Friday, November 29, 2013
Luckily, for all involved from the Dallas perspective, these NFL games are 60 minutes long. And therefore any catastrophes that occur on the first play or even the first half can be sustained, recovered from, and erased.
Dallas, a team that was challenged from the opening snap by an Oakland side that doesn't see the national stage very often, weathered the early storm, made their adjustments, and in last 32 minutes of the game outscored and outplayed their opponent to the tune of 24-3 and ground out their 7th win of the year.
It certainly tested the patience of the home crowd and helped perpetuate the mythical power of blue jerseys, but to deposit their 2nd win in 5 days and to appear to get through the stretch with most body parts in useable conditions is just what the doctor ordered to preserve hopes and dreams of a divisional title, a home playoff game, and even a 10-win season.
Adjustments, though, certainly needed to be made on both sides of the ball. As we expected, the Cowboys would respond to the New York Giants running the ball at will for a huge chunk of yardage by sneaking an extra safety up to stop the run. And, for the most part, the Cowboys answered their Sunday failings by plugging all holes in the run game and really taking away the biggest strength of a Raiders team and the biggest weakness of Dallas, simultaneously.
So, stopping the run by bringing up a safety works better against Oakland than it does against New York is what the conventional wisdom would tell us about Eli Manning versus Matt McGloin. After all, one has 2 Super Bowl victories to his credit and the other is Matt McGloin. And, the effects on Sunday are unknown, because no matter how many yards the Giants were running for, the Cowboys were going to stubbornly keep the safeties deep because the scoreboard agreed with them.
In this case, though, the respect for the QB was not going to come without proof, and to McGloin's credit, once the Cowboys brought up Barry Church and Jeff Heath to challenge the run early, the young Penn State QB was able to mount some impressive drives through the air. The Cowboys showed all sorts of blitz looks with aggressive play to try to carry the game to the Raiders inexperienced QB, and for almost a half of football, he stood in tall and held his own. Using receivers who were locked in tight man to man for quite a while, the Raiders were able to win enough battles to frustrate the veteran Cowboys secondary with guys who did not have very long resumes.
The best example is Raiders WR Andre Holmes, who Cowboys' fans recognize as one of the flashy names from Cowboys' camps past. In 2011 and 2012, Dallas wanted Andre Holmes to establish himself on their roster badly. I remember talking to scouts at those camps who saw his capabilities with his rare combination of size and speed. But, where did he fit? Could he play enough special teams to earn a spot, or was he going to be a guy who could only play on the offense. And if that is the case, how would he fit with the personnel they had on hand (ultimately, they decided that Cole Beasley filled a vacancy much better because Beasley could play in the slot while Holmes was a lesser need as an outside guy who would not play as long as Dez Bryant was available)? He always showed flashes, but Oakland is starting to realize his abilities by lining him up outside after the Cowboys cut him loose.
Holmes caught 7 balls on 11 targets for 136 yards and thoroughly frustrated the Cowboys corners - most notably Brandon Carr for the entire 1st half before the Cowboys started seizing the game on both sides of the ball and tightening up coverage all the more. Holmes got loose because of a botched coverage in the 4th Quarter for 35 yards, but that would prove to be the only play of significance in the entire 2nd half against the Cowboys defense who was certainly the beneficiary of the offense driving the ball and keeping the defense rested and ready on the sideline after too many Sundays of playing way too long. After that big gain to Holmes who was wide open across the field, Carr secured a massive interception in the end zone as the Raiders curiously tried a fade to the speedy, but diminutive Jacoby Ford rather than Holmes who looks likely to win any jump ball competition. Drive extinguished, and from a defensive standpoint, game over.
It appeared that the Cowboys found a better balance with coverages and safety depth in the 2nd half to challenge the run properly while giving enough attention to throws over the top, and adjustments were also the order of the day for when the offense had the ball.
And that is where our conversation about the Cowboys offense begins. Because their day was similar in the pattern that they took a while to figure some things out, and needed to show either some flexibility with the initial game plan or simply some persistence. That is because the Raiders planned on doing what others have done against Tony Romo and the offense - and that is to test with the blitz on a regular basis. The one subtle difference, however, that the Raiders presented that took time for acclimation, was that the Raiders seemed more than willing to send blitzes from literally every direction. Linebackers would blitz, and so would safeties, and even corners. We will study the film over the weekend, but I am reasonably sure that the Raiders brought more cornerback blitzes than any Cowboys opponent in 2013.
Blitzing liberally against the Cowboys is perhaps the biggest achilles heel over the recent past, and while it is a tightrope that can suffer a painful death, if you are an underdog who is already out of the playoff mix, why wouldn't you take a home run swing at the Cowboys on Thanksgiving and see what happens? The Raiders blitzed on 6 of Romo's first 8 passes, and effectively chased the Cowboys out of their play-action game after a sack and 3 frustrating drives to start the game. Not only that, but the Cowboys run game was running right into these blitzes, and after 5 carries they found just 5 yards total, and at halftime, it was 7 carries for 12 yards. 12 personnel was getting pounded and the balance of the running game was simply stopping down more drives and getting the team and yes, the fans, annoyed.
We have seen this happen so many times, that I was pretty sure the next move, which in the past has been to rip up the game-plan and throw it in the trash, run the 2-minute offense for the rest of the game and pray that Romo can beat the blitz enough times to get out of the game alive. And yes, the 2-minute drill before halftime was vital with a seam pass to Jason Witten for 22 yards and a slant to Dez Bryant for 25 more to convert a key 3rd Down before DeMarco Murray waltzed in to make the halftime score a manageable 21-14, Oakland.
But, to the Cowboys credit, the adjustment was less noticeable to the average viewer, but large enough to the strategy of the game, where the Cowboys took the "12 personnel package" and put it on the sideline. They decided to go almost exclusively "11 personnel" for the next several drives and ran their balance by pushing the Raiders into nickel personnel and then running "11" from under center and giving the ball to Lance Dunbar and DeMarco Murray against a lighter defense. It may not seem like much, but when the Raiders have only 6 bigs on the field, there is more space to run, and the zone stretch plays really started humming, thanks to some dominating zone blocking from the interior of the Cowboys line, with Travis Frederick looking the most impressive, but his guards, Ron Leary and MacKenzy Bernadeau both looked strong moving forward. The combo blocks at the point of attack pushed the guards to the 2nd level to pick off linebackers and before you know it, Dunbar and Murray were running all over the place in the 3rd and 4th Quarters.
This adjustment found the ever-elusive balance that everyone dreams of. On the drive that ended with the game tied at 21-21 on Dez Bryant's back shoulder fade Touchdown over Mike Jenkins, the Cowboys had a 10 play drive with 4 runs/6 passes and positive yardage on every snap.
The next drive, which ended on yet another DeMarco Murray Touchdown run of 7 yards, it was a 9 play drive with 6 runs and 3 passes, both drives all with 11 personnel, and almost no personnel changes other than Dunbar and Murray spelling each other.
This may not be the recipe every week, because the play-action game of Sunday is something that was seldom used on Thursday, but using 11 personnel moving forward from shotgun and more notably, under center is an interesting option now, especially with Miles Austin back in the arsenal. Basically, the weapons they have at wide receiver are far more potent at this juncture than Gavin Escobar or James Hanna have proven to be. 12 personnel brings out another "big" defender, which at the moment seems to accomplish little tactically, and clogs up the running game with less space to find a crease in the defense.
Regardless, the offense looked as confident and as in control as they have looked in a really long time on Thursday. They converted 3rd Downs and nicely looked for Oakland to pick their poison and then attacked the weak spot. It wasn't immediate on Thanksgiving, but the systematic dismantling of their opponent over the course of 4 Quarters speaks to things starting to fall into place as they head down the stretch.
Not all opponents are going to have a roster that is as unremarkable as the Raiders, but with games remaining against teams that may have packed it in by the time of the December meeting (Green Bay and Washington), the Cowboys are now properly positioned to go grab that NFC East divisional title with a 3-1 or even a 2-2 December record.
There is plenty of work to do, but to win 5 of their last 7 (that Detroit loss really smarts) they have built some pretty valuable momentum and will likely add Sean Lee back to the defense in time to go to Chicago in 10 days time.
At this time of year, you want to be in the playoff hunt and have a reasonable level of health on your side. It appears that as of this particular moment in the ever-changing NFL universe, the Cowboys can place a check-mark next to both of those boxes.
Cross your fingers that this continues from the start of the holiday season until the end of it.