Sunday, September 19, 2010

Can't Bear it: Chi 27, Dal 20

Another week of mistakes mixed with some bad bounces (well, bad tipped passes) that led to an 0-2 start for the Dallas Cowboys. Chicago nabbed their third takeaway of the game in the fourth quarter when Charles Tillman stripped Roy Williams on a play where his forward progress appeared to be stopped, halting what Cowboys fans thought might be a game-changing drive. The Bears came to Cowboys Stadium and left with a 27-20 win, dropping Dallas harder than the Big D defensive line dropped Jay Cutler in the first quarter.

The Bears led 20-17 in the fourth quarter when David Buehler, a second-year player but in his first season as a place-kicker, hooked a 44-yard field goal attempt (we've seen this before in Dallas) that could have tied the game with seven minutes to spare. Instead, Chicago took over at their own 34 and Cutler passed them into the endzone for what would end up being the winning points for Chicago.

My initial thought - especially after in the Cowboys last-ditch drive saw the refs wind the clock on a Martellus Bennett catch where he got out of bounds but his forward progress was in bounds - was that Williams had his forward progress stopped on the fumble, but it's not a challengeable play, and the ball was clearly out before Williams was down. Forward progress or not, Williams has to hold onto the ball, and it's the second straight week a Cowboys player has been stood up as the defense flocked to him to force a fumble. Last week it was Tashard Choice on the ill-advised play to end the first half.

Dallas was the first team to ever reach the Super Bowl after an 0-2 start, reaching the big game in 1993 after Emmitt Smith held out during the first two weeks of the season. That Dallas team was able to overcome the preseason hype of being a Super Bowl team to make it to the Super Bowl. That Dallas team also had (at least) three future Hall of Famers on the offensive side of the ball. The 2010 version should not be confused with that 1993 incarnation until they prove otherwise.

Yes, two of Dallas' turnovers were tipped balls, some of those flukey bounces that happen in the game of football. Sometimes the ball will bounce the other way and into a Cowboys arms for an ill-deserved first down. Other times, like on this Sunday, it falls into the unsuspecting hands of a defensive back, which is how DJ Moore finished the game with two interceptions for the Bears.

For the second straight week, the Cowboys did not take away the football, losing the turnover battle (-3) and the game. And despite what seemed like relentless pressure from the defensive line against Cutler in the first quarter, the Cowboys had only one sack in the game and failed to keep that pressure on him into the second half. Defensively the Cowboys had some flashes of strong plays, but overall they couldn't make the game-changing plays the team desperately needed a close game. Special teams had the big punt-return TD but another season with a shaky kicker is not something a team with Super Bowl aspirations can sit on.

Last season, the Cowboys were 2-2 through the first four weeks, not righting the ship until Miles Austin's breakout game in an overtime victory in Kansas City, a game that started a string of six Cowboys wins in seven games taking them through Thanksgiving. The Cowboys are facing a tougher schedule this season, and are going to need a similar defibrillator-game like the Kansas City game to jump-start this season.

Breaking it down, here's a few notes from the second loss of the season (something that Dallas didn't suffer until Week 15 three years ago):

+ Let's try to get a little glass-half-full to start things off. Two rookies came up with a couple of big plays for the Cowboys, notably the two Dallas TDs. Dez Bryant put the Cowboys on the board in the first quarter with a 62-yard punt return TD, his first career TD, that shaw him burst up the left side and put a nice shake move on the punter to get past him for the final 20 yards. Last season, Patrick Crayton took back a pair of punts for touchdowns while serving as a reliable No. 3 receiver. Through the first two games, it's safe to say Bryant has what it takes to fill that void (not to mention the ability to unseat Roy Williams as the No. 2 receiver if he keeps it up). The first-round pick finished with a pair of catches for 52 yards as well.

Chris Gronkowski, a rookie tight end, introduced himself to Cowboys fans with three catches for 31 yards and a second quarter touchdown that gave the Cowboys a 14-10 lead. Depending on Jason Witten's status after being knocked out of this week's game, Gronkowski might see added responsibilities in upcoming weeks.

+ Speaking of Witten being knocked from the game, as much as it would have been great to see him come back to the game, if the Cowboys are going to recover from an 0-2 start, they will need a healthy and lucid Jason Witten to do so, not a Jason Witten doing a Troy-Aikman-four-concussions-later impersonation. That one doc on the Dallas sideline certainly seemed to take an earful from Witten, but they kept him from returning to the field, which is - big picture - the right move.

+ The offensive line looked dramatically better this week. Perhaps that's because Marc Colombo and Kyle Kosier were back in the fold after missing last week's game. If Alex Barron is on the bench, most Cowboys fans will most likely be happy with that. Colombo did get flagged for a false start in the game, but he's not costing you a game by holding on the last play so I can live with those 5 yards coming back.

+ When the Cowboys needed a well-timed three pointer, Buehler could not connect on a 44-yard field goal attempt to tie the game. He is now 2-for-4 on the season. It's a small sample size, but both misses have been late in games and changed how the Cowboys would have to approach the fourth quarter. Instead of a tied game with the Bears scoring a TD to go up by seven, their touchdown put them up by 10, making it a two-possession game and putting much more pressure on an offense that was able to move the ball but not move it into the endzone when it needed to. And if Cowboys fans aren't already sick of what appears to be the second straight season of "kickergate," Nick Folk made a 49-yarder for the Jets already today. Yes, that Nick Folk. Buehler is an asset for kickoffs as he proved last season when he led the NFL in touchbacks, but when Dallas has already lost a pair of 1-possession games this season, I'd take the reliable place kicker over a long leg on kickoffs every day of the week, and twice on Sundays.

+ Sticking with kicking. Buehler's pop-up kickoff attempt after the first Cowboys TD seemed like a nice gamble in theory, but if you're going to try a surprise onside kick, why not go for a true onside where the kicker drills the ball into the ground for a high bounce instead of a popup that can be fair-caught? Gotta believe that's on the coaches. I don't disagree with the gamble, but there's a reason that late-game onside kicks aren't of the pop-up variety.

+ Dallas looked like they'd be able to run the ball in this game, especially after three straight Marion Barber runs in the first half where the offensive line opened holes large enough that Nate Newton could fit through them. Barber gained 22 yards on those three consecutive first-half runs, which is almost three-quarters of the Cowboys total rushing yards (30) on the day.

+ The Cowboys defense had pressured the Bears early but the turning point seemed to be the first Chicago TD when Cutler found Greg Olson over the middle for a 39-yard touchdown against the Dallas blitz up the middle. After that point, the Cowboys seemed to sit back a bit on defense, giving Cutler the time to go to work.

+ By the way, did anyone get a very awkward feeling watching Joe Buck introduce the broadcast by saying "...and that's Troy Aikman. Old number 8. The old quarterback. Eight-rock. Eight-ball. Just stop me anytime you want." Maybe the teleprompter died, or maybe he just had a stroke. I haven't felt more uncomfortable because of a broadcaster since Bryant Gumble was calling games on the NFL Network.

Cowboys travel to Houston next week in the battle for the Lone Star State. Watching Houston beat Indianapolis in Week 1 and to see them battling the Redskins, and just now blocking a field goal, here in Week 2, this certainly won't be an easy match up for the Cowboys. The Texans are susceptible to deep passes, which means Jason Garrett should have a chance to stretch the field with deep routes to Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. It's tough to have a "must win" game in Week 3, but when you are 0-2 and realize that none of last season's 12 playoff teams began the year 0-2, the Cowboys need to take a win out of Reliant Stadium next week.

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