Ed. Note - Animated GIFs coming up, be patient if the load is slow.
Dez Bryant and Orlando Scandrick are unquestionably two of the most important players on the Dallas Cowboys roster. Bryant is clearly the best Cowboys receiver while Scandrick is arguably the team’s best defensive back when fully healthy. However, with both missing in action Sunday, it was the rest of their respective units who stepped up and made key plays to help the Cowboys claw back from a 14-0 hole.
First, let’s start with the receivers. Aside from Brice Butler’s boneheaded penalty that killed a fourth-quarter drive and his drop of a would be game-sealing touchdown on a fade route with about four minutes left, there isn’t much more that you could have asked from this unit. The running game and the offensive line were clearly the engine that made the offense go on Sunday, although Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, and Butler did combine for 12 catches, 151 yards (12.6 YPC), two touchdowns and several clutch third-down conversions. Against a better opponent with a more threatening offense the Cowboys will need more from their receivers, and that’s where Dez Bryant comes in, but on a day where the opponent was less than top notch the receivers made enough plays to get the victory.
Without Bryant the 49ers secondary was primarily focused on Beasley, who had only 19 yards before his 47 yard game-sealing catch and run with under two minutes to play. You can see it on Butler’s touchdown where Beasley runs an out, with Butler running a corner towards the same sideline. Dak Prescott rolls out and it’s clearly a two-read play where you hope either Beasley will break open in front of the end zone or Butler will break open towards the back of the end zone.
You can see how the safety who is initially lined up behind the linebacker in the middle of the field immediately breaks towards the direction that Prescott is rolling out, although he flattens his break as he focuses on Beasley, opening up a throwing window to the back of the end zone to Butler. The problem here is that Beasley was actually covered quite well and there wasn’t much of a window for Prescott to fit the ball in to him, if the safety had taken more of an angle towards Butler instead of running parallel to the line of scrimmage towards Beasley the throw to Butler would have been much more difficult. The high-low design of the play makes it difficult to cover, but this shows how keyed in on Beasley the 49ers secondary was, and how it helped to open things up for others in the passing game.
When you’re missing your number one receiver everybody has to do the little things in order to win, and that was certainly the case Sunday, whether it was downfield blocking on the Beasley 47-yard game-sealing catch and run, or here on a perfectly executed pick play run by Terrance Williams, opening up an easy throw from Prescott to Jason Witten.
At the top of the screen you can see Williams take an inside release where he does a great job of using his body to shield the defender, he makes subtle contact without being blatantly obvious about the pick that he was running. This is the exact same play the Cowboys ran against the Bears that got Jason Witten so much praise from Cris Collinsworth, only this time it was Witten who was running the route designed to get the reception, as opposed to running the pick against the Bears. This is an area where the Cowboys seem to have improved immensely over last year. Who can forget all the offensive pass interference penalties as the team attempted to mimic the pick plays that have taken over the league in many respects? That isn’t happening this year and it seems the receivers and tight ends have finally learned how to run effective, subtle picks without barreling into defenders and drawing the attention of the referees.
With that said, I would like to note that despite the fact that Terrance Williams made several huge plays on Sunday, he is still completely unable to catch passes with his hands. Take this critical third down conversion late in the first half that set up the Butler touchdown:
This is a very simple catch where Prescott is no more than 10 yards away from Williams with nobody around him. Despite that he still sticks his arms out parallel to the ground and traps the ball against his body. It’s understandable to sometimes body catch the ball on deep passes down the field where a receiver is running full speed or when surrounded by defenders and they want to brace for impact and protect the ball, but Williams is almost standing still looking directly at Prescott with nobody around him here, yet he still traps the body against his chest, barely using his hands. Williams deserves credit for a great game Sunday but we all know this habit will come back to bite him and the team moving forward.
Now on to the secondary, where after giving up over 100 yards passing to Blaine Gabbert in the first quarter, they limited him to less than 100 over the next three quarters. Morris Claiborne was the star of the game with an interception and sticky coverage, but he also did a great job tackling as well. This play comes on first and 10 on the last 49ers drive of the game. The Niners had just gotten into Cowboys territory and had some momentum until Claiborne made a fantastic play, dragging Gabbert down for a loss. Only three plays later the Cowboys defense would be off the field, thanks in part to another aggressive Claiborne tackle.
It wasn’t just Claiborne though as rookie Anthony Brown and even J.J. Wilcox made important contributions. Brown in particular has been impressive over the last two games filling in for Scandrick as the slot corner, he has not given up many plays and he has even gotten his hands on a few balls, nearly intercepting Gabbert in the first quarter. To be fair, the Bears and 49ers don’t have particularly threatening passing games, but Eddie Royal and Jeremy Kerley are respectable slot receivers and Brown has been up to the task. It looks like the Cowboys really hit on this sixth-round pick out of Purdue.
For the second week in a row J.J. Wilcox made an impressive play to get the defense off the field. Against the Bears he made a great hit to force a fumble that was recovered by the Cowboys, while this week he did this on third and short early in the fourth quarter:
Focus at the top of the screen. I must admit that I was worried when I saw Anthony Brown looking ready to blitz out of the slot with Wilcox dropping down behind him, indicating that he would have Jeremy Kerley in man coverage. This is exactly what happened and Wilcox did a great job of flipping his hips, running stride for stride with Kerley down the field, and breaking up the pass to force a 49ers punt. Wilcox has quietly done a nice job this year as he usually comes in to play the deep safety when Byron Jones matches up against a tight end in man coverage, although we’ll see if that continues as the level of competition rises.
And here is the final defensive play of the game, fourth down with the game on the line:
The Cowboys drop eight in coverage (with Wilcox as the deep safety) and do a great job of giving Gabbert nowhere to go. While the defensive line has failed to get pressure most of the season, you have to give Tyrone Crawford, Jack Crawford and Terrell McClain huge credit here for getting pressure with only three. Jack Crawford in particular showed great hustle in fighting against All-Pro left tackle Joe Staley to get initial pressure that flushed Gabbert out in the opposite direction. This is nothing but pure hustle and heart from Crawford as he is never going to beat Staley with speed and is generally over matched talent-wise. Tyrone Crawford does a nice job of getting some penetration on the other side and then Morris Claiborne finishes the play, and the game off, pushing Torrey Smith out of bounds well short of the first down.