So the last five weeks have been an assembly line of easy-to-forget blowouts where the Cowboys either won or lost by double digits. Well that all changed in a wild, crazy, unimaginable Sunday night affair against the Raiders that saw a dozen head-shaking plays and ended in memorable fashion. It was a game that had a piece of paper play a pivotal role, three Raiders touchdowns called back, tipped passes play a big-time beneficial role for the Raiders, and finally a Derek Carr lunge that very nearly ended the Cowboys season.
When you’re fighting for your playoff lives style points don’t count; any win is a quality win. Depending how the rest of the season goes what happened Sunday might live with past zany games in Cowboys’ lore. Let’s go to the grades.
Part of me wants to give the Cowboys an A because, hey, you play to win the game and they won the game. Part of me wants to give the Cowboys a D because, well, they really didn’t play well. We’ll choose a happy middle-ground, count our blessings and focus on the positive.
On the one hand both the offense and defense got off to good starts. The Cowboys scored 10 points on their first two drives while holding the Raiders to seven total yards on their first two drives. After that, however, it was basically a slug-fest. The Dallas run game, which started effectively, was completely shut down. The passing attack reverted to the numbing dink-and-dunk unit that has shown up way too often during Ezekiel Elliott’s absence.
The defense, meanwhile, allowed five drives of 48 yards or more on the Raiders’ last seven possessions. The defense recorded 0 sacks, 0 turnovers and often looked vulnerable. Only the Raiders’ own sloppiness (14 penalties) saved the team from an otherwise embarrassing defeat.
We’re now six games into the Ezekiel Elliott suspension (which the Cowboys pretty much knew was gonna happen back in August) and it’s clear that neither Jason Garrett nor Scott Linehan have any ideas on how to activate this offense without Zeke. The offense requires positive gains on 1st and 2nd down to have any hope and any negative play (loss of yardage/penalty) derails the offense. They’re playing with zero margin of error. The team’s 2-of-10 third-down conversion rate illustrates the point.
On the other hand, Garrett showed a better-than-usual grasp of in-game events and adjusted accordingly. Consider:
- Attempted numerous trick plays (fake punt, flea-flicker, reverse).
- Went for it on 4th-and-1 at his own 40 with five minutes remaining in a tied game.
Garrett recognized the offense wasn’t going to accomplish anything after the first half without a new approach. Sometimes those approaches worked (fake punt), sometimes they didn’t. But his willingness to break from the plan (something he’s struggled with in the past) very well might have saved the team’s season.
Dak Prescott simply hasn’t played very well the last six weeks. Sunday he failed to pull the trigger on a wide-open Jason Witten for an easy touchdown pass. He also sailed a number of passes, including his first interception. But he also made plays. He ran for 32 yards, including a five-yard touchdown run (his 6th of the season).
He tossed a clutch 40-yard deep ball to Dez Bryant right after the late fourth-down conversion to set up the game-winning field goal. He was harassed much of the game (especially after Tyron Smith went down with yet another injury) and, as he’s done throughout, played tough and strong. Still, his recent performance has much room for improvement.
Running backs: B
On the Cowboys first seven runs from scrimmage Cowboys running backs gained 51 yards. On their next 16 runs Cowboys running backs gained 23 yards. A lot of folks on Twitter kept moaning about the Cowboys abandoning the running game after those first two drives but when you’re averaging less than 1.5 yards per carry you can’t keep handing the ball off.
Alfred Morris looked like a beast early in the game. After, however, he seemed to have no holes to run through and found Rod Smith getting as much playing time. Neither runner managed to run effectively at any point after the first quarter. The Smiths, Rod and Keith, did manage to contribute 33 yards on 4 catches.
The failure of the running game was most pronounced with the team’s inability to punch the ball in from the Raiders’ five-yard line late in the game with the score tied. Three runs netted only 4.5 yards and Dallas ended up kicking a field goal instead, giving the Raider’s the opportunity to win the game.
Offensive line: C
After looking like a dominant unit on the team’s first two possessions the offensive line struggled mightily. Running lanes disappeared. Dak Prescott found himself under constant pressure. Tyron Smith first got beat cleanly by Khalil Mack, got called for holding then had to exit due to a knee injury. Predictably, Byron Bell had issues as his replacement, recording a holding penalty and giving up a sack.
It’s hard to understand how the OL could go from looking so effective the first 15 minutes to having almost no success the rest of the game.
Wide receivers/tight end: B-
Again, as in recent weeks, the receivers weren’t given many opportunities. Terrance Williams had a few catches early but disappeared after that. It looked like he also dropped the flea flicker pass in traffic. Jason Witten caught four balls on five targets but his lack of speed was painfully evident on a key third-down catch where he should have made the first down but instead was stopped short. Dez Bryant had only four official targets and five total targets but made three key plays:
- Elicited an end-zone interference call that eventually led to a Cowboys touchdown
- Caught a clutch 19-yard pass that set up another Cowboys touchdown
- Made a classic Dez catch for a 40-yard gain to set up the Cowboys game-winning field goal.
But Dez also seemed to stop and not really make an effort on Prescott’s first interception. The ball was high and Dez was unlikely to make the catch but the effort sure seemed lacking.
Defensive line: C-
No sacks; that’s four times in the last five games the Dallas defense has failed to record a sack. After generating 25 sacks in the team’s first seven games the defense has sacked opposing quarterbacks only seven times in the last seven games. The once-prolific pass rush has returned to the anemic ways of the last five years.
No turnovers; that’s the third time in the last five games the defense has also failed to record a turnover. It’s also the third time in the last five games the defense has recorded neither a sack or a turnover; that never happened in the first nine weeks of the season.
While the Raiders were assessed two offensive holding penalties they also ran for 122 yards. Derek Carr, in particular, proving a menace with 47 ad-libbed yards. And of course we got our weekly “that’s not holding?” incident:
In short, a poor night for the defensive line. They simply could not get to Carr though they did manage harass him enough to limit the Raiders to 171 yards on 38 passing attempts (4.5 yards per attempt).
Sean Lee wasn’t the all-around heat-seeking missile like he was last week against the Giants; he ended up with 10 tackles and two tackles for loss. Anthony Hitchens recorded six tackles and Jaylon Smith one; there just weren’t enough impact plays from this group. At times the Dallas defense bottled the Raiders up well (four different drives that netted 19 total yards) but other times the Raiders moved effectively. The most disappointing series was the Raiders’ 90-yard touchdown drive which came right after halftime (seems like that happens just about every week).
This grade would have been an A or even an A+ after the first half. The Cowboys young secondary, especially cornerbacks Chidobie Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis, played aggressive press coverage and physically went after Raiders receivers. Awuzie’s second half series captured all the elements they brought to the game. First he attacks the receiver at the catch-point, jarring the ball loose:
On the next play he took Marshawn Lynch head-on and held his own (which not many cornerbacks are willing to even try and fewer still emerge unscathed):
Awuzie sends Lynch sideways pic.twitter.com/NMJVHG2ZR6— FearTheStar (@FearTheStarSite) December 18, 2017
Having single-handedly forced a 3rd-down Awuzie then finished the drive by forcing Michael Crabtree out short of the 1st-down marker:
Awuzie stops Crabtree short of sticks pic.twitter.com/jrCjd8SNb8— FearTheStar (@FearTheStarSite) December 18, 2017
It was a dominating series for Awuzie who has quickly established himself as the best Cowboys’ cornerback since Terrance Newman.
Unfortunately we also had the second half. Crabtree would get the best of both Lewis and Awuzie. He caught two short touchdowns against Awuzie then drew the longest penalty of the NFL season (55 yards) against Lewis on a desperation 4th-and-10.
That play came directly after Anthony Brown dropped a ball that many of us could have caught as Derek Carr hit him in the shoulder pads with an ill-advised pass.
That catch would have ended the game. Instead it gave the Raiders one last chance which almost proved fatal to the Cowboys’ season hopes.
It was reminiscent of Brown’s uncontested drop near the end of the first half against the Eagles that might have turned that game. It was a bad finish to what had been a very good game for Brown, as he broke up three passes.
And finally we have many people’s (including mine) favorite whipping boy Jeff Heath. His night started poorly when he failed to corral a Raiders’ fumble but he chipped in six tackles. Then, with the season in the balance he made two consecutive plays to keep #CowboysNation’s hopes alive. First he perfectly defended a potential touchdown pass:
For all the heat Jeff Heath gets from fans, here sure is there late in games when we need him. pic.twitter.com/O3pOGc8pfi— Cowboys Nation (@CowboysNation) December 18, 2017
Then on the next play, he showed off his speed and raced from his center field position to prevent a potential Derek Carr touchdown and force a game-clinching fumble in the process:
Heath still isn’t a very good safety in my opinion. He’s wreckless with his tackling, takes poor angles and frequently gets exposed in coverage. But he has a knack for making plays at the end of games:
- He insured the victory over the Kansas City Chiefs with a final drive interception.
- He snagged another interception over the New York Giants late in that game.
- Sunday he made two season-saving plays against the Raiders.
Special teams: B
This had the potential for a D grade except for two things:
- The Raiders special teams recorded six holding penalties on kick and punt returns (twice recording two on the same play). These negated one Cordarrelle Patterson touchdown and constantly put the Raiders’ in bad field position.
- The Puntisher Chris Jones had the other play of the game, racing 24 yards for a clutch first down from punt formation:
This play came at a critical time. The Cowboys’ once comfortable 10-point lead had evaporated. The Dallas offense had faltered three straight times, failing to record a first down on any of the three drives. The defense had just allowed a 90-yard touchdown drive. Everything looked bleak when Jones single-handedly changed momentum with one play. Jones has been fantastic throughout the year and proved a valuable all-around player yet again.
Otherwise the Cowboys’ coverage units struggled throughout the game which forced Dan Bailey to endure things like this:
Dallas was lucky the Raiders kept committing special teams penalties otherwise Patterson’s big returns would have been the story of the game.
Three games ago the season looked completely lost. And while the team’s playoff hopes still hang on a slender thread that thread holds for at least one more week. That’s all we can ask for as fans. It wasn’t pretty and this certainly doesn’t look like a team set to make a deep playoff run. But stranger things have happened and I’m just happy the season didn’t end in Oakland.
Next week’s game against the reeling Seattle Seahawks (aren’t you glad you’re not a ‘Hawks fan this morning?) will have us all tuned in with anticipation for the return of Ezekiel Elliott and hoping that slender strand holds strong: