Penalties, questionable play-calling and missed opportunities on both sides of the ball continued to cost Dallas on Sunday night, as they lost another close game that could have easily gone the other way.
In a game they badly needed to win, the Cowboys came up short against the Falcons, losing 19-13. It was a game the that Dallas was in up until the last few minutes, and there were a variety of things that wound up sending them to a loss. None of them by itself was a death blow, but together they became too much to overcome.
First, the team again had problems in the red zone. The offense came out and was able to move the ball well early in the game, getting down into the red zone on both of their first two possessions. But they wound up settling for field goals both times. This was especially frustrating because, although it led to a 6-0 lead, with Atlanta's Matt Bryant missing an attempt in between them, scoring touchdowns would have had a huge impact on the course of the game. A 14-0 lead would have been much easier to defend. The Dallas defense held Atlanta to only 19 points in the game, and who can say what scoring those touchdowns might have done for the confidence and effectiveness of the Cowboys' offense?
Penalties, once again, were a problem. Playing against a team that leads the league in fewest flags thrown against them, Dallas could not afford the seven flags that were called, with a couple of others being declined by the Falcons. This continues to plague the team, and if Dallas has any hope of salvaging the season, it must find a way to cut down on the laundry on the field.
The defense had a good game, but made a few crucial mistakes as well. Although Julio Jones and Roddy White both had over 100 yards receiving, they did not get into the end zone on the Cowboys and were not the major problem. That turned out to be second year running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who made two Cowboys into goats on crucial plays on Atlanta's last drive, letting them use up the clock so Dallas had virtually no chance.
On the first, on third and 6 from their own 24, Rodgers caught the ball, and Orlando Scandrick missed a tackle that would have brought him down short of the marker and forced a punt, with Dallas only down by 3. Instead, he broke free and went 31 yards, forcing Dallas to start burning timeouts in an eventually futile effort to save time with only 3:45 left. The second, he faked Danny McCray, who was not in the best position to make the play to begin with, and got 11 yards on a third and 5 at the Dallas 33. This got a new set of downs, and allowed the Falcons to eventually use up all but 17 seconds, putting the Cowboys in a hopeless situation after a Bryant field goal pushed the lead to 6. There were some other defensive miscues, but those two on the last drive by the Falcons took the game to the point of no return.
Takeaways (or takeovers, as Rob Ryan prefers to term them) continue to elude the Cowboys, almost to the point of ridiculousness. In the second quarter, Atlanta had a bad blocking scheme, and DeMarcus Ware came at Matt Ryan untouched, delivering a brutal sack that jarred the ball loose. But the football bounced away from diving Dallas players and an alert Roddy White pounced on it. And Morris Claiborne had a chance on a pass that he may have been interfered with on. Had Dallas recovered the fumble, they would have had possession near midfield with over half the quarter left and an excellent chance of getting more points. Dallas managed to also avoid turnovers (albeit with Tony Romo getting a bit lucky on one pick that was overturned on a defensive holding penalty and another on the very next pay that Asante Samuel dropped in the end zone), but they are having their share of bad luck when the rare opportunity presents itself.
But despite the mistakes the defense made, the larger issue in this game was the offense's ineffectiveness. Dallas only managed one touchdown drive - but the way they accomplished it raises some questions.
Halfway through the fourth quarter, trailing by 10, Dallas started playing the way they did during the furious 24 point comeback the previous week against the New York Giants. Tony Romo went no-huddle, and threw six consecutive passes, completing all of them and capping the drive with a 21 yard touchdown to Kevin Ogletree, who had three big catches in the game and wound up with 96 yards on the night. Going no-huddle put the Falcons defense back on its heels and did not allow Mike Smith to use his often confusing defensive alignments.
In addition, the really big play of the night, the 65 yard pass to Ogletree setting up the second field goal in the first quarter, came on a play where Romo was buying time and moving around. This begs the question, given the way the Cowboys have finally been able to score some points when they turn Romo loose with a hurry-up offense, why are they not going to this earlier? It is not Jason Garrett's style, it seems, but his style has led to a 3-5 record. He needs to give this a try earlier in games, by the second quarter if the team is having a lack of success getting into the end zone to start games. Romo just seems to be more effective playing this way. It is time to use the tools at hand the way they work best.
As a result of the loss, Dallas now faces an uphill battle to get a chance at the playoffs. They squandered a huge opportunity with the New York Giants losing earlier in the day to the Pittsburgh Steelers. But Dallas now faces the easier half of the schedule, with only one of the last eight teams they play, the Steelers, currently having a winning record. This season is not over for the Cowboys. But by not managing to win a game they did have a chance at taking, they have made things much harder.