Sunday, December 18, 2011
'Boys Buc up: Dal 31, TB 15
Dallas built up a monster first half lead that -- despite the doubts of the Twitter community -- even the Cowboys (8-6) wouldn't blow. Tony Romo tossed three touchdowns and ran for another in a 31-15 win at Tampa Bay much needed victory for morale (if not for the playoff picture) after a pair of narrow losses centered around missed field goals and poor time management.
Before dismissing this win as "a game the Cowboys should have won handily" which it was, that doesn't make it easy to do. How else do you explain the Rams rising up to beat the Saints this year. Or anything Denver has done the last six weeks? The Cowboys knew they had an inferior opponent on the road, and they handled their business. The last time Dallas was in that situation, facing a weaker team on the road that they "should have" beaten, the Arizona loss happened. So while the 4-10 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going nowhere quickly just a year removed from going 10-6 and missing the playoffs (allowing the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers to sneak in), nothing is guaranteed.
Romo led all four Cowboys TD drives in the first half, and Dallas led 28-0 at intermission. But the gaudy and primarily-first-half numbers Romo was able to tally (23/30, 249 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT) was more the result of an offensive line that was able to keep Romo upright, even when he was running into them on his own. The Cowboys offensive line has had serious issues this season, but they were able to overcome against a hapless Buccaneers team. In fact, at one point, Romo used what has to be the funniest snap count I've ever heard, "Come on, Phil!" beckoning for center Phil Costa to snap the ball.
On his first TD pass to Miles Austin, Romo had 7.5 seconds to bounce around the pocket, more than twice as long as a quarterback should hold the ball. The Bucs on 3rd down and goal only rushed three, dropping eight into coverage. On his second TD pass, a completion to the facemask of Dez Bryant, Romo rolled away from pressure and got rid of the ball within four seconds. When Romo passed to Laurent Robinson for the third Cowboys TD, he had five seconds to work with before rolling right and getting out to the numbers before finding his TD target.
Without running back DeMarco Murray, the Cowboys leaned heavily on Felix Jones, matching a career-high 22 caries for 108 yards, the first time in his career Jones has strung together consecutive 100-yard games. In fact, the running back we've seen the last two weeks has not looked like the No. 28 of the last couple years. That guy wasn't here during the first 12 games of 2011 -- had he been and had he remained healthy, Murray never would have exploded onto the scene. Perhaps Jones' injury, making way for Murray, gave Jones an up-close look of running tougher. The "Fast Felix" we saw during his rookie year still exists, as we saw during last night's 38-yard run to help set up Romo's TD pass to Laurent Robinson.
Romo spread the ball pretty equally to his receiving targets, as six Cowboys finished with at least three catches and no one with more than five. All three wide receivers -- Austin, Bryant and Robinson -- hauled in scoring catches, while tight end Jason Witten led the Cowboys with 77 receiving yards.
Defensively, Rob Ryan said before the game that he would fix the problems his unit showed in previous weeks. The Dallas defense looked less like "Doomsday" for opponents than for the Cowboys, unable to prevent long scoring drives against Arizona in overtime and New York in the 4th quarter over the last two games. The first impression from last night's game had the Cowboys defense on its heals as Bucs QB Josh Freeman scrambled 25 yards on 3rd and 5 on the game's first series of downs, but Anthony Spencer (who couldn't wrap up a sandwich last week vs. New York) chased down Spencer as he began to scramble on the very next play, stripping him after seven yards. Bradie James recovered the fumble, and the Cowboys took over with a short field. Seven plays later: 7-0, Cowboys.
With how well the defense played, this game can be looked upon like the DeMarco Murray conundrum after he ran roughshod over the St. Louis Rams. Murray's breakout game came against an awful run defense, but if you're not going to succeed against the bottom-feeders of the league, there's no way you will against the cream of the crop. Until his injury last week, Murray had been a solid back, proving his effort against the Rams was no fluke. Hopefully for the Cowboys defense, this game will be a similar launching point as pivotal December games continue.
How good was the Cowboys defense? And just how bad is the Tampa Bay offense?
The Buccaneers first drive, they gained one first down on the long Freeman run one play before Spencer's forced fumbe. After that, they didn't pick up another first down until the clock was inside of 6:00 in the 3rd quarter. After forcing a turnover, Dallas forced four 3-and-outs in the first half.
The Cowboys offense gave up just as many scores as the defense. Romo was strip-sacked on the first drive of the second half, and the Bucs defense returned the ball walking distance into the end zone.
When the Bucs offense finally touched the ball in the second half, they used 6:15 off the clock to put together a strong 12-play touchdown drive with a successful two-point conversion to pull within two scores, 31-15, with one quarter still to play. Tampa Bay turned the ball over on downs on both of their 4th quarter drives, and the Cowboys short-handed running game managed to churn down the clock as if Marion Barber was still in that three-year window called his "prime." In the 4th quarter, Felix Jones carried three times for 21 yards, and the just-signed-off-his-couch Sammy Morris proved serviceable with seven carries for 17 yards (he finished with 12 caries for 53 yards).
It does seem baffling that Dallas would need to give Morris 12 carries considering he admitted to reporters that he'd all but retired until his phone rang after DeMarco Murray's season ended last week. Dallas could have brought back Philip Tanner, who has been with the Cowboys since training camp and runs very similar to Murray, but despite Tanner saying he felt he could have been back this week, Dallas put him on IR last week to save a roster spot for John Kitna who then went on IR himself with a back injury. It's not that Morris wasn't good enough on the 12 caries he had -- he was -- but it's easy to get away with a journeyman running back against the sluggish Tampa Bay defense. Make no mistake, the days of Monte Kiffin's defense are long gone. If Morris can be as productive against the Eagles and Giants to finish the season, Dallas can win the NFC East. But in the event he transforms back into a pumpkin in Week 16, Dallas could be in big trouble when Felix Jones needs a breather. And if Jones gets hurt, forget any farce of a running game.
This team will go as far as Tony Romo and the defense will take them.
Dallas now prepares for a rematch of the only one-sided loss they've suffered in the Jason Garrett era. The Cowboys lost to the Eagles by 27 points on October 30. The teams other five losses this season are by a combined 20 points. In fact, under Garrett, the Cowboys have gone 13-9. Adding in the three losses last season under Garrett (3-point losses to the Saints and Eagles, and a 1-point loss at Arizona), the Cowboys have lost eight games under Garrett by the same point total as the single loss to Philadelphia earlier this year. Point being, it was an aberration for this team. And come next week, the Cowboys can set themselves up with a rematch against New York for the division crown. They must beat the Eagles for that to happen. Dallas is no longer in the position where it can rely on other teams to help them back-door into the postseason. Win and get in, starting with the Eagles at Cowboys Stadium.