six pass attempts and four Romo completions (with both incompletions being passes to the now-single-covered Dez Bryant along the right sideline), as well as a Murray conversion on third-and-one later, the Cowboys not only had a 24-point lead, but had used up the rest of the first half clock. And here's the key: against a team like New Orleans, a 24-0 lead is night and day from a 17-0 lead. Simply put, it's an extra possession - and when protecting a lead against a QB like Brees, every possession matters.
6: Terrance Williams's catches, on seven targets.Two of those catches went for touchdowns - and not the easy kind, but contested scores. On the first, which made the game 7-0, Williams caught the ball and was immediately walloped by a Saints DB, but held on; on the second, he changed directions with the ball in flight, and made a gorgeous grab on a back-shoulder fade with a Saints defender draped all over him, taking both ball and DB into the corner of the end zone.
And here's the key. Rob Ryan clearly decided that he was going to take away the Cowboys primary weapons: Bryant and Murray. With Murray enjoying so much success, even with eight men in the box, Williams was guaranteed to receive single coverage. If the Cowboys offense is to be diversified, he has to make rival defensive coordinators pay for loading up against the other guys. In other words, he has to be this offense's Alvin Harper. And he has - but he's proven himself to be a tougher, more driven version of Michael Irvin's running mate.
8: The number of Cowboys who caught passes. It wasn't just Williams who made the Saints pay for loading up on the Cowboys' stars. Guys like Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley, Lance Dunbar and Gavin Escobar also got into the mix - and did so early on; by midway through the second quarter, when Romo hit Bryant for the first time all game on a 17-yarder, he had completed passes to all eight guys he would hit on the evening - and had thrown a key third down pass to Devin Street only to see it tipped away. In other words, Scott Linehan in essence told Rob Ryan, "Go ahead and take away my primary weapons; I have a locker room full of guys that can, and will, hurt you." And they did...
11.1: Romo's A/NYA (adjusted net yards per pass) on the evening. That's two games in a row with an A/NYA of 9.0 or higher for Romo - both of which number among the top 25 games of his carer in that regard. In the last couple of years, we have documented Number Nine's declining YPA from its historic proportions to mere league average and, in parts of the last year, below that. Since his first half stinkaroo against the 49ers, Romo has been on a steady ascent and, in the last two games, had been playing at 2007-09 levels.
Indeed, since that first half against San Francisco, Romo is 59-81 (a neat 73% completion percentage) for 655 yards, with 6 touchdowns and only one interception - which was admittedly a late throw but was also a terrific guess/ play by the Rams' Janoris Jenkins. Moreover, he has averaged over 8 yards per pass attempt and more than eleven yards per completion. How has he managed to return to his 2007-09 form? Simple: his running game is working as well (or better) than it did back then. It's a simple equation: Romo is seeing a lot of stacked boxes and open throwing lanes; in short, he's being asked to make many fewer difficult passes.
+1.3: The Yards Per Attempt (YPS) differential on Sunday night, in the Cowboys' favor (Romo's 9.0 minus Brees's 7.7). In the Cowboys four games this season, they have compiled YPA differentials of -1.1, -.8, +1.6 and +1.3. Clearly, there is steady upward trend here, one that correlates to Romo's own season arc. But it also correlates to a pass defense that has settled down in recent weeks. After allowing an 8.7 YPA to Colin Kaepernick, they allowed Jake Locker only 6.9 yards per attempt, followed by 7.8 for Austin Davis and 7.7 last night for Brees.
So, yes, Romo has been resurgent, but Rod Marinelli has helped settle down the pass defense, even though the Cowboys haven't exactly been world beaters when it comes to rushing the passer.
8: The number of times the Cowboys sent five or more rushers. What is interesting about this is when it happened: in the Saints first two drives, Rod Marinelli send five rushers three times and six on one occasion. Once the Cowboys had built a lead, he abandoned this principle (and, increasingly, began to send three rushers) until the Saints crept back into the game, whereupon he dialed up the pressure again, twice sending five rushers on the drive when New Orleans made it 31-17. On the following drive, he again opened with a five-man rush.
The moral of this story? Marinelli knows that his guys aren't likely to get home when he sends four. So, when the game is close(r), he is more apt to dial up some extra pressure. Of course, having a lead is one of the best elixirs for an anemic pass rush; the Cowboys rushed only four when Henry Melton got the team's lone sack of Brees.
124: The combined numbers of Melton and Rolando McClain, two key defenders who were declared active before the game - after most insiders felt that there was little chance that either would pay. That both did play - and played well - provided a huge - HUUUGE - boost to a Dallas defense that looked to be over-matched going into Sunday night's game.
13: Number of rushing attempts by the Saints - a far cry from 2013's rout, when New Orleans ran the ball 38 times (for 242 yards), with 15 of those coming in the fourth quarter (the Saints ran the ball on their final eleven plays). Football pundits have oft expressed the old adage that winning leads to running the ball. Nowhere has this been more true than in the last two Cowboys-Saints games: in 2013, the Cowboys, in catch-up mode from the middle of the second quarter, had 16 carries; on Sunday, nursing a lead, they tallied 35.
And here's the key: in both losing efforts, the trailing team was running the ball effectively; in 2013, Dallas averaged 5.6 per carry, and the Saints had 8.0 yards a carry last night. In both cases, the score (and the ticking clock) prevented the losing team from continuing to hand it off.
1: Completions to Jimmy Graham in the first half. After being the butter to rival tight ends metaphorical hot knife in the first three weeks, Cowboys Nation was terrified that Graham would shatter Megatron's receiving totals from last year's Debacle in Detroit. Instead, they effectively bracketed the Saints tight end as they built their lead. Of course, they were helped by a couple of drops.
137: Yards the Saints gained on their two third-quarter drives - a 68-yarder that ended in a field goal, and a 69-yarder that ended in a Jimmy Graham fumble. So, even though New Orleans seemingly played better after halftime, they finished the third quarter with very little to show for them. Given how the fourth quarter panned out, that was a tremendously important pair of drives: they delayed the comeback, such that Sean Payton had to start taking chances, such as calling a fake punt that, when it failed, essentially sealed the game. And then...
2:01: The total elapsed time in the Saints two fourth-quarter scoring drives. After playing keep-away and keeping things in front of them for the bulk of the game, the Cowboys' defense suddenly adopted a break-but-don't-bend philosophy, yielding scores after two and five-play drives. When Cowboys' fans' throats began to tighten in the fourth quarter yesternight, it was largely because of the time it took New Orleans to score. They cut a 28-point deficit in half in roughly five minutes of game time. What, we wondered, would prevent them from doing so again?
+3: The Cowboys' positive turnover margin. As has been oft articulated, no statistic correlates to winning as much as turnover margin. By collecting an interception and two fumbles, the Cowboys' defense, in effect, registered three defensive stops in a game in which such stops were going to be valuable currency. The first two - a Justin Durant interception that lead to the second-quarter touchdown that made the score 17-0 and a Rolando McClain-caused fumble that halted a drive to preserve 31-3 lead, were particularly huge.
3: Also the number of the Cowboys consecutive wins. The last time they did that was 2012. We're entering non-recently charted territory here, folks.
2: Home games in the 2014 season which the Cowboys were home underdogs. Going into the season, I held that the toughest part of the schedule would be the first six games, in which the Cowboys would face off against what looked to be the NFC's three best teams (and arguably three of the league's top four squads): San Francisco, New Orleans, and Seattle - in addition to tough squads in Tennessee, St. Louis and Houston. I opined (incorrectly, I am thrilled to admit) that the Cowboys could play really well and still come out of that gauntlet in the 2-4 or 1-5 range. Because of this, I thought, the Cowboys would have to go 3-3 in their opening six games to have a chance for the final month of the season to matter. Which brings me to...
2007: the last season in which the Cowboys had won the season's fourth game (beating the Rams 35-7). Since 2002, they had sported a less-than-scintillating 2-9 mark in week four. As I wrote last week, "The long history of .500 football in Dallas has too often begun with a .500 September." Now, sitting at 3-1, the Cowboys are poised to ensure that they will play meaningful games in December.