It was a lot tougher than many thought it would be, although given the injury list for the Dallas Cowboys, that should not have been a real surprise. It wound up going down to the wire. And it looked very bad early on, as the San Francisco 49ers jumped out to a 14-0 lead as the Cowboys offense sputtered and the defense could not get off the field. But the team roared back behind a group of rookies and backups to get out of Santa Clara with an exciting 24-17 win.
A bit surprisingly, the defense wound up taking the game into their own hands late. First, Morris Claiborne got an interception that turned into a field goal to give the team a touchdown lead late. Then they stopped the 49ers on fourth down, with Claiborne again standing up by tackling the receiver short of the sticks. They still had trouble getting pressure on the quarterback, but managed to notch one sack and flushed Blaine Gabbert just often enough. It took a while for them to get things together, but down the stretch, they managed to persevere. And then, with under two minutes and San Francisco and everyone else in the world expecting the Cowboys to put it in Ezekiel Elliott’s hands to run as much clock off as they can, Scott Linehan called a very safe pass play to Cole Beasley (who was largely bottled up for most of the game) and he got loose for 41 yards to basically seal the game as the Cowboys finally were able to just run the clock out and finish with the most beautiful play in pro football, the Landry shift.
How much of a challenge were the Cowboys facing because of injuries going into this game? Consider this. The “money five” positions in the NFL are generally considered to be QB1, WR1, LT, CB1, and top edge rusher. In Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, Orlando Scandrick, and suspended DeMarcus Lawrence, Dallas was missing ALL of those positions (although it can certainly be argued that Claiborne has become the CB1 this season, especially after his interception in the fourth quarter). And Dan Bailey was reported to have a problem with tightness in his back, which may have led to the missed field goal to open the game. No matter how bad a team the 49ers are this year, that is a huge amount of talent to not have available (there was one tweet, I believe from Mark Lane, that the inactive list for the day representd $49 million in idle cap space for the day).
But Dallas had Dak Prescott. Ezekiel Elliott. Terrance Williams. Brice Butler. Chaz Green (who seems to have perfected the art of getting a jump on the snap without getting flagged). J.J. Wilcox. Anthony Brown. Players who would normally be mostly depth on the bench came in and, after spotting San Francisco that 14 point lead, outscored them 24 to 3 to take a touchdown lead late in the fourth quarter and make it stand up.
Going into his fourth game as a pro, Dak Prescott had never faced a deficit of greater than one score, and the Cowboys had scored on the opening possession of all of their first three games. But when their drive at the start of the game stalled, partly because of a Keith Smith false start on third and two, Dallas came up empty when Dan Bailey, reported to be having problems with tightness in his back, missed a 47 yard field goal. The defense then looked somewhat befuddled and the 49ers converted seven third downs to jump out to a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter. Blaine Gabbert looked extremely sharp passing the ball with little pressure on him, and the read-option frequently created problems.
But the defense would finally stop San Francisco, largely due to a badly needed Tyrone Crawford sack. Then Prescott would lead two clutch drives, the first aided by a personal foul on a possibly questionable late hit on him, and would throw two scores to Terrance Williams and Brice Butler. It was another example of the poise and maturity the rookie continues to display. Instead of being in a hole at halftime, the game was all knotted up at 14 to 14. And the last drive, starting with 1:50 on the clock, was an example that Jason Garrett and his staff can mange the clock effectively, as they used up all but twelve seconds as well as all of their timeouts. The only bad moment was when Williams again failed to get out of bounds to save time, but this time it did not wind up costing his team.
One clear thing that the 49ers tried to do was to take Cole Beasley out of the game, double teaming him on most plays. But Prescott adjusted, and things seemed to turn around for him when he connected on three consecutive plays with Jason Witten.
Most importantly, after not being able to get off the field the first two San Francisco possessions, the defense began to figure things out. The did get gouged on two consecutive plays to open the second half, a 32 yard run by Carlos Hyde and a 29 yard catch and run by Garrett Celek, but they stiffened and held the ‘niners to a field goal. They then got a three and out the next series. That set up a drive where the Cowboys put it all together. Ezekiel Elliott had runs of 23 and 17 yards, plus the one yard plunge for the touchdown. Brice Butler started to look an awful lot like a WR1 out there, showing great hands to pull in a key reception to keep the drive alive. Witten had another catch. It was just a very efficient drive to take the lead at 21-17, and at that point, the arrows were pointing the right way for Dallas.
And they stayed that way. Prescott’s record string of passes without an interception is intact. Elliott got 138 yards rushing and that touchdown, plus another 19 on one reception (a screen play we need to see more of). And the Dallas Cowboys are 3-1 with their first three game winning streak in well over a year.
It’s pretty good for a team missing so much talent on the field. This is not last year’s Cowboys, of that you can be sure.