Monday, September 28, 2009

The Arrival of Big 'D': Dal 21, Car 7

After eight days of questions, doubts, and disappointment, the Cowboys finally gave their new home an overdue W with a 21-7 win over the hapless Carolina Panthers in the second prime time game in as many weeks of the new Cowboys Stadium. Lots of criticism was focused on Tony Romo's three interception, 120-something yard performance against the New York Giants to open the new venue, but it was the Cowboys defense that had yet to register a sack or takeaway in the first two weeks of the season. Monday night, the 'Boys nabbed three of each, including a decisive pick-6 by Terence Newman, who had been picked on all night long.

It took a while to create the turnovers, and they weren't necessarily tremendous defensive plays so much as offensive miscues, but the Cowboys were still able to take advantage of the opportunities when they arose on the defensive side of the ball. After allowing 27.0 points per game the first two weeks of the season, the allas Cowboys finally found some big 'D'.

The Dallas stoppers had plenty they could have done better -- everyone could have -- but the defense won the game and brought the Cowboys back to a respectable 2-1 on the young season. Throughout the night, the first man continually failed to wrap up on tackle after tackle, but a swarming linebacking corps and defensive backs running to the rescue of their teammates helped fill in the gaps. It's a problem that the Cowboys will have to address at some point if they are going to contend for a playoff spot, but for now they can celebrate success while still having plenty to improve upon.

Cornerbacks Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins will get to see themselves on the highlights for the two interceptions. Jenkins out-leaped an unsuspecting Mushin Muhammed for a deep punt-pass from Jake Delhomme, and Terence Newman snuck inside of a miscommunication play between Delhomme and Steve Smith for an interception he took to the house in the fourth quarter. But what about the miscues that both Newman and Jenkins struggled with all night long?

In Carolina's first drive, Mike Jenkins tried to lower a shoulder into the hip of Muhammed to make a tackle. Instead, Jenkins bounced off and Muhammed gained more yards before being brought down. Smith dragged Newman eight extra yards on one play in the same drive, and he's the size of an oompa loompa in pads! Muhammed also escaped another would-be Jenkins tackle in the second quarter for a first down. There was also the called back 79-yard touchdown from Delhomme to Muhammed where the Panthers WR was flagged for offensive pass interference. Slightly ticky tacky, and frankly Jenkins should have been able to put himself in a better position on the play. Yes, it was negated, but it was still a blunder by the corner.

If the Cowboys can correct a few of these mistakes and continue to put this kind of pressure on opposing offenses, then they have a good shot at recording wins in Denver and Kansas City in the upcoming weeks.

Offensively, the Cowboys played things closer to the vest despite a few trick plays called here and there. Nothing too fancy, but Jason Garrett did get a little cute. Factor in the absence of Marion Barber and that second-string running back Felix Jones got banged up during the game, and the win is all the more impressive. The injuries left Dallas with it's third choice, Tashard Choice. But much like he proved in his coming out party last season in Pittsburgh, the second-year man proved he could get the job done.

Tony Romo's performance was that of an offensive lineman -- he played well enough that we didn't have to mention him doing something bad. Romo played mistake-free football. He did make a few eyebrow raising throws, like a ball he threw away to the sideline that Chris Gamble got his mitts on, or the across the field heave that was about as graceful as his four yard run on the play when the ball was snapped over his head in 2007 against St. Louis. He completed 22 of 33 passes for 255 yards. No touchdowns, yes, but he didn't have any interceptions. Taking two sacks wasn't beautiful, but he was pretty much ambushed on those plays without ample time to make much happen. It's good enough to win. And it wasn't bad enough to lose. It's not what you want to be saying about the starting quarterback, but it's a solid game after his performance last week against New York. It's a bounce-back game. Plain and simple.

A few other thoughts on the first ever indoor NFL game in the DFW metroplex:

+ Tashard Choice has 118 yards on 22 touches (82 rushing yards on 18 carries, 36 receiving yards on four catches) with a touchdown mixed in. That was all well and good. We know he's got talent, but he also helped protect Romo in the passing game. On 3rd & 10 in the first quarter, his block gave Romo enough time to complete a 17 yard pass to Roy Williams to get the Cowboys into the red zone. Only problem: the Cowboys couldn't convert any points on the drive.

+ Does Wade Phillips no longer have confidence in Nick Folk? Folk went wide right on his first attempt of the game, a 40-yarder. He did come back to kick a 19-yard chip shot (more on having to settle for this field goal later) as well as a 24-yarder, but several times it looked like the Cowboys could have realistically sent him out for a 50-and-change yard attempt but each time sent out Mat McBriar to punt it away. Sure, sure, a miss would mean good field position for the Panthers, but let the man show off the leg. We don't really see too many missed kicks from this guy.

+ Patrick Crayton is no longer playing like someone who doesn't want to get hurt. He looked aware on his 14-yard run on the end around, and on each of his three catches, he resisted the temptation to duck out of bounds and instead went back toward the hash marks in a quest for additional yards. It's the little things like that which toughen up a team. Crayton's role on this team might be the most under-valued this season. Everyone is looking for Roy Williams to replace Terrell Owens, and the three running backs will all combine to pick up for each other, but if Crayton can make himself a weapon to be accounted for, Williams and Jason Witten will see their numbers balloon as a result. Who knows, he might even be able to play to the level of his mouth this season. That little shimmy to get away from would-be tacklers en route to a first down in the second quarter was nice.

+ Crayton also looked good in the punt return game. Four returns for 58 yards (14.5 per return). Considering the ineptitude of the punt return game last season (something about an arcade game), it's nice to see the Cowboys with an edge in the field position battle.

+ Sticking with receivers, Roy Williams has to catch that lob to the corner of the end zone. He's got the height advantage, and he needs to make the play. Terrell Owens had his drops too, and we were frequently reminded of it, but that ball hit him in the hands. This isn't a pick up game with your buddies in the back yard where to pretend you can make those types of plays but laugh it off once you butterfinger the ball away. Make the play.

+ Offensive coordinator calling for the jump ball / fade to the corner of the end zone on two straight plays from the one yard line. Everyone of the 90,000+ in attendance knew it was coming, but the Cowboys failed to execute each time. First the drop by Williams, and then a ball that Martellus Bennett wasn't close to. Bennett tried to work the DB inside before releasing to the corner, but didn't get there quick enough. Romo took three steps and threw it, and the ball landed helplessly in the corner to bring up 4th & goal from the 1. Send on the field goal squad and cue the lonely violin music.

+ It's too bad Wade Phillips doesn't have any real authority over the offense. When Garrett's 2nd & Goal and 3rd & Goal from the one-yard line failed to bear any fruit, Phillips was shown on the sideline next to Garrett with a look of confusion. Maybe he was upset with the execution of the plays, but he's got to be wanting more from his offensive coordinator. This is not the same guy who was at the head of the line for the Ravens head coaching job two offseasons ago.

+ Two interceptions?! Three takeaway?! Wow. Nice to see the defense get into that ball-hawking mentality. By the way, when was the last time the Cowboys had three interceptions? Would you believe two years and six days ago when the Cowboys picked off Rex Grossman three times in a win in Chicago over a team that was thought at the time to be a big NFC contender. Just something to think about. Lord knows the Cowboys have thrown three interceptions plenty of times since.

+ Kudos to the rookie Victor Butler who notched a pair of sacks and forced a fumble that halted the Panthers in the fourth quarter. Not only did the Cowboys come up with takeaways, but they came up with them at key parts of the game. Forcing two turnovers in the fourth quarter go a long way toward winning ball games.

+ Another comeback win for the Cowboys under Tony Romo. Dallas was behind 7-0 at the half, but 21 second half points gave the Cowboys their second win of the season. It's good to be able to come from behind, but in the future (especially with the likes of Denver and Kansas City coming up next), let's not get behind in the first place.

The Cowboys won the first ever indoor NFL game in North Texas. Under a closed roof for the first time ever at home, the Cowboys righted the wrongs of a week ago, getting the team's first win at Cowboys Stadium. Now it's off to the AFC West against a pair of teams that are each off to surprising starts. Did anyone expect the Broncos to be 3-0? Sure, they had that tipped pass jackassery in Week 1, and Matt Cassell pre-season injury has lead to plenty of inconsistency early for the 0-3 Chiefs.

The Cowboys have four very winnable games ahead with a bye week mixed in as well. If the Cowboys can get to 6-1 on the season, they'll be in prime position for a playoff berth. With Denver, Kansas City, Atlanta and Seattle ahead, the Cowboys can't get caught up in their own self-inflated hype. They have to continue to find ways to get better. The defense looked good tonight thanks to Carolina giveaways, and the sluggish offense provided enough points to win. Now is the time to break from a going-through-the-motions routine and hit your stride. Plenty of trap games lie ahead for Dallas. Don't get caught looking ahead.


Robert said...

Very impressive. Cowboys scored an extra six points after the final whistle.

Josh said...


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