Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thankful for offense: Dal 24, Oak 7

Don't dismiss it as a game against the Raiders. The Cowboys desperately needed the confidence and swagger that comes with a half-dozen big plays after consecutive weeks of offensive ineptitude.

The Cowboys (8-3) used the struggling Raiders to cure what ailed them, unleashing all offensive weapons in a 24-7 win on Thanksgiving that should silence critics as the Cowboys enjoy a mini-bye before a division showdown in New York in December. Dallas racked up 494 yards of offense, including 195 on the ground, as everyone from Felix Jones to Roy Williams made significant contributions.

During the short week since the narrow win over Washington, the Cowboys offense has been under the gun due to its lack of big plays on offense since the Eagles game. They were nearly shut out in Green Bay, but added a meaningless TD late in the game. But on this day, the Cowboys offense came out gangbusters, airing it out and pounding on the ground.

It wasn't all sunshine and rainbows, however. The Cowboys figured out half of the equation. They were able to make the big plays frequently, but too often they were unable to follow up on that momentum and translate some of those plays into big points. Here's a look at the big plays - plays of 20 yards or more - that the Cowboys made on Thursday against Oakland:

Cowboys Big Plays:

QuarterDown & Dist.Yard Line
2nd & 6
Dal 24
(Shotgun) T.Romo pass deep middle to M.Austin to OAK 27 for 49 yards

This big play was immediately followed by a false start (-5), 1 yard run by Barber, Romo sacked, illegal use of hands (-10), McBriar punts from Oak 41 on 4th & 24.

QuarterDown & Dist.Yard Line
1st & 10
Dal 23
T.Choice up the middle to OAK 11 for 66 yards
(from RAZORBACK, direct snap to Choice)

The Cowboys followed up this long run by giving the ball back to Choice where he promptly was stopped for no gain. Not really his fault - no NFL player is turning down the ball - but Jason Garrett has to give him a chance to catch his breath, right? On the run for no gain, Dallas was flagged for holding (-10). The drive stalled, and Nick Folk kicked a consolation field goal from 36 yards.

QuarterDown & Dist.Yard Line
2nd & 4
Dal 27
T.Romo pass short left to M.Austin pushed ob at OAK 46 for 27 yards

Dallas finally bucked the trend of struggling to finish after the big play. The very next play, Romo handed off to Felix Jones, and the Cowboys home run hitter finally knocked one out of the park for the first time this season.
1st & 10
Oak 46
Felix Jones up the middle for 46 yards, TOUCHDOWN

Jones galloped into the end zone for the first TD of the game, celebrating by leaping around like a Gramatica trying to hurt himself. The fourth big play of the day for Dallas finally results in serious ramifications for the Raiders. Dallas led 10-0.

QuarterDown & Dist.Yard Line
1st & 10
Dal 28
(Shotgun) T.Romo pass short right to M.Barber pushed ob at OAK 30 for 42 yards
Pass complete in the flat to Barber out of backfield.

After big plays by Tashard Choice and Felix Jones, the veteran of the trio of running backs got loose out of the backfield for a big gain down the sideline. However, Dallas followed Barber's big burst with a false start, an incompletion, a 9-yard pass, and a sack of Romo for -5. Dallas sent on Folk to attempt a 49-yard field goal which clanged off the upright, resulting in no points despite the big play.

QuarterDown & Dist.Yard Line
1st & 10
Dal 37
(Shotgun) T.Romo pass short left to M.Austin pushed ob at OAK 43 for 20 yards

The drive was all about the arm of Tony Romo and the churning legs of Miles Austin. Everyone wanted the Cowboys to have a stronger running game after the loss in Green Bay, and while the ground game has responded, there's no doubt that it's the passing game that truly fuels the offensive fire in Dallas. After a run by Barber for no gain, the Cowboys went to the air again:
2nd & 10
Oak 43
(Shotgun) T.Romo pass short middle to J.Witten to OAK 22 for 21 yards
(Pass complete on crossing pattern)

Dallas got into striking range with the first big play to a tight end of the 2009 season. For anyone keeping track, this was the Cowboys' 11th game of the year. Dallas kept things in the air as Romo looked for Austin on the next play. The speedy receiver was originally awarded a touchdown when it appeared he rolled over a defender and avoided being down, but replay overturned the 22-yard score into a 14-yard gain. Two plays later, Romo and Austin hooked up on a bubble screen for the drive-capping touchdown. Credit Doug Free with the block that gave Austin enough wiggle room to find the end zone.

QuarterDown & Dist.Yard Line
1st & 10
Dal 20
(Shotgun) T.Romo pass deep left to J.Witten to OAK 43 for 37 yards
(Pass complete on a seam route)

Dallas looked like they would be starting the third quarter with the same high offensive energy that they displayed in the second quarter, however it didn't materialize on this drive. Barber ran for 0, Romo was sacked for a loss of 5, and one incomplete pass later, the Cowboys were punting from Oakland territory.

QuarterDown & Dist.Yard Line
1st & 10
Dal 48
T.Romo pass short left to J.Witten to OAK 8 for 44 yards

The long pass to Jason Witten helped set up the gravy on the turkey in this Thanksgiving win. Choice scampered for 6 yards before Romo hooked up with Roy Williams for a 6-yard touchdown. Dallas led, 24-7.

QuarterDown & Dist.Yard Line
3rd & 1
Dal 20
M.Barber runs right tackle to OAK 48 for 32 yards

Barbers big run helped even out his average for the day but did little else. Dallas had a 17-point lead at this point, and didn't necessarily need to add more points, which was good because they didn't. This play was followed by Barber for 1, Barber for 1, a pass to Felix Jones for 5, and another punt from Oakland territory.

Of punter Mat McBriar's six punt attempts, three of them came from within Oakland territory, and a fourth had a line of scrimmage at the Dallas 49. Sadly, that doesn't illustrate a great ability to capitalize on some of the big plays the Cowboys made, but it was certainly enough to beat the hapless Raiders.

There must be more to show for the 494 yards of offense than a mere 24 points against Oakland, however after back to back 7-point outings, this game will provide solid footing for a Cowboys team looking to reestablish its identity as a big play offense.

The Cowboys now get 10 days off before their rematch with the New York Giants at the Meadowlands. New York ruined the debut of Cowboys Stadium en route to a 5-0 start while Dallas was a mere 3-2, limping into the bye with an overtime win over the Chiefs. It seems the Giants and Cowboys are two very different teams since so early in the 2009 campaign. New York endured a four-game losing streak, as Dallas leapfrogged the rest of the division. However, the Cowboys are facing a must win game at Giants Stadium if they have any desire to win the NFC East. If New York wins, they hold the tiebreaker with two wins over Dallas. If the Cowboys win, they'll retain their division lead with a very rugged schedule still ahead. Should be a great battle.

A few more thoughts on a Thanksgiving thumping:

+ Defense
The Cowboys defense did a good job of stifling the Raiders offense until Dallas was able to build a substantial lead. However, they still allowed the Raiders to open up holes and move the ball on them. At the end of the day, they allowed seven points, so it wasn't all bad, but on more than one occasion someone in silver and black was one tackle away from going the distance.

Anthony Spencer led the way with a pair of sacks on Bruce Gradkowski. Spencer out-shined Greg Ellis, the man he replaced in the starting line up, with 8 tackles (6 solo) in the game. He along with Demarcus Ware (1 sack) and the rest of the front seven put frequent pressure on Gradkowski, hitting the QB 10 times throughout the game.

Unfortunately, the defense was unable to force a meaningful turnover. Ware sacked Gradkowski on the final play of the first half, forcing the ball loose, and Jay Ratliff fell on it with no time on the clock. Not as big as the single turnover in last week's game - an interception by Spencer to halt the last real chance for Washington. A few defensive backs had opportunities to step in front of balls, but there were no glaring drops of interceptions.

Dallas is -4 on the season in the turnover differential, tied for 24th in the NFL with a mere 7 interceptions, and tied for 18th with 6 recovered fumbles. That's 13 takeaways in 11 games, not an impressive total by any stretch. The other division leaders in the NFC:
- New Orleans has 29 (20 INT, 9 fumbles recovered) ... +10
- Minnesota has 16 (7 INT, 9 fumbles recovered) ... +6
- Arizona has 16 (11 INT, 5 fumbles recovered) ... -5

Still plenty of work left to do on the defensive side of the ball. The Cowboys are middle of the pack in total yards allowed, but they are giving up only 16.5 points per game, which is third-best in the NFL, and tops in the conference.

Points Per Game Leaders (*including Thursday's games)
RK ... TEAM ... PTS/G
1. Indianapolis ... 15.7
2. New England ... 16.4
3. Dallas ... 16.5*
4. Cincinnati ... 16.7
5. Baltimore ... 17.1
6. Denver ... 17.2*
7. Washington ... 17.8
8. Pittsburgh ... 18.4
9. NY Jets ... 18.9
10. Minnesota ... 19.3

+ Miles Austin
It seemed during the middle of this season that Miles Austin was the only Cowboy capable of going off for a big play. While he got plenty of support from others on the offense, the young receiver still led the way with big plays. He finished with seven catches for 145 yards and a touchdown, giving him a total of 824 yards (currently 7th in the NFL) and 8 touchdowns in 2009. He is currently tied with Reggie Wayne for the most 20+ yard plays with 15. He still may not be the official #1 receiver for the Cowboys, but get ready for some well deserved Pro Bowl talk.

Austin has the third-most yards of any NFC receiver, and the second-highest yards per catch average in the conference. His 8 TDs is tied for second with Vernon Davis behind Larry Fitzgerald's 9 in the NFC. It's not just numbers, but it's how his play changes the game for Dallas. There might not be many others from the Cowboys offense joining him in the Pro Bowl, but Austin is well on his way to locking up an invite.

+ Roy Williams
Speaking of receivers, Roy Williams made an appearance in Thursday's contest, catching two balls for 15 yards and a touchdown. It wasn't much, but it's better than the bagel he put up last week. This week he didn't have any glaring drops, which could be considered an improvement. Perhaps the biggest contribution of Williams against the Raiders was that he drew the attention of Nnamdi Asomugha for most of the game. He was only targeted four times. It's a rough paradox of success for Roy: should Romo throw to him if he's covered by such a good cornerback, or is he expected to be able to beat that coverage regardless? Either way, Asomugha covering Williams left Austin able to roam free.

+ Nick Folk
Bad news for Nick Folk. I realize that his only miss on the day was from 49 yards, but that dropped his season field goal percentage to 73.7 (14 of 19), which has Dallas as the 25th most accurate field goal team in the NFL this season. In 2008, Folk's work was good enough (20 of 22, 90.9%) for fourth-best percentage in the NFL. The list of teams with uglier field goal percentages on the season so far: Carolina (73.3), Cincinnati (70.6), Jacksonville (64.7), Houston (64.7), Atlanta (62.5), Tampa Bay (50.0).

Folk is 6-for-6 from inside 30 yards, and still 3-for-4 from 30-39 yards out, however he has struggled from longer range this season. He is 4-of-8 from 40-49 yards in 2009, a 50% rate of success down from his 10-of-11 mark on 40-yarders in 2008. He's not missing by much, but as the Cowboys begin the tough test of a December schedule that has them facing three division opponents and two more division leaders, they'll need as many three-pointers as they can get.

+ Punting at the video board
Raiders punter Shane Lechler is averaging a whopping 51.5 average yards per punt, with a 44.5 net yards per punt in 2009. He punted nine times in Thursday's game, and if he didn't hit the board during the game, it's safe to say that no one is going to. He did cause folks in our section to hold their breath a few times as punts continue to rise toward the board, but Jerry's TV remains unscathed.

+ 3rd Downs
It's odd that the Cowboys were able to control this game so well, and were able to make big play after big play during the game, yet they remained relatively hopeless on 3rd down conversions. Dallas extended drives just a third of the time, converting 4-of-12 third downs. And yet, it wasn't even the worst 3rd down success rate the Cowboys had in a win this season.

Here's how the Cowboys did on 3rd downs in other games this year:
(losses in italics)
at Tampa Bay ... 3-of-10 ... 30.0%
vs. New York Giants ... 6-of-11 ... 54.5%
vs. Carolina ... 5-of-13 ... 38.5%
at Denver ... 3-of-14 ... 21.4%
at Kansas City ... 5-of-12 ... 41.7%
vs. Atlanta ... 6-of-13 ... 46.2%
vs. Seattle ... 7-of-13 ... 53.8%
at Philadelphia ... 7-of-15 ... 46.7%
at Green Bay ... 3-of-12 ... 25.0%
vs. Washington ... 3-of-11 ... 27.3%
vs. Oakland ... 4-of-12 ... 33.3%

+ Running Backs
It's pretty cool when a trio of running backs has everyone gain at least 60 yards on the ground, not to mention the 41 additional yards that Barber had in the passing game. Here's the rushing stats:
Dallas Rushing
F. Jones7689.7146
T. Choice36722.3066
M. Barber14614.4032
T. Romo1-1-1.000

+ New York Giants
The New York Giants were unable to ride the wave of success after snapping their four-game losing streak in overtime last week. Denver dismantled the Giants at Invesco Field in the Thursday night game, 26-6, to drop the Giants to 6-5, two full games behind the Cowboys in the NFC East. While the Giants did win the only head-to-head battle so far, they too have a rough road the rest of the way if they are going to battle for the division or even a wild card berth.

+ Schedule the rest of the way
Here's the schedules for the NFC East contenders (Dallas, Philly, New York) as well as the only other legitimate Wild Card contenders (Green Bay, Atlanta) as it stands right now. New Orleans, Minnesota and Arizona all have large enough division leads that if they were to miss the playoffs, it would be due to some catastrophic collapse.
Remaining schedules of NFC contenders:

DallasGreen BayPhiladelphiaNew YorkAtlanta
W vs. Oak
W @ Det
L @ Den
@ NO
@ TB

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