It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective.
The Dallas Cowboys used a suffocating defensive effort to survive a seemingly endless number of mistakes and gaffes to defeat the New Orleans Saints 13-10. The offense did just enough, there were a few beneficial calls from the referees and the defense flat out pulverized an offense that was putting up video game numbers. Some had questioned the Cowboys defense based on caliber of competition (ahem) but no such questions exist after the unit propelled the team to their fourth consecutive victory and a 7-5 overall record.
There was much not to like about what the Cowboys did Thursday. Which makes the fact they emerged victorious in a game most of us assumed would require mistake-free football for a Cowboys’ victory that much more impressive. But the defense was simply that good. Playing against an offense putting up the most points per game in NFL history, the numbers tell a story of absolute domination:
- 176 total yards allowed
- 3.6 yards per play
- 111 net passing yards
- 71.6 passer rating
- 3-of-12 on 3rd and 4th downs
- Longest drive allowed: 47 yards
- Two sacks and one monumentally huge turnover
- Monster goal-line stand
All this against a future Hall of Famer (Drew Brees) in the midst of an MVP-caliber season. Folks on Twitter were having a hard time recalling such an outstanding performance from a Cowboys’ defense:
I'm sitting here trying to think of the last time the Cowboys defense played this impressively against a legit, record-setting caliber offense.— rabblerousr (@rabblerousr) November 30, 2018
Not sure I can think of one.
Little help, all?
The offense was a tale of two halves. They were efficient and capable in the first half (207 yards, 13 points) then ugly in the second (93 yards, zero points). Still, the overall effort was enough to give the team their fourth consecutive one-score victory.
A month ago this team was left for dead by many (ahem) and Jason Garrett’s name was at the top of the “who’ll be fired first” lists. Now people are praising him for turning around a season that seemed all but lost.
This team reflects the culture Garrett has nurtured throughout his tenure: focused on the task ahead, works hard, doesn’t get too up or too down, fairly predictable and vanilla.
There have been reports Garrett delivered a fiery Wednesday night speech that excited the players, many who reported they’d never seen their coach so passionate. More of that please.
I’ll also note that Garrett went against form late in the game. Following the Jourdan Lewis interception, the Cowboys took over at the New Orleans 16 with 2:08 remaining and the Saints with a single time out. I’m pretty sure that Jason Garrett of the past would have run the ball three times and kicked the field goal. Which would have taken the clock down to about 1:15 or so and given Drew Brees the opportunity to manufacture a last-minute, game-winning touchdown drive.
Instead, after a first down run Garrett called for a pass into the end zone. The play drew a legitimate pass interference call which effectively ended the game. This came despite Dak Prescott having a poor second half where he took numerous sacks and twice fumbled the ball away. Garrett rolled the dice despite no guarantee a negative play wouldn’t happen again.
Many have been critical of Garrett’s mind-numbing conservative approach (ahem) in such situations, so let’s give him credit when he gambles a bit.
After stringing together four fairly impressive performances (in one way or another), Prescott had a night where the statistics make him look better than he was. His final numbers are good: 24 of 28 for 248 yards, a touchdown and zero interceptions (115 passer rating).
He also, however, was sacked seven times. Admittedly, he again faced strong pressure throughout much of the night but continues to hold onto the ball too long and has poor pocket awareness. Worse, he twice fumbled, including a terrible fumble to end the Cowboys only successful second-half drive and setting the Saints up for a potentially game-winning drive.
And of course there was the obligatory miss of a wide open receiver for what should have been an easy, game-clinching, fourth-quarter touchdown. That came one play after having electrified the stadium with this play for a clutch third-down conversion:
Though the numbers look good in the aftermath, the reality is the Cowboys had to overcome some of Prescott’s mistakes to earn this victory.
Running back: A
You could just cut and paste the Elliott grade each week. Despite having virtually no room to run at any point in the game, Elliott was the team’s best offensive weapon. His final numbers were modest, only 76 rushing yards on 23 attempts for an ugly 3.3 YPA.
He did, however, add six catches for 60 yards, including the team’s lone touchdown of the night:
Elliott now has 28 catches for 242 yards and two touchdowns his last five games (an average of 5.3 catches and 49 yards). The coaching staff seems to have (finally) figured out how to effectively utilize Zeke in the passing game.
Offensive line: C
Frankly, it was a long night for the unit. The Saints have a physical, active front and they gave the Cowboys’ line fits throughout the game. There were virtually no holes for Elliott to run through. Prescott was under duress throughout the game, rarely being able to set his feet and go through his progressions. Seven sacks and multiple holding calls illustrate the problem.
This isn’t that surprising considering Cameron Fleming, Xaviar Su’a-Filo and Joe Looney are all backups and all played the entire game. XSF, in particular, struggled throughout the night, getting cleanly beat several times.
La’el Collins also had a disappointing game, surrendering the sack (while simultaneously guilty of a hold) that led to Prescott’s fumble.
Wide receivers: A
Honestly, this group did as much as they could with what they were given. We have two big catches from Michael Gallup on the team’s first drive. First, this big-time catch to convert a 3rd-and-8:
Then a deep ball that put the Cowboys in scoring position:
Gallup would finish with 76 yards on seven targets. The rookie sure has the look of a potent #2 receiver in the future.
Amari Cooper would catch all eight balls thrown his way for 75 yards. Cole Beasley caught two balls on three targets, including a clutch third down conversion:
Beasley was clearly short of the first down but because Sean Payton had burned his challenges on questionable first-half plays he was unable to challenge the call (more on the refs later).
In sum, the Cowboys receivers combined for 16 catches on 19 targets for 169 yards and, of course, the clutch pass interference call that clinched the game. The only thing missing was a touchdown.
Tight ends: B
Starter Geoff Swaim was again missing meaning the ceiling for this group is to make a few catches, not get dominated in their blocking assignments and avoid the penalty sheet. I guess we can call Thursday a success. The receiving numbers were again modest (two catches, 19 yards on three targets). And film breakdown would be needed, but I’m going to guess that some of the struggles in the running game and pass protection were due to this group.
Defensive line (excluding Randy Gregory): A+
Demarcus Lawrence caught a lot of flak for speaking his mind:
DeMarcus Lawrence keeps it real on the Saints. pic.twitter.com/ay8mrEZN0f— Calvin Watkins (@calvinwatkins) November 27, 2018
Well, he and the rest of the Cowboys’ defense backed up the big man’s words. I wrote before the game what was needed to slow the Saints’ offense:
For Dallas to have any real hope of slowing the Saints they’ll have to win the line of scrimmage. This means slowing a running game that has averaged 155 yards rushing over the Saints last six games.
And it means making Brees uncomfortable in the pocket. It’s unlikely the Cowboys will record many sacks against Brees (he’s only gone down 11 times this season); he simply reads defenses, moves in the pocket too well and gets rid of the ball faster than rushers can reach him. But teams can force him into uncomfortable throws and getting rid of the ball before he wants to.
Combine these two things and Dallas will have a chance.
And that’s exactly what they did. The Cowboys’ recorded only two sacks (and had a third negated by one of Randy Gregory’s screw-ups). But they completely shut down the Saint’s potent running game. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram combined for only 63 yards on 18 attempts (3.5 YPA). More importantly, Kamara had a long run of only seven yards as the Cowboys limited the Saints’ explosive plays to one on the night (the controversial 30-yard touchdown pass).
Everyone up front deserves kudos. Brees is a master at stepping up in the pocket. But the combination of stunts and the impressive play of Antaun Woods, Maliek Collins and Daniel Ross inside took this ability away. This augmented outside pressure from Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford and Randy Gregory. Brees simply didn’t look like himself and seemed uncomfortable throughout the night.
Lawrence, of course, had his moments. His strip-sack of Brees didn’t count, but he combined with Crawford on this huge fourth down play:
The Jaylon Smith/Leighton Vander Esch bandwagon grows stronger and stronger, game after game. Both players were all over the field Sunday night. Prior to Lawrence’s fourth down stop Jaylon Smith roamed wide to finish off Alvin Kamara on third down to thwart a potential touchdown score. There were big-time plays from both Smith and LVE, including this one, which (seemingly) ended a Saints drive:
One reason LVE will be all timer. pic.twitter.com/wMc0U14RJn— Justin Wells (@justinwells2424) November 30, 2018
LVE has been an absolute beast since becoming a starter and it probably does seem to opponents like he’s replicated himself:
This collage of plays best captures what these two brought to the defense’s overall outstanding game Thursday:
Leighton Vander Esch at the 30-second mark is the definition of blisspic.twitter.com/QSz0kCLb28— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) November 30, 2018
If there’s any group in the NFL that deserves sympathy, it’s secondaries facing Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. You can play very, very well and still end up getting torched. Well, not this group, not Thursday night.
Each and every defender played lights out. There are some (ahem) who have fretted over opposing receivers running freely through the secondary, especially late in games. There was none of that against the Saints. Byron Jones, Jourdan Lewis, Chidobie Awuzie, Jeff Heath, Xavier Woods and Anthony Brown all had great nights if only because none are featured in big Saints plays. Yeah, the Saints got the one touchdown but it came on a blatant offensive pass interference on a play where Brown had terrific coverage and was in position to make a play:
Anthony Brown foi empurrado no TD do Saints. Os juízes estão cegos pro Cowboys. pic.twitter.com/hbenwxNteh— Cowboys BR © (7-5) (@CowboysBRA) November 30, 2018
Outside of that play, the Saints got virtually nothing downfield as the Cowboys secondary played sticky coverage throughout the night:
This is excellent coverage by Byron Jones, but this is some throw by Drew Brees. Sheesh. pic.twitter.com/AmeRX1y2aA— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) November 30, 2018
And, of course, Brown got revenge by claiming this fourth-quarter sack (his second in as many games) and paying homage to the great DeMarcus Ware:
This group also played a key role in stopping the Saints running game by supplying stern run support:
Jeff Heath’s job here is to “set the edge”, and funnel any run back to the middle. It’s the little things like that, which help make LVE’s job a little easier. pic.twitter.com/BkwoZoptKK— Cowboys Nation (@CowboysNation) November 30, 2018
But it was Jourdan Lewis’ interception late in the fourth quarter that put the game away, capping a night when Lewis was sharp throughout:
Randy Gregory: F
That’s all the good. Unfortunately, it would be remiss of me not to address the Randy Gregory Experience we all endured Thursday. I like Gregory, I really do. Anyone who’s been able to overcome the various challenges he’s faced just to be on an NFL field deserves a nod of respect. But the undeniable truth is he simply hasn’t produced much as an NFL player.
Thursday he committed three debilitating penalties. Two of the penalties were monumentally dumb plays which turned the game at crucial points. Had the Cowboys lost this game, Gregory would be topic number one on every Cowboys’ fans agenda. The ugly list:
- A relatively benign face-mask penalty on a second-quarter, 2nd-and-3 play where Brees completed the pass for a first down anyway.
- A horrific roughing the kicker penalty on fourth and three, giving the Saints a new set of downs. Three plays later Brees threw 30 yards to Kirkwood for the Saints only touchdown on the night. Gregory’s brain-dead play completely changed the tenor of the game.
- An off-sides call that negated what would have been the Cowboys’ biggest defensive play of the game: a strip-sack of Brees that gave the Cowboys the ball at the Saints 35-yard line. Instead, the penalty gave the Saints a 3rd-and-1 from the Dallas 46, down three with just over 11 minutes remaining. Luckily, Dallas eventually got another stop and forced another punt.
This game seemed to sum up the four-year Randy Gregory Experience: a good guy, with enormous potential and frightening physical skills....who has almost nothing to show for it on the field. Gregory hasn’t been the dynamic addition to the Cowboys’ front that many of us hoped for. Instead, he’s known more for his dumb, extremely costly penalties (remember his unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Seahawks that also negated a Cowboys’ stop in that game).
Honestly, after the roughing the kicker penalty I was surprised to see him on the field. So when he then reversed the Lawrence strip sack......I couldn’t believe what was happening. You have to wonder how much longer the Cowboys will bank on “potential” and ignore the actual results on the field.
- Bogus Cole Beasley first down call
- Lack of an offensive pass interference call on the Saints’ lone touchdown.
To that let’s add:
Another obvious helmet-to-helmet hit not called. Same thing happened last week in WSH/DAL.— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) November 30, 2018
So bad. pic.twitter.com/IDf5F2j4BW
There’s simply no way around this. This is a textbook case of a defender hitting the offensive player in the head. This should have been a 15-yard penalty and an automatic first down. It’s the second consecutive week the Cowboys have benefited from officials not making calls on key plays where a Cowboys defender hit opponents in the head.
The Randy Gregory offsides call was... questionable:
Now, the reality is Gregory technically is offsides. Notice his helmet is (barely) beyond the tip of the ball. Notice he’s significantly farther ahead than his fellow defensive lineman. In his defense, players line up like this all the time without being called for offsides.
- Missed facemask call on Dak Prescott
You’d think Prescott having his head twisted in an unnatural way then having his helmet nearly torn off his head would lead a penalty-happy crew (and league) to call a facemask penalty. But not this crew.
In addition to these five blatant blown calls there were the usual half dozen or so calls that fans of either side could quibble about. It was an abysmal performance by the NFL’s oldest crew.
On the one hand, Cowboys fans have every right to strut this fine Victory Friday. This was the team’s best, most impressive win of the season and probably the best win in two full years. They’re now two games over .500 after being two games under just a little while ago.
On the other hand, Dallas has won four consecutive one-score games which is hard to sustain. Assuming Philadelphia wins Monday night against the Redskins, next week’s tilt against the Eagles will still be for first place in the NFC East. Nothing is guaranteed.
But let’s relish an unexpected, improbably victory and a dominating performance from a defense that can truly call itself elite.