It's been 10 days since the Cowboys defeated the Miami Dolphins 20-19 on Thanksgiving night. Since then, we've been treated to another full weekend of team's falling back to the pack. Most notably The Eagles losing two games and the Giants being blown out on national TV. If the Cowboys are first and foremost the team we root for, the opponents of our NFC East rivals rank highly as well. With four victories in a row combined with three straight Giants losses, this has been a great stretch for Dallas and their fans.
Dallas has a big game Sunday afternoon against the Cardinals. A loss erases all the hard work that has gone into winning five of their last six. Let's take a look at the week of preparation that was, through the eyes of SB Nation's Cowboys blog, Blogging The Boys, and our writers. These are just snippets, click on any of the titles to take you to the full articles so you can read more.
The game-winning drive started out with a nice return from Dez Bryant, who was still strapping on his helmet when he was retreating to field the punt. 20 yards later, Dallas was in decent field position with three minutes remaining. Quarterback Tony Romo connected with Jason Witten on two consecutive catches, the first came from his now patented spinout from the pocket. Dallas then turned the show over to DeMarco Murray, who received five straight touches to drive the Cowboys down close. Up the gut for six and a first down. Left side for 9 then back up the middle for three and another first. Right tackle for for and again to the right for 5 and Dallas was easily inside the Miami 10.
It can't be stated enough how beautiful it was for Dallas to be able to play it safe and still conduct a game-winning drive.
Where was DeMarcus Ware? Everywhere. Ware only shows up on the stat sheet with one assisted tackle and and one fumble recovery. Many fans and observers who're caught up in the number of sacks Ware has and could have by the end of the season consider that stat line pretty disappointing.
But Ware was as disruptive as ever, just differently. The Dolphins' All-Pro left Tackle Jake Long got flagged three times for a false start and once for holding ('tackle' was the words the announcers used). Ryan also used Ware in coverage a lot, and Ware was critical in disrupting a potential TD pass to Reggie Bush at the end of the second quarter.
10: the number of times Romo targeted Laurent Robinson. By comparison, Bryant was targeted six times.This imbalance is due in no small part to the fact that Bryant is receiving much tighter coverage, and Garrett's offense is predicated on going to the open man. But mostly, its all Robinson. Not only is Robinson getting open, he's making other teams pay with clutch plays. Nobody's talking about Robinson's first TD, but it rivals Jason Avant's oft-played fingertip grab on Sunday night: he scooped up a low Romo throw off the Cowboys Stadium carpet.
Let's start with a little statistical info. I was really stunned to see some people making comments about how Spencer needed to be gone right after a game when he was the leading tackler, with eight total tackles, six solo, three for a loss, and one pass defended. Maybe it was the fact that he did not record any sacks or quarterback hits that made so many commenters dismiss his contributions...
If you haven't quite picked up on my point, it is this: Anthony Spencer contributes a lot more to this team than just rushing the passer. Looking at his sack total and deciding he is not worth having on the team and should be replaced is just not an intelligent way to evaluate him. Sure, he has had games that did not go as well as the Thanksgiving game did, but he is often doing a lot of things that don't show up so clearly. The two pass plays I described showed a remarkable degree of athleticism and football smarts, particularly the one where he tracked down Reggie Bush. And those plays were clearly just as good as a sack, and likely stopped a couple of nice runs after the catch.
The Front Seven
Just like in the Redskins game, the official NFL gamebook credits the Cowboys defense with 9 tackles for loss, tied for a season high. The Cowboys defense also held their opponent to under 100 yards rushing for the seventh time this season, which moves the Cowboys back into the top ten of run defenses in the league. Lots of green grades follow as a result:
DL OLBs ILBs Starters Backups Starters B.U. S B.U. K.C. J.R. J.H. M.S. S.L. J.B. D.W. A.S. V.B. S.L. B.J.
K.B. Snaps (69)
29 52 35 21 16 11 63 68 15 67 30 13 Rating +1.0 +2.3 -1.0 -1.0 +1.2 -0.9 +1.6 +3.9 +0.5 +1.3 +2.0 +0.7
On a solid day for the front seven, Anthony Spencer stood out with four QB pressures, one pass defended and eight tackles, including three tackles for loss.
Sean Lissemore again had a very strong outing. With only 170 defensive snaps for the season to his credit, he narrowly misses out on making the PFF ranking at his position. If he were to be included, his +10.6 season grade would rank him sixth among all 3-4 defensive ends, sandwiched between Texans Antonio Smith (+11.7) and J.J. Watt (+8.6). I'm sure there is a good reason why the coaches aren't playing Lissy more (he he he), but I expect him to get a lot more playing time next season.
Linebacker Anthony Spencer had an excellent game. DeMarcus Ware was a presence, even though he did not show up statistically (well, according to the announcers, at least). Sean Lee is better one handed than about 75% of the ILBs with two good hands. Bradie James and Victor Butler were contributing. Just, guys, watch that Beanie fellow.
CHANCE OF LB BEING A PROBLEM: 20% Last time: 40%
Defensive Backs Larry Fitzgerald. Any questions? (And yes, I know Mike Jenkins is supposed to be back, but I still think this is where the biggest problems will be, even if Kevin Kolb and John Skelton are the options at quarterback for Arizona.)
CHANCE OF DB BEING A PROBLEM: 70% Last time: 50%
The Cowboys chances of winning the division: 70%. Chances they get in with a wild-card: 74%
If Dallas goes 5-0 or 4-1, they have a 100% chance of making the playoffs. If they go 3-2 they have a 99% chance. Going 2-3 brings the odds down to 71%. If we collapse to 1-4 or 0-5, the odds are 14% and 0%, respectively.
That's a pretty rosy picture, but let's not get fooled. These Cowboys, while showing definite signs of progress, are by no means a sure thing. This week against Arizona, we'll see if they have the killer-instinct needed for a playoff run.
For the year, Murray ranks fifth amongst all backs in Football Outsiders' DYAR stat with 157. This advanced metric measures how many more yards a player has gained than an average-level replacement player would against the same defenses. This, on only 147 carries. His FO success rate of 57% (a 'success' is gaining 40% of necessary yardage on first down, 60% on second down and 100% on third and fourth downs) ranks second in the league; only trailing New Orleans' first-round rookie Mark Ingram's 58%...
Note that in three of the four games, over half of Murray's yardage totals have come after first contact. As Dave pointed out here, Murray's yards-per-carry average has suffered the last two games without fullback Tony Fiammetta. Dallas has chosen to go with TE John Phillips as the lead blocker in Fiammetta's absence with putrid results. The club promoted rookie Shaun Chapas to the 53-man roster in hopes of paving a better path for Murray to continue reaching the defenses second and third levels.
The Cardinals defense was impressive overall, holding the Rams to 268 total yards, giving Sam Bradford fits and keeping Steven Jackson under control. They did show some blitzing, and this may be a vulnerability as the Rams got their only offensive touchdown when they picked the blitz up and Bradford was able to complete a 16-yard touchdown pass.
One of the other defenders is cornerback Patrick Peterson, who had a good day with five tackles. But that is not why you may have heard his name. He, of course, tied that NFL record for punt returns. That was all over the news, and it was a brilliant return, set up by beautiful blocking that let him streak untouched right up the middle of the field.
Kickoff is at 3:15 CST. If you like some live tweeting to go along with your football announcers, make sure to follow me on the @BloggingTheBoys twitter account.