Monday, September 22, 2014

The Morning After: Cowboys 34, Rams 31 (2-1)



How many times did that game turn?

How many ways did the Rams give the game away?  5?

How dead did you think the Cowboys were when they were down 21-0?

The NFL is amazing in its competitive theater that it can take a snoozer matchup between a home team starting a QB most of the league has never heard of and a road team that is expected to disappoint, and produce 3 unforgettable hours and an instant classic.

Rate the 16 games when the schedule comes out for intrigue and a noon start at St Louis in September might be the last one you would choose.  But, now, the rest of the schedule will have its work cut out for it if it is to give us a game on par with that.

And, most importantly, the Cowboys left with a victory that would certainly put them in a position to have their legions of doubters delay any 2014 Cowboys funeral for several more weeks.  They have won back to back road games - a rarity in recent times to say the least - and now return home for a massive stretch of home cooking where they play 5 of their next 6 games at home and aside from that one trip to Seattle do not play an actual road game again (we can't count a neutral game in London versus Jacksonville) until November 23rd at Giants Stadium - or 62 days from today.

62 days from now, what will this team look like?  Will it be 7-3 and in a position to battle for the divisional crown?  Or will they have been taken down with injuries, attrition, and the familiar plots and sit 4-6?

That discussion is for another day.  But, on this day, the details and twists of a 34-31 win against the Rams is our focus.  And it should be.  For it is the biggest comeback for a regulation win in the history of the franchise.  Down 21-0, you will have to forgive those of us who wondered how bad this season might get and who the next coach will be (midseason or would Jerry wait until January?).

You don't come back from 21-0.  The game is over.

In fact, to that point of the game, the Cowboys defense looked helpless - whether it had to do with Rolando McClain's absence or not - and the offense had 3 drives ending in a fumble, a 3-and-out punt, and an interception for a Pick 6.

The Pick 6 looked like a rare 2nd Quarter dagger.  Tony Romo stared down Dez Bryant on 3rd and 8, despite Cole Beasley open right in front of him for an easy 1st down, and Janoris Jenkins - the biggest gambling CB this side of DeAngelo Hall - jumping the route and racing into the end zone unchallenged.

It was clear.  Romo had lost his self-belief.  The Cowboys were being humiliated by a team that seldom humiliates anyone.  The season hardly outlasted the 2014 Rangers debacle.

So, what happened next?

In my mind, and I am sure it is not the only explanation, the game was then introduced to Scott Linehan.  That, alone, was full of ironic thoughts due to the fact that he had walked the Rams sideline as head coach in that very building so many times and most of them were losses (11-25 career record with the Rams).

But, on this day, Linehan was that coordinator hire that the Cowboys have been looking for years.  A voice in the ears of Tony Romo that demanded the team not lose sight of their own identity.  I have written for years about the lack of conviction that Jason Garrett the play caller has when the game starts going off the rails.  The Cowboys have spent most of the last several years working all week on a game-plan and then tossing it in the trash if they ever fall behind by double-digits and run their 2 minute drill the rest of the game.

That leads to even more issues of predictability, and often the hole gets deeper.  But, it seldom addresses the actual issues and sticks to the plan of the week.

So, when the Cowboys turn the game around with a massive 8-play, 80-yard drive on the back of 5 DeMarco Murray runs from under center for 37 yards, you knew that Garrett isn't the man with the play calls anymore.  This was the work of a guy who understood that you don't give up on a 60-minute game in the 2nd Quarter.  You stick to your plan.

Now, please don't get the impression that Garrett isn't useful for other traits, because he seems to be.  But, when it comes to his vision for this offense and his relationship with his QB1, I will always argue that a fresh set of eyes were called for years ago.  Bill Callahan didn't seem to be that trusted man, although the proficiency of this offensive lines grasp of the zone stretch and the devastating cutbacks must go on his ledger.

But, for this new offense - one that seems both creative and determined - I must tip my cap to Linehan and what we already are seeing that is different and smart.

Of course, none of that matters if we are going to be dealing with a QB that is paid like franchise guy, but can no longer perform as one.  So, can Tony Romo ever get back to what made him special?

I think we saw flashes of brilliance on Sunday in St Louis that should put many of the alarms on snooze, at least.  Romo did have a few ducks mixed in with his day, and his read on the Pick 6 was not good.  But, overall, and especially once he shook off his early start, we saw a play-making QB again.

Especially on 3rd Downs, Romo was extraordinary.  3rd and 3, he finds Witten for 9.  3rd and 2, he finds Escobar on the play before the 67-harder to Dez.  Then on the game winning drive, he converts 3 more 3rd Downs, including a 3rd and 13 that Romo scrambled for 16 and a 1st Down which is something that I don't feel that I have seen for years.

So, being me, I had to know.  When was the last time Tony Romo ran for more than 10 yards on 3rd and 10+ for a 1st down?  What if I told you there was only 1 time he ever did it?  It was September 30, 2007 against the Rams?  Then, what if I told you it is not the play you are thinking of - where the ball was snapped over his head a mile and he went back to get it and then ran for the 1st Down?

It was not this play:


It was this play:



The point is that the Cowboys were down 24-20 yesterday, with less than 12 minutes to go in the 4th Quarter, and most of us didn't think Romo had that scramble in him.  Did he look like Colin Kaepernick in the open field?  No, he looked more like a dad at the health club running full court basketball and using old-man tricks, but it moved the chains and kept the drive going.

Then, a few plays later, he steps up in a collapsing pocket and hits Terrance Williams for 20 yards on 3rd and 14 to extend the drive.  5 snaps later, on 3rd and 2 from the Rams 12, Romo slays a Rams blitz with an underneath connection to Williams again who can stroll into the end zone.  27-24, Cowboys.

What do you love most about yesterday from your QB?  All the 3rd Down plays?  How about the targets on those 3rd Downs being guys named Williams, Escobar, and even Lance Dunbar instead of Dez and Jason Witten?  It all has to excite a fair observer.

One more item on Linehan's genius yesterday (I will elaborate plenty more on Tuesday) has to be the Play Action bomb to Dez Bryant.  There are a million items about this play that I love, but the best is this - the Cowboys set a hook based on tendencies.  1st Down, Cowboys under center, let's examine the last 7 times before that deep shot: Run, Run, Run, Run, Run, Run, and Run.  Do you think the Rams knew this?  Do you think they were all preparing to deal with another zone stretch?  I do.

So, they move forward and decide to man-up on the outside edges.  Then, Romo fakes to Murray, and pulls the ball back.  The safety is moving forward.  Jenkins, who already has a Pick 6 is sitting on the deep out, Dez cuts back inside and now all Romo has to do is prove he can throw it in the air that far. Dez sets up for a near fair catch and jogs into the end zone.  Touchdown.  Coaching wins.

But, it wasn't just a day for the offense.  The defense needed to get a stop or two late.  We have no idea what the ending narrative of the Cowboys defense will be (although many of us have projected it), but for the Cowboys to do anything memorable in this season, it was going to have to get a better year from the defense.  And, given the issues in personnel, the only logical way that this could happen is for those blue-chip prospects to actually play to their paper.  In particular, the underachievements of Bruce Carter and Mo Claiborne was going to be the focus of Rod Marinelli's campaign.  Could he reach them and have them play their best?

Well, clearly, he has miles to go to get Claiborne back to the "top defensive prospect of the 2012 draft".  He was burned repeatedly again yesterday and looks to be about the 4th best cornerback on the roster right now.  But, his interception to end the Rams rally in the final moments of the game yesterday is proof yet again that sports is the perfect ground for redemption as your chance at making things right is always around the next corner.

And Bruce Carter, who has frustrated to a lesser extent, played his spot perfectly on his interception for the touchdown that actually gave the Cowboys a 10-point lead after a 21-point deficit in a game that had a little of everything.

The poetic justice of those 2 making the biggest plays for the defense - along with young Anthony Hitchens stopping a 4th down - show the lights of optimism on the horizon.  We shall see what Drew Brees does about that in a week, but for now, the plane home must have been full of smiles.

This game may have swung on some touchy penalties, many that went the Cowboys direction.  That roughing the passer or even the defensive holding late are sure to be issues in St Louis today.  But, for Dallas, to be 2-1 after the opening 3 games is a strong wind in the sails.  Of course, they have been 2-1 after 3 games in 2011, 2012, and 2013, as well, only to the lose the next 2 each time and to be 2-3 after 5 games.

How will 2014 be different?  Perhaps the next 2 weeks will tell us plenty.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Xs and Os - 3 Things From Week 2 To Examine

Late in the week, we finally get a chance to "look at the tape" as Jason Garrett likes to say and examine some plays that we cannot fully digest on TV.  I can't promise that every week we will be able to do this, but honestly, this is my favorite exercise of the week because only here can you fully appreciate how advanced and complex the NFL game can be sometimes.

Here, we are not looking to call anyone out, and we surely want to leave open the possibility of our eyes deceiving us and more than anything, I want to admit that I don't have the benefit of the coaches telling me what coverage they were in.  So, sometimes, this diagnosis will be "pretty sure" rather than "100% sure" even though I am trying to get it right.  I will make calls and try to hunt down the right answer, but I will just admit right here that we will try our best to be accurate but invariably, I will see something wrong.

But, let's pick 3 plays that are interesting but not played out by this point of the week and have some fun talking Xs and Os.  Feel free to tweet me @SportsSturm when a game shows you a play that you would like broken down and I will attempt to include it in this post.

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Against Tennessee, there was plenty to break down (which will ALWAYS be the case in any NFL game), so let's pick 3 and go.  As usual, I will give you the chance to select what we cover.

Mr Britt took the initiative to grab our first play:



Play #1 - 3Q/7:56 - 3/3/39 - Locker to Delanie Walker, Touchdown

We are seeing a ton of Cover 1 schemes from the Cowboys so far through 2 weeks, which was one of the real objectives for the defensive staff when they entered 2014; to see if they can make a scheme work where they employ coverages that allow for their highly-compensated corners to play what they prefer - man coverage - while the rest of the defense works in more desirable zone concepts.

Now, a couple things about coverage.  1) - This is far and away the most difficult thing to identify with accuracy and consistency.  By the way, if it was easy for us to identify their coverages, it would be too easy for a NFL QB to do so.  Therefore, you would prefer that it looks like one thing, but is really something else.  2) - For similar reasons to point #1, we should also understand that nobody runs the same coverage every time.  Again, mixing an disguising coverages is vital and therefore to suggest that TEAM A is running this primary coverage will most of the time summarize what they do the most.  Which is a distinction from what they do all of the time.  Nobody runs the same coverage all of the time or they would likely be roasted quite a bit.  The coaches on both sides of the ball at this level are just too good.

Here, we will try to generally simplify.  This is a necessity for those of us who don't have a decade of experience and 10 hours a day to study.  But, know that Cover 1 or Cover 2 can mean at least a dozen different things with variations and hybrids.  And I will not pretend to fully grasp them with any depth or accuracy, but I am constantly trying to learn more and I think this is a good play to study on that front.

Here is Cover 1 Robber.  This, of course, is from a playbook that is set up against 21 Personnel (2RB, 1TE) as all play books are, but in this case, I just wanted you to see the overall concept.  In the 1 Robber, the Strong-side safety is playing the single-high safety.  The corners and the Will Linebacker are in man coverage.  And the other 3 - the MLB, the SLB, and the WS LB are in a combo coverage that - in this case - would have the 2nd safety playing the robber.  


The Cowboys seem to traditionally ask Sean Lee to play the robber quite a bit - Here is a good breakdown of his fine work against Detroit last year - but as long as you understand the concept that the corners are in man along with whoever has the RB.  One safety is in single-high, and that leaves 3 defenders to triangulate around the other 2 threats (Almost always the TE and the Z or slot receiver) to play a 3 over 2 zone.  So, your man guys can play man and your zone guys can play zone.  Easy, right?

Here is how it looks on Sunday against 11 personnel with 3 threats on the left.


The arrows designate man-to-man assignments.  I circled the robber, in this case, Bruce Carter.  He is free to diagnose whatever he sees, but clearly he must err on the side of helping out 32-Moore and 55-McClain in their zone.


Above, you can see Moore is waiting on which ever breaks out and McClain is looking for someone to sit in the curl flat.  Locker has a perfect pocket once he sees the Cowboys are not bringing more than 4, and can see that Carr and Claiborne are squared off against the outside WRs.  Although Carr above looks like he is disguising his man drop (facing the man) as a zone drop (butt to the sideline), but will quickly recover, while Wilcox is monitoring McCluster at the bottom to the sideline.


Above, based on the eyes of the defenders, it appears that both Moore and McClain are figuring the slot guy is their guy.  Carter's robber responsibility has him standing on the Titans' logo with no real plan, and Church is up top trying to figure out what Locker is looking at.  Here, we should note that Locker to this point in the game gave almost no sign that he was capable of making this throw to the red arrow above.  It looks like a dangerous throw, and frankly, Walker is headed right into the sector of the field already occupied by the far-sideline WR.


Above, we must suggest that there are certain routes that beat certain coverages.  A 3-man zone is not very difficult to decipher if the offense knows that is what you are doing.  We have no idea what the Titans were expecting, but to run the TE deep and the slot guy shallow and out to occupy the corner, means that McClain is supposed to chase a TE who runs 4.49 on a corner route.  And against single-high, Church can't get there, either.  

Below, the video of Claiborne is seen as he leaves his man to make a play, but then over-estimates his power and under-estimates Walker's size and bounces off him. This clearly is a horrendous job of technique by 24 where he has to get his man down and can't make a bad play into a horrific one. Then, Walker runs past everyone to the end zone which is an exhibition of skills that was most impressive.

Did someone "bust" in their coverage or was it just a great route, throw, and play by the Titans in a game where they had almost none?  I might go with the latter.


Play #2 - 2Q/9:21 - 3/1/D26 - Murray toss left +12

Here is a cool run play that is the same concept as a play-action fake.  In any of these deception tools, the idea is to hold the defenders where you want to, in an effort to - later in the play - take advantage of that slow reaction to what you are really trying to accomplish.  


I tried to draw various assignments on this toss left that makes it an easy conversion, but they are all being asked to cut off guys that they don't have the angle on unless those defenders stay put at the snap.  And that is where the fake to the FB is needed.


Here, notice the red arrows of the players who are watching Romo and freezing in their stance which makes the play possible.  Big Ron Leary-65 is able to work around the 3-techique because the 3-tech is watching Romo and not realizing that his eyes are getting him out of position.  Leary simply moves  across his man and easily walls him off from heading with the play and this is all only possible because of a fake to a fullback who never touches the ball.


Witten and Leary have to make walls in front of the outside linebacker and defensive end, and if they are successful, once Tyron Smith pulls left (something that is rare enough that teams certainly are not expecting it on a short yardage run play) it is on.  Please note that Dwayne Harris had 2 choices and I am sure he is told to address the biggest threat and he has a nano-second to decide.  He helps Travis Frederick who is trying to cut off the inside LB, but if he chooses the safety this might go for a Touchdown.


But, behold the beauty and power of 77 running in the open field against a terrified corner who rightfully makes a business decision to get out of the way. 


Play #3 - 1Q/5:05 - 3/9/D43 - Romo to Witten +13

If this team can go anywhere this year, it will be because they turned their 3rd Down situation around.  In 2012, they were 5th on 3rd Downs.  In 2013, 25th.  Today, through 2 weeks they are 2nd in the league.  

And, almost all 3rd Down conversions are determined by 2 things: 1) staying out of long distances (see Play #2, above) and 2) beating blitzes.


Cowboys must get to the Tennessee 48 here on 3rd Down.  Blue lines are Cowboys routes, Red lines are Tennessee blitzes.  Romo doesn't know this at the time, but he is looking at single-high, man under.  He also has 6 to block 6 in protection.


At the snap, you can see that the safety on Witten is figuring that 82 is going to run his normal hook/curl to the sticks, so when Witten drags across the the opposite sideline, he is quickly going to have plenty of space.  Meanwhile, the pressure package is happening with both DTs twisting and both LBs criss-cross behind them.  All that movement is to make sure that one guy comes free because all 4 inside Cowboys (G-C-G-DeMarco) have to decode this plan and make sure they have it sorted.


Notice Beasley running across a bit deeper than Witten and bisecting Witten from his cover man.  The question will ultimately be whether Witten can get to the sticks once the pass is completed.  The deep safety is sitting on 83 and 88 running deeper routes and watching Romo carefully to see if his eyes are going to lend any clues.


Now, back to the protection.  Wesley Woodyard-59 and George Wilson-21 are going to follow the DTs who are trying to cause the diversion.  Wilson no doubt has Murray if Murray goes on a pass route, but once he stays home, he is trying to hide from Murray until he emerges at the QB.


Look at all the traffic above as all of the twisting is happening and still, even though Martin looks like he lost his man, Murray pops out right in Wilson's path.  This is text book stuff at the moment of truth so that Romo hardly even notices what he was up against.  Free is in a pretty good spot on the left and Tyron is on an island eating a sandwich on the right.


Above, Romo now feels that Free has to force his guy past the QB, so, Romo takes one step up (which would have been where Wilson was going to knock him silly) and makes the throw.

And below, you see Witten uses that brief side-step to get to the sticks and the drive continues on a 3rd and long conversion (more than 6 yards) - something Dallas did just 21% of the time in 2013 - 27th in the league.


So there you go.  3 plays to chew on as we turn our attention to a tricky affair in St Louis where health concerns are popping up as the week goes along.

But, if they can get out of the gate 2-1, I imagine everyone will be quite pleased with the potential this highly doubted team will have shown.  


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Marinelli Report: Week 2 - At Tennessee

There are plenty of indicators of success for any defense that runs any scheme.  Of course, the easiest one for us all to figure out is points scored against.  Sometimes, we complicate things, but let's never forget the object of the game for any defense is to not allow points.

But, let's dive a bit deeper.  The next few are about closing the door on your opponent during each game within the game.  Those are simple.

Takeaways and 3rd Down stops.

Below, please find the 12 offensive drives for the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.  Note the lack of field position (mostly), the short drives, and the end which - with the exception of that one explosive play to Delanie Walker - ended with a takeaway, a punt, or another undesirable conclusion.


A couple numbers to consider on this business of Takeaways and 3rd Down Stops:

Takeaways:  Since 2011, the Cowboys have had multiple takeaways in 20 games.  They are 15-5.  The 5 losses in question include Denver 2013, Debacle in Detroit 2013, The Dez fingertip game against the Giants in 2012, the gutting loss in New England in 2011, and the Revis INT game in New York in 2011.  So, to put it rather simply, if the Cowboys get 2 takeaways in a game, they either win or have historic regret for gutting losses that stick in your memory.

3rd Downs:  Also since 2011, the Cowboys are 10-1 on the 11 occasions that they have limited their opponent to 25% or less on 3rd Downs.  On Sunday, the Titans went 2-10.  The one time they lost with this number?  Also, the Dez fingertip game of 2012 against the Giants.

It is pretty basic "get off the field" stuff for any defensive mind, but if you want to eliminate the offense from the game and just sit in a room and discuss how the defense can almost insure a victory or a tremendous chance at a victory - look no further than the "get off the field" numbers.  They are 26th in the NFL in getting off on 3rd Down from 2011-2013 and tied for 20th in Takeaways.

Now, it helps, I am sure, to get off the field and to take the ball away when you play a very poor QB.  Jake Locker has a chance to turn into something (he better hurry), but it certainly didn't look like it on Sunday when the Cowboys were able to pressure him into mistakes.  The record would show, however, that with the exception of Nick Foles in the Week 7 game last season in Philadelphia, the Cowboys haven't faced a QB1 who made more unforced errors than Locker.  He was, to be kind, quite poor.

But, I also don't want to take anything away from the Cowboys.  So far, their defense looks susceptible through the air, but is standing up quite nicely on the ground.  When that happens, you force unfavorable down/distance situations for your opponent.  And that is when you can force 20% on 3rd Downs.

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THE STORY OF STERLING MOORE

As you will read below, I thought Sterling Moore was fantastic on Sunday.  With my subjective scoring system, I awarded him with 4 splash plays which is a huge number.  He earned it with 2 passes defended, a tackle for loss on a run he chased down from behind, and then forcing a fumble which might have been another takeaway with a little ball bouncing good fortune.

He has gone from a fringe roster guy at camp to a key member of the squad that now is trying to find a bigger role for him.  He is 24 years old but has already been fired from his NFL job 7 times.  This after being undrafted out of SMU back in 2011, making a play against Lee Evans that allowed the Patriots to play in the 2011 Super Bowl, and then actually contributing in that very game.

Surely, that day, he thought his days on the waiver wire were over.  They weren't.  And perhaps, still aren't.

Look at his transaction sheet to date, courtesy of prosportstransactions.com:


According to the records I have, he has never received even a $1 signing bonus.  Nothing.  He works week to week and knows that they can send him away at any point - and that has already happened 7 times.

His defeating of BW Webb and Terrance Mitchell for roster spots (2 recent draft picks) was a bit of a surprise out of camp, and he might have been on the hot seat again when Orlando Scandrick returns if he hasn't been so good on the field.  I am not sure who they will release to make room for Scandrick, but I now highly doubt it would be Moore.

He is not a perfect player by any means, but I absolutely love how he drives on the ball and challenges receptions.  I also love that he is the closest thing to Scandrick when it comes to a DB who finds the ball and aggressively attacks at all times.  We need more of that and less of conservative corners who sit back and play the odds (in scheme, of course).  Rod Marinelli wants corners who are attacking - see Chicago: Tillman, Jennings - and Moore is cut from that cloth, I think.  But, for whatever reason, the NFL keeps kicking him to the curb.  I openly cheer for guys like that.

Especially when they do things like this:


I will certainly concede that Dexter McCluster stumbles, but Moore is getting that ball.  Love it.

I know some are pitching the idea of Moore working in more at safety which is interesting.  Otherwise, the more interesting question is whether the Cowboys have the guts to get their 3 best corners on the field in nickel.  By almost any metric right now, that seems to not include Morris Claiborne.

DEFENSIVE PARTICIPATION: OK, 8 man Marinelli defensive rotation was on full display Sunday.  LDE was Crawford 28 snaps/Selvie 23, LDT Hayden 27, McClain 19, RDT Melton 26, Coleman 20, and RDE Mincey 36, Crawford 13.  That left 12 chances for Wilber to rush from DE in nickel.  LB was pretty much all R McClain and Carter with a hint of Hitchens (10) and he looked shaky in his small amount of work.  Carr, Claiborne, Moore, Wilcox, and Church played almost the entire game with a small amount of Jeff Heath added in (10). - Thanks, Pro Football Focus for the exact math.  

WEEK 2 VS TENNESSEE - DEFENSIVE NUMBERS


Run Plays13
Pass Plays36
Avg Starting PositionO21
3rd Down Conversions2-10, 20%
4th Down Conversions0-1, 0%
Yards Per Play6.4
Yards Per Pass Attempt6.9
Red Zone TDs - Drives0-1, 0%
Takeaways2

SPLASH PLAYS

First, a reminder of what a splash play is: 

What is a splash play? Well, for purposes of this blog I believe a splash play will include the following: A sack, a pressure that forces a bad throw, and big hit on the QB, and a batted ball that may lead to an interception opportunity. Again, you can see how this leads to subjectivity, but a subjective breakdown is better than no breakdown at all, I have decided. In addition, a splash play will include tackles for loss, a big hit for a short gain, or a stop which is an open field tackle where a player is pulled down on 3rd down short of the marker because of an exceptional effort from a defender. An interception is clearly a splash play, but so is a defended pass that required a great effort. A major hit in the secondary could be a splash play, but I believe that the outcome of the play will determine that. Sorry, defensive backs, but standing over a guy who just caught a 15 yard pass because you think you hit him hard will not generally pass the test on this blog. So, stop doing it. 
I am trying to be careful about handing out too many splash plays per game. I am trying to be picky, but too extreme in either direction. When I log a splash play, I will put time of the game on the chart so that if you want to review the same game and challenge my ruling, you are welcome to do so. Also, if multiple players deserve recognition on a single play, we will try to see that as well. 
Basically, we are trying to assign a value to making plays on the defense. We don't want to just see sacks and interceptions. We want to see broader definitions of splash plays to assign credit to those who help the Cowboys get off the field in important situations. These rankings will not deduct for negative plays at this point. There are simply too many occasions where we are guessing, and for now, I want to avoid that for this particular idea.  
A splash play is a play that makes a major difference in the game. And by keeping it all season long, we will see which defenders are play makers and which are simply warm bodies. We already have our thoughts on both categories, but let's see if we can dig a bit deeper and actually have numbers to back up our claims.
SPLASHES VS TENNESEE - WEEK 2

Q-TimeD/D/YdPlayerPlay
1-9:493/2/O28MoorePass Defended
1-8:072/5/D49R McClainRun Stuff
1-7:273/6/O50JJ WilcoxPass Defended
2-15:002/3/O27ClaibornePass Defended
2-14:533/3/O27ChurchInterception
2-12:241/10/O32MoorePass Defended
2-0:532/10/O13Wilber/MeltonSack 
3-12:211/10/D28MooreTackle For Loss
3-11:502/11/D29CarrPass Defended
3-11:453/11/D29R McClainSack
3-2:041/10/O25MooreFumble Caused
4-14:261/10/D39MeltonPass Tipped
4-14:261/10/D39R McClainInterception

Here you can see the job Sterling Moore, Rolando McClain, and Henry Melton were able to do.  Those were likely your defensive 3 stars of the game (hockey is coming!) and are all big reasons why this defense is not a punchline 2 weeks in.

2014 SEASON TOTALS

PlayerTotalPlayerTotal
1. LB Rolando McClain        5.511. DT Nick Hayden1
2. CB Sterling Moore412. CB Morris Claiborne      1
3. LB Bruce Carter213. DE Kyle Wilber0.5
4. S JJ Wilcox2
5. DT Henry Melton2
6. S Barry Church2
7. DE Jeremy Mincey1.5
8. CB Brandon Carr1.5
9. LB Justin Durant1
10. DE Tyrone Crawford1
Team Totals                 25

Career Totals
2013 Totals
2011 Totals

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PASSING CHART

During the Marinelli Report, we attempt to chart how the opposing quarterback fared against the DAL pass rush (unlike Decoding Linehan, when we chart drive progression). The key in the bottom end zone defines how many rushers came during a given throw. Each line entails where the ball was thrown from, trailing to the (general) point where it was caught.  Dotted lines are incomplete passes.

Week 2 Summary

A win is a win in the NFL, but few can deny Locker left his A game back in Week 1. This clearly wasn't known from the beginning, however, as Dallas blitzed during 44 percent (4-9) of Tennessee's first four possessions. From that point on, in-game adjustments took over as the Cowboys blitzed during a lowly 6 percent (2-29) of remaining snaps defended.




























































Seldom can a beautiful chart look so ugly.  Blame Jake Locker.  

PRESSURE REPORT

This segment of the defensive study is simply to find out how well the Cowboys are doing at getting pressure on the opposing QB.  We have spent a good part of the offseason talking about Monte Kiffin's philosophy that, like so many of the great 4-3 schemes, is based on using blitz as a weapon, not a necessity.  If you use the blitz as an ambush weapon that is always threatened but only used at the perfect times, you can often get free runs at the QB.  If, on the other hand, you must use the blitz because your normal pressure is not getting it done, then the offense usually is waiting for you and prepared - so even 6 rushers don't accomplish much.

As you can see, not much was needed, and not much was attempted.  They must "get there with 4" and they desperately need more pass rush moving forward, but against Locker this will do.

EXPLOSIVE PLAYS ALLOWED (+20 Yards)


Q-TimeD/D/YdPlayRushers
3-7:563/3/O39Locker to Walker, +614
4-7:351/10/O46Locker to Hunter, +234
4-7:072/10/D31Locker to Hagan, +254

SACKS AND INTERCEPTIONS


Q-TimeD/D/YdPlayRushers
2-14:533/3/O27Church INT4
2 -0:532/10/O13Wilber, Melton Sack4
3-11:453/11/D29McClain Sack4
4-14:261/10/D39McClain INT4


PERFORMANCE AGAINST THE BLITZ

Each week we calculate how opposing quarterbacks fare against the Dallas blitz. Consider this the raw data behind the passing chart.

Wk 1 - Colin Kaepernick: 4/8, 74 Yds, 1 TD, 1 SACK
Wk 2 - Jake Locker: 3/6, 22 Yds

2014 Total: 7/14, 96 Yds, 1 TD, 1 SACK

BLITZ REPORT

Each week we monitor how often the Cowboys will send pressure on passing plays.  Week 1 showed an aggressive defense trying to get the ball back to attempt to generate a rally.

Pass Rushers Against Tennessee - 38 pass rush/blitz situations:

Wk 1 - SF: 9/21 - Blitzed 33.3%
Wk 2 - Tenn: 6/38 - Blitzed 15.7%

2014 Total: 15/59 - Blitzed 25.4% 

2013 Totals:  140/673 - 20.8%
2012 Totals:  134/551 - 24.3%


Week 2 - Pass Rushers





Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6 RushTotals
1st Down014 -
87.5%
2 -
12.5%
016 -
42%
2nd Down08 -
72%
2 -
18%
1 -
9%
11 -
28.9%
3rd Down09 -
90%
01 -
10%
10 -
26%
4th Down01 -
100%
001 -
2.6%
Totals032 -
84%
4 -
10.5%
2 -
5%
38

And, here are the full season numbers to date:


Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6 RushTotals
1st Down018 -
75%
6 -
25%
024 -
38%
2nd Down1 -
5.5%
12 -
66.6%
3 -
16.6%
2 - 11%18 -
28.5%
3rd Down3 -
15%
14 -
70%
1 -
5%
2 -
10%
20 -
31.7%
4th Down01 -
100%
001 -
1.5%
Totals4 -
6%
45 -
71%
10 -
15.8%
4 -
6%
63


SUMMARY:  You can only play who is on your schedule, and in the first 2 weeks the Cowboys defense has held up nicely against just about everyone but the opposing Tight End.  They are flying to the football as you knew they would - and, as many forget, they did for much of 2013 in September and October.  The true test of any football question is whether it is sustainable over the course of a season and we have no clue how that is going to work.

However, the best case scenarios are turning up early with the major questions of replacing Sean Lee (Rolando McClain is one of the biggest stories in the league right now), filling in for Orlando Scandrick (Moore), and replacing Jason Hatcher (Melton seems to be the same guy he was before the ACL).

Now, where are they going to find a consistent pass rush before the 2015 draft?  That was the biggest question of them all and why I personally would have cut Kyle Orton much sooner in an effort to keep DeMarcus Ware with that money.  It might not have worked, but their efforts to keep Ware were almost non-existent.  No, Ware is not what he was, but he would certainly be this team's best edge rusher in 2014 - with or without DeMarcus Lawrence.  But, that is water under the bridge and they are doing everything they can to generate rush without blitzing with just effort players.  Tyrone Crawford did push back Michael Oher on several occasions, but it doesn't appear he has any pass rush moves to speak of at this point.  Melton is getting inside pressure and Mincey never stops running, but we must assume that sooner or later, they will desperately need anything they can get from Lawrence, Anthony Spencer, and likely get Kyle Wilber out there more on the edge.  

That said, they are much better in the middle of the field and against the run.  And, it looks like Marinelli is mixing coverages and trying to get his corners to challenge all passes.  Teams will attack the safeties until Wilcox and Church chase them off of that, but you can live with that to a certain extent.

Overall, the laughing stock of the NFL is closing mouths so far.  It is important to remember the tests ahead and the idea that one injury can change everything.  But, again, so far so good.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Decoding Linehan: Week 2 - At Tennessee

"When you can run the ball in pass looks, that's a good thing. When you can run the ball against run looks, that's a better thing. And when you can run the ball against really, hard, difficult run looks by the defense, that's really good for your team and we were able to do that yesterday." - Jason Garrett, Monday, after the Cowboys ran the ball 43 times for 220 yards.

This week, there is little question what the lead story is when we evaluate the offense.  We have been cataloguing every offensive snap the Cowboys have taken since 2008, and with the exception of early in 2009, what we have seen nothing close to this during the entire stretch of nearly 100 games of Cowboys football.  They have 347 yards on the ground on 66 carries for 5.26 yards PER CARRY.

They have 269 of those yards on 50 carries from what we call "run looks" which are under center runs from 11, 12, 21, or 22 personnel.  5.38 yards PER CARRY.  That means what Garrett is referring to above.  They are running after pre snap run declarations and are still having success.  That is the true test and they are passing it with ease so far.

In the first 3 games of 2009 (At Tampa Bay, H New York Giants, H Carolina), we had another period of time where the Cowboys wanted to pound the ball and see what happened.  They ran the ball 82 times for 574 yards in those first 3 games, in a season that they ran for 2,103 yards - easily the most they have ever run for in a season since Emmitt Smith was in uniform.  That year, 2009, they averaged 131.4 yards per game, ran a balanced offense, and won the NFC East.  

Back then, they weren't a zone running team (at least to this extent).  They ran a lot of pulling guard, man-blocking.  Kyle Kosier, Leonard Davis, Andre Gurode, Flozell Adams, and Marc Colombo/Doug Free were a dominating physical front for most of the year and had 11 games that year over 100 yards rushing.  That total is 1 more than 10 games that the 2012 and 2013 Cowboys ran for 100 yards, combined.  

I say with great confidence that if the Cowboys are going to run the ball like that, they are going to win many more games than we thought....IF....

=====

IF TONY ROMO GETS GOING  

Now, it is just 2 games.  So the fact that he has career lows in QB Rating, TD%, and Yards per attempt out of the gate should not freak us out too much.  He also has a career high in INT% going, but we figure that will fix itself quickly.  

Below is a chart that demonstrates that the Romo YPA, what many consider one of the most important numbers in the entire QB spectrum, has been steadily declining since the collarbone year of 2010.  The Blue line is Romo from 2006-2014 and the Green Line is the NFL Average.  Remember, Romo was the #1 YPA QB in football from 2006-2009 at 8.1 YPA.  Then, after his collarbone, he is 11th and tied with Robert Griffin III with 7.55 since 2011.  

Last year, it dropped to 7.2 and so far in 2014, we are below the green line at 7 for the first time ever at 6.9.  

It is only 2 games, but it is also a sharp decline since 2011.  


But, what is going on with his sack rate?

If we are going to talk about this offensive line being 5 Blocks of Granite then they better be able to keep the QB clean.  Given that Romo's career high for sacks in a season is 36, the 56-sack pace he is currently on is a bit disconcerting.

Again, let's look at the post-collarbone cliff that Romo's sack rate has fallen down.  Even if 2010 was a misleading number, we can agree that his sack rate was 20.5 before the incident and the lost season, and since 2011 it is down at 16.5.  So, given that the NFL average green line is roughly between 15 and 17 each season, he has gone from very difficult to sack from 2006-2010 to right at the league average from 2011-2014.


In fact, the raw numbers state that he threw 2,176 passes and was sacked 106 times before the injury, and has now thrown 1,885 passes and has been sacked 114 times since.  

How much of that is Romo and how much of that is his supporting cast?  Yes. I imagine it is both.  But, if you pop in a tape from 2007 when he is running around like a nut versus Sunday when he hits the deck because he hears footsteps, you can see a different type of QB.  Much of it is normal aging, but these last 2 graphs might demonstrate that the Tony Romo that many Cowboys fans fell in love with might not live here anymore.  

It will be interesting to see if he can put 6-8 weeks together soon that can flip the script back in his favor.

=====

COUNTING THE BOX

One of the big talking points since the Tennessee game has been the play-calling debate that links the San Francisco game to the Titans victory in that both times the Cowboys had the ball at the 2 or 3 yard line, both times they had a chance to get a first down inside the 2, and both times they elected to throw.

So, if you are mad about the Justin Smith sack, are you still mad when they hit Dez Bryant on the back shoulder fade in Nashville?

No.

You can find all sorts of articles online about what a QB must do pre snap at any level of playing the position, and surely, it must be declared that I have never taken a snap.  But, this is rather basic just to be able to count.  One of the first things you do is find the Mike.  Then, you identify where the safeties are.  This helps you see if they are in a run front or a pass front.

It is math.  They only have 11.  So, if you count the box and it is a high number, you realize they don't have many troops to stop the run.  Or, the opposite is true.  So why was the right decision made Sunday and the wrong decision made the week before?  Let's count.


The Titans have 9 in the box.  They are not helping either corner.  Dez Bryant is in man, and we feast on that with his strength, resume, and ability.

Now, back to that poor read last week:


The Niners have 6-7 in the box.  41 is switching with a LB, but basically the 49ers have man coverage to the bottom and double coverage to the top against Dez as the safety is keeping Dez off the slant.

6 blockers versus 6 defenders.  I am running.

7 blockers versus 9 defenders.  I am throwing.

Count the box.  It isn't always that simple, but sometimes it is.

Offensive Participation:  Perfect health and attendance from the offense for the 2nd week in a row.  All 82 snaps for Free, Martin, Frederick, Leary, and Smith on the OL, and were joined by Witten and Romo.  Bryant 62, and Williams 61 led the WR's even though Bryant had to go check his shoulder at one point.  Beasley 34, Harris 23, and Street 11 rounded out the WR group.  Murray 59, Dunbar 17, and Randle 7, with Clutts in front for 14.  At TE Hanna 21 and Escobar 15 joined Witten periodically, and Parnell played 3rd TE in heavy sets on 4 occasions.  All snap numbers courtesy of PFF and they include all snaps including plays that were not official because of penalties.


STATS FOR WEEK 2 AGAINST TENNESSEE


Run Plays43
Pass Plays33
Avg Starting PositionD28
1st Down R-P27-8
2nd Down Avg to Go7.08
2nd Down R-P12-13
3rd Down Avg to Go7.93
3rd/4th Down R-P4-12
3rd Down Conversions9-16, 56%
4th Down Conversions0-0
Yards Per Play4.8
Yards Per Pass Attempt6.1
Red Zone TDs - Drives2-3, 67%
Giveaways1

We have balance on 2nd Down!  Very rare.  9-16 on 3rd Down will win a lot of games.  And that Red Zone TD% is great, too.  Everything is awesome aside from that very low Yards per pass attempt.  Yeesh. 

PASSING CHART

This season, we're attempting to track both passing and drive progression. John Daigle has designed a fantastic chart.  Each color, for instance, represents the possession number listed in the key. If you were to start from the bottom and work your way up, you would be tracking that possession from beginning to end. The dotted-lines are incompletions. Large gaps between throws are mostly YAC or carries.

Week 2 Summary

Hooks, slants, and screens were all part of the game plan, as shown by the numerous charted throws. Dallas had 11 possessions Sunday, but only attempted a pass during eight of them. And with this particular plan in place, it should come as no shock that 72 percent (21-29) of Romo's attempts traveled less than nine yards through the air.


The horizontal passing game was on full display.

DRIVE STARTERS - The 1st play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan. How committed is he to the run or pass when the team comes off the sideline? We track it each week here -

Wk 1 - San Francisco: 5 Run/5 Pass - 50% Run
Wk 2 - At Tennessee: 8 Run/3 Pass - 72% Run

2014 Total: 21 Drives - 13 Run/8 Pass - 61% Run

2013 Total: 176 Drives - 84 Run/92 Pass - 47% Run
2012 Total: 173 Drives - 76 Run/97 Pass - 44% Run
2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run/102 Pass - 44% Run

* This statistic doesn't count the 1-play kneel down drives.

SHOTGUN SNAPS

Shotgun snaps are fine on 3rd Down and in the 2 minute drill. But, we track this stat from week to week to make sure the Cowboys aren't getting too lazy in using it. They are not efficient enough to run it as their base, and with a 15%/85% run/pass split across the league, there is no way the defense respects your running game. When shotgun totals are high, the Cowboys are generally behind, scared of their offensive line, or frustrated.

On Sunday, the Cowboys were back down at historical lows.  This, friends, is an anomaly in the modern NFL.  Don't go falling in love with sub 40%.

Wk 1 - San Francisco: 41 Shotgun/63 Total Plays - 65% Shotgun
Wk 2 - At Tennessee: 30 Shotgun/76 Total Plays - 39% Shotgun

2014 Total: 71 Shotgun/139 Total Plays - 51% Shotgun

2013 Total: 566/945 - 59.8% Shotgun
2012 Total: 565/1038 - 54% Shotgun
2011 Total: 445/1012 - 43.9% Shotgun

TOTALS BY PERSONNEL GROUPS


(Before you study the data below, I would recommend that if the numbers for the groupings are unfamiliar, that you spend some time reading a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groupings here.)

PackagePlaysYdsRunPass3rd/4thYdsRunPassFD/TD
11127211-501-22161-60-01/0
12178612-755-11130-01-30/1
132102-100-0000-00-00/0
216394-222-17000-00-00/0
229399-390-03153-150-02/0
23000-00-0000-00-00/0
S01000-00-0000-00-00/0
S02000-00-0000-00-00/0
S1124915-2419-6710430-010-435/0
S12490-04-9000-00-00/0
S13000-00-0000-00-00/0
Other2180-02-18100-01-00/0
Totals7636443-22033-14416674-2112-468/1
* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.

Check those runs from under center.  Beautiful.  And the 3rd Down conversions were very good from Romo when it mattered most to extend drives.

PLAY-ACTION PERFORMANCE

Wk 1: 1/5, 9 Yds, 3 INT, 1 FD
Wk 2: 4/5, 39 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 FD

2014 Total: 5/10, 48 Yds, 3 INT, 1 Sack, 3 FD 

Let's just say they are still trying to figure out how to use their play-action.  But, the running game will only make it better.

BLITZING ROMO

Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 33 Pass Situations vs Tennessee

Wk 1: SF Blitzed Dallas 1/40 - Blitzed 2.5%
Wk 2: Tenn Blitzed Dallas 12/33 - Blitzed 36.3%

2014 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 13/73 - Blitzed 17.8%
2013 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 210/616 - Blitzed 34%

Tennessee blitzed plenty, but likely not close to as much as they wanted because the Cowboys were ahead of the chains and not in disadvantageous down/distance spots too much.  Well done.  See how it all ties together?

WEEK 2 TOTALS



Pass
Rushers
3
Rush
4
Rush
5
Rush
6
Rush
Totals
1st
Down
07 -
87.5%
1 -
12.5%
08 -
24%
2nd
Down
1 -
7.6%
7 -
53.8%
3 -
23%
2 -
15.3%
13 -
39%
3rd
Down
06 -
50%
4 -
33%
2 -
16.6%
12 -
36%
4th
Down
0000
Totals1 -
3%
20 -
60.6%
8 -
24%
4 -
12%
33



SEASON TO DATE





Pass
Rushers
3
Rush
4
Rush
5
Rush
6
Rush
Totals
1st
Down
3 -
12%
21 -
84%
1 -
4%
025 -
34%
2nd
Down
3 -
10.7%
19 -
67.8%
4 -
14%
2 -
7%
28 -
38%
3rd
Down
1 -
5%
13 -
65%
4 -
20%
2 -
10%
20 -
27%
4th
Down
0000
Totals7 -
9.5%
53 -
72.6%
9 -
12%
4 -
5%
73
Thanks to John Daigle for his work on the charts and graphs.

SUMMARY:

There is plenty to like from Week 2.  It starts with just the one turnover and of course, a dominating physical whipping of an opponent on the road.  We must figure out pass protection which seems to be as much about assignments on blitzes and zone blitzes as it is with guys getting beat - although Doug Free certainly had a day - but nevertheless, those are drive killers and can get your QB knocked out.

They are still trying to figure out how to play with all of their toys, but overall, the offense has passed most non-Romo related tests through 2 weeks.  We assume he will bounce back, mostly because we have no other choice.

But, beyond that, Zack Martin is settling in, DeMarco Murray looks like he is playing angry and hungry, and Dez Bryant is one of the best receivers in football.

I picked this team to have a very difficult year, but I must readily admit that with the evidence we currently have, the offense has a chance to be really good if they can maintain this power balance.  

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Morning After: Dallas 26, Tennessee 10 (1-1)



Yesterday, the NFL demonstrated loudly and clearly for all who forget that this league is difficult to predict and impossible to figure out.  I can't imagine there are many people who profit off the ability to forecast NFL games correctly (despite the large number who claim to have this ability), because from what I can tell, we repeat the exercise every season of thinking we know more than we actually do - only to admit later that the more we watch, the more it becomes clear that nobody truly knows much about this unpredictable sport.

When it comes to the Dallas Cowboys and their 2014 season which has almost nobody optimistic, the predictions have been based on a few specific gripes.  The most important remains their franchise QB, Tony Romo, returning to health and performance that is expected from a man that they pay more than $1m per game.

However, the rest of the bearish views on the team surround 2 major issues: the defense that they have was one of the worst ever in 2013 and the additions to improve it are largely anonymous and therefore are not expected to have lasting effects and the other issue was whether or not this team would truly ever be able to have a physical, imposing, and yes at times, dominating offensive line that would both protect their QB and open up holes of a running game.

And while the developing story of Romo's search for his top form continues, I think 2 weeks into the season has to have made everyone feel better about the defense sorting itself out under Rod Marinell.  Meanwhile, the offensive line's impact on the first two games has been about as positive as anyone could have hoped, and the way the running game has come out of the gate in 2014 might be the game changer that nobody believed possible.

The Cowboys, as an underdog on Sunday in Nashville, dominated the ball on the ground with force and might and makes everyone imagine the possibility of a personality change with a franchise that seemed allergic to the physical brand of football that Seattle, San Francisco, Baltimore and other powers have used for the last several years.

Have they figured something out?  It is only 1 game and part of another.  It is early for sure.  But, to comprehend 347 rushing yards through 2 games this season is difficult, when we consider that in 2013 they ran for 123 yards, 2012 it was 182, and in 2011, it was 109 through their first 2 games, respectively.

But, now, perhaps through necessity, they have run the ball with incredible proficiency so far.  They lined up and smashed the Titans front which is not a small task.  They had to fight through the adversity of an early DeMarco Murray fumble again, and their first 3 drives ending with 2 sacks and a giveaway.  But, they didn't lose their nerve, nor their objectives.  They simply decided to stay on their script and in the end had their 4th biggest running day of the last decade as the Titans were unable to mount much resistance.

Not only that, but in this space we have discussed the cycle of Cowboys' road disappointments at great length.  The offense consistently underperforms by having no running game, a passing game that is defeated with blitzing, and ultimately putting too much pressure on a defense to keep them in games until it ultimately collapses.  But, yesterday, the Cowboys showed the opposite to be true.  The  running game backed off the Titans blitz, because they did not have the Cowboys passing game in a bind the whole day.  The Cowboys were only predictable on 3rd Downs and then were able to dictate the action, while the defense stayed fresh.  The Cowboys snapped the ball 76 times and dominated the clock with 41 minutes of possession as Tennessee only ran 49 plays.  If you feel that the Cowboys were in control of the proceedings the entire day despite Romo never having to do too much on his own, you feel correctly. They dictated the action and the direction of the contest with 43 running plays to the tune of 220 yards on the ground.  5.1 yard per carry from 43 attempts?  Who are these guys?

Perhaps, they are exactly who they thought they were when they spent big on Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin to rebuild an offensive line that was in fact offensive for 2011 and 2012.  We certainly are not going to rush to the anointing oils, but this looks like a group that is not perfect, but when firing forward and trying to run the ball, they look more than capable.  And for the entire complexion of the organization, everything changes when you are suddenly able to be the team on the field that can be physically dominant.

We shall see if they can prove it in the weeks to come.  If they can, you may see optimism return to this fan base in short order.  For now, we marvel at what happens when every play seems like a positive gain.

This isn't just about the ground game, however.  What makes this win for the Cowboys feel extra important was the way it appeared to have a total team feel to it.  The special teams were fantastic as Dwayne Harris and Dan Bailey led this crew to their own dominant day.  A nearly blocked punt, a downed punt deep in Tennessee territory, well covered kicks, a nice punt return, and of course, Bailey picking off long field goals like there is nothing to it.  If ever there has been a better kicker in Cowboys history than what Dan Bailey is doing right now, then the margin is slim.  Bailey is as elite as it gets right now when it comes to making long kicks automatic.  He is truly at the top of his game.

The defense, for the 2nd week in a row, was good but with some reservations.  Last week, it was the score margin made it feel like San Francisco was not using too much of their scheme with a 28-3 lead.  This week, they played a QB in Jake Locker who looked discouraged and confused and happy to run off the field at times in the first half.  It is a new coaching staff and scheme in Nashville, and for the time being, it might need more time in the oven - although takeaways and short fields in Week 1 helped them shock the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

But, let's give credit where credit is due as the team turned the ball over twice and found a few more sacks.  The optimism of Rolando McClain, Bruce Carter, and Henry Melton making splash plays of impact once again made itself apparent on Sunday.  If this thing is going to work, they will need a few players to rise above the group, and in the front 7 I would say those are your leaders for now.  We must pace ourselves and remember that attrition will play a role, but again, for the 2nd week in a row, the defense seemed competitive.  That, despite Delanie Walker having his career-best day in his 9th year in the league.  Through 2 weeks, if there is a major issue emerging, it would appear to be the ability to corral a talented tight end receiving threat.  With Jimmy Graham on the schedule in 13 days, that should be a focus moving forward.

I know the record books will remember this game as an easy win that was close to a demoralizing rout, but the game nearly flipped late in the 3rd Quarter and could have easily gotten away from Dallas.  Up 16-0 at halftime, the team had to know they had Tennessee in a corner with no real life-lines available, especially with Locker looking so lost.  But, the Titans emerged from the intermission with a FG drive, followed by a Dallas 3-and-out with a sack bringing Romo down for one of 4 Titans' sacks.

Then, the ensuing drive was where Delanie Walker caught a ball by the left sideline and sustained a shot from Morris Claiborne, bounced off him and ran to the end zone with impressive wheels for a big man.  Now, it was 16-10, with half the 3rd Quarter to play.

The next drive was where the game changed.  For much of the day, Tony Romo just didn't look right throwing the ball, and even his longest completion (and only pass play over 18 yards) was a 22-yard gain to Dez Bryant on a crossing pattern where his target was wide open but the pass was at his shoe-tops.  Bryant caught the ball into Tennessee territory, but again the discussion from the broadcasters was that something doesn't look right about his ball delivery.  

From there, a 6 yard gain from Murray to the Tennessee 33 yard line was where the play of the game happened.  It was 2nd and 4, and Romo audibled into a shotgun after he felt a blitz coming from the A-gaps straight ahead.  This audible was a TE screen on the right side as Jason Witten would release his protection assignment, Derrick Morgan, and flow past him into the flat.  This is a rather normal answer to a blitz threat, and uses the defenses aggression against them.

But, Morgan gets to Romo so fast that the throw back to Witten in the flat was rushed and high.  Witten reached back to try to catch it, but in doing so, tipped the ball right into the path of safety Bernard Pollard.  Pollard catches the ball and appears to be one broken arm tackle from giving Tennessee the lead, when Witten is able to reach in and knock the ball loose for what would be rightfully called an incompletion.  The play - in just the blink of an eye - went from a genius offensive idea, to a game-changing defensive "Pick-6", to simply an incompletion that maybe nobody will remember in a few weeks.

But, that is how games are lost in the NFL where the margin sits on the edge of a knife.  And perhaps Jason Witten saved this day with a play that won't even be recorded as a statistic.  On the next play the Cowboys picked up a 1st down on a generous pass interference and 6 snaps later, Romo hits Bryant on a back shoulder fade in the end zone to restore the 13 point lead and overall order to the proceedings of the first Cowboys victory of 2014.  From there, the ground game was supplemented with Cowboys' fans at the stadium taking over Nashville with their voices in a way that should make Arlington jealous.

They won a game that they absolutely had to win in Week 2, with a potentially perfect opponent hand picked for Week 3 in St Louis before the heavyweights come calling shortly thereafter.  If they are to shock the league with a strong 2014, they must get to 3 wins before going to Seattle in Week 6.

But, what a difference a week can make.  Now, we think the defense can stand up for itself and the offensive line can lean on opponents routinely.  Given that we agreed earlier that we assume too much, too quickly in the NFL, we better continue to see what this team is capable of on a week to week basis moving forward before we jump to conclusions.

We now spend the week wondering about Romo and his self-belief, but for the team in general, this looks far more encouraging than any other indicators we have seen since camp assembled.

A road win, with a dominating physical force grinding the Titans defense down over the course of an afternoon.  A defense that was opportunistic and able to get off the field on 3rd Down.  Special teams that tilted the game in the Cowboys' direction.

More of that, please.