Thursday, November 24, 2011
Thankful for a kicker: Dal 20, Mia 19
It didn't have the ease of the wins over Buffalo or St. Louis. It wasn't as meaningful as another season-sweep of the Redskins. But tonight's Thanksgiving Day victory over the Miami Dolphins is the best possible springboard for a franchise that desperately needs to avoid another disappointing December.
The Dallas Cowboys rode the right leg of Dan Bailey 28 yards for the game-winning field goal as time expired in a 20-19 win at Cowboys Stadium on Thursday afternoon. With Bailey's 26th straight made field goal, dating back to the chip-shot he missed early in the OT win at San Francisco, Dallas improved to 7-4 and claimed a half-game lead in the NFC East over the New York Giants.
The Cowboys were able to get touchdowns while too often the Dolphins settled for three-pointers. In all, Miami kicked four field goals, and none of them was longer than 28 yards. In fact, the four Shayne Graham kicks of 26, 28, 27, and 23 yards were all the result of a Dallas defense that bent but failed to break once Miami entered the red zone. Miami faced 4th down on the Dallas nine, 11, 10, and six yard line, and each time they trotted out a kicker.
Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan's unit surrendered 352 yards on the afternoon, including 263 through the air by former Cowboys practice squad QB Matt Moore, but the Cowboys defensive success on third down made this victory possible. The Dolphins converted 3-of-12 third downs.
While the Dallas offense wasn't much better (2-of-9), Tony Romo managed to avoid a sure sack and loft the ball to Jason Witten on a crossing route on 3rd and 3 from the Miami 23 yard line. Witten picked up enough for the first down before being tackled into a cheerleader, and one play later Romo found Laurent Robinson in the corner of the end zone for a 17-16 lead. The Cowboys capitalized -- the Dolphins didn't.
Miami failed to take advantage of two ugly first quarter interceptions. On the Cowboys opening drive, Romo aired the ball out deep for Martellus Bennett, but Vontae Davis made a great adjustment to step in front of a ball thrown too low. If Romo lofts the ball higher, Bennett has an opportunity to run under it and make a catch. Instead, he's waiting to intersect with a ball thrown on a rope, and Vontae Davis beats him to the punch. Reggie Bush ran for seven yards on first down, but a pair of Matt Moore incompletions later led to the Dolphins first of four punts. Two Cowboys drives later, Dallas had the ball on its own three yard line. After a pair of DeMarco Murray runs gained a first down, Romo targeted Laurent Robinson, but Sean Smith undercut the route for the second interception of the first quarter, setting up Miami with 1st and 10 on the Cowboys 26. The Dolphins could only gain one first down before settling for a field goal.
Meanwhile the Cowboys secondary struggled much of the day. Dallas committed 11 penalties for 69 yards, and every member of the secondary had at least one flag thrown on them. Alan Ball was flagged for pass interference, providing 20 complimentary yards for the Dolphins en route to a field goal. Abe Elam's illegal contact penalty on third down gave Miami a fresh set of downs instead of forcing a punt from their own territory. Later in the drive, Frank Walker's late hit set up 1st and Goal for Miami on the three yard line. (Speaking of late hits, how the Cowboys didn't get a few extra yards when Witten was dragged into that cheerleader is beyond me.) Regardless, Rob Ryan's defense turned the Fish back, and they settled for a three-pointer yet again.
And while it wasn't an accepted penalty, Terence Newman was draped all over Brandon Marshall who still managed to haul in a 35-yard touchdown grab for Miami's only TD of the day. If Newman is going to commit PI, at least make sure the receiver doesn't catch the ball!
It's easy to be "thankful for a win" today, but I'm really more thankful of the different adjustments that seemed obvious yet took far too long to come about. Fortunately, Dallas made the changes necessary to put this team in position to continue it's now four-game winning streak.
Felix Jones returned kickoffs. Brilliant. As a rookie in 2008, Felix Jones was an explosive back with the potential to electrify the Cowboys with a long kick return. He ran one back for a touchdown that year, and he showcased his quickness at several other points in the season. Some have said that he has lost a step since coming into the league, but the only thing he has clearly lost is his starting job to DeMarco Murray. As a result, Jones can be a bigger asset to the Cowboys by rotating into the backfield when Murray needs a breather and presenting a legitimate threat as the team's kick returner.
I'll put it this way, Cowboys fans, would you rather have Felix Jones deep to receive or Aquasi Owusu-Ansah? Felix may not have the speed of three or four years ago. But even if he does, that won't be proven until he breaks a big run from scrimmage or accelerates for a large return. The potential is there. Whether it happens or not is still to be seen. With "AOA" the potential for a big return doesn't exist. As long as DeMarco Murray is the feature running back, Felix Jones should be returning kicks.
Staying with the return game, the Cowboys forced a Dolphins three-and-out after giving them the ball back with 4:47 left in regulation. Owusu-Ansah began to run onto the field but was recalled quicker than lead-based toys. Dez Bryant had trouble finding his helmet, but he buckled his chin strap and made it onto the field just in time to receive the Miami punt on his own 16 yard line. Dez cut right and sped forward to 20 yards up to the 36, putting Dallas only 64 yards for a touchdown and only 41 yards away from comfortable field goal range (40 and in). Bryant had not been back to return a punt yet in the game, despite the ample punt-receiving opportunities (the teams combined for nine punts on the afternoon).
I understand with Miles Austin still injured the Cowboys are being more careful with Dez Bryant. They are less willing to use him in on special teams regularly, but this was an opportunity where the Cowboys put their best players in position to make plays. You hear it all the time -- let your playmakers make plays. Again, I'm not trying to just kick Aquasi Owusu-Ansah between the legs with each new paragraph, but he's just not as good as Bryant. That's not breaking news. The Cowboys read the situation and reacted appropriately. That hasn't exactly been a regular occurrence in Dallas.
Offensively, the Cowboys seemed relatively stagnate throughout most of the game. Murray carried 22 times for just 87 yards, far from one of his breakout games, but he was effective enough to force Miami to respect the ground game. Romo went 22/34 for 226 (a 6.6 yards-per-attempt average) with a pair of touchdowns to Robinson and the two first-quarter picks. It was far from his best game this season, but he got the job done when it mattered -- the final drive.
When Dallas got the ball back with 2:59 left in the game, the team trailed by two points with a chance to drive for the win. Dallas ran 10 plays and moved 54 yards before Dan Bailey kicked his game-winner with 0:03 seconds left. Romo went 2-for-3 for 29 yards on the game-winning drive, and Murray ran five times for 27 yards. The team's key players stepped up when it counted. Prior to this year, we hadn't seen that from the Cowboys.
Bailey has now kicked the Cowboys to victory in the last two minutes of the 4th quarter or in overtime four times in the team's seven wins (San Francisco, Washington, Washington and Miami). The other three were decisive victories over St. Louis, Seattle and Buffalo. Bailey may be only a rookie, but his streak of 26 consecutive field goals must inspire confidence. Even though Nick Folk was ostensibly the kicker of the future in Dallas after a strong rookie campaign in 2007, he didn't have as many big kicks as Bailey has been counted on for in 2011.
Dallas is a better team than Miami. I would have liked to believe they were more than one point better, but a win is a win in the NFL. When teams like St. Louis can defeat New Orleans or the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos knock off the New York Jets, I'll settle for a Cowboys win any way they can get it.
Happy Thanksgiving. Go eat.