When's the last time the Dallas Cowboys looked this good on defense and this bad on offense? It's only a three-week sample, but Rob Ryan's unit has been stellar thus far, while the offense has failed to deliver aside from one hot half in New Jersey back on opening night.
On Sunday in their home opener, we saw Ryan's guys bail out Bill Callahan's guys on multiple occasions as Dallas hung on to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a sloppy contest.
Let's dissect some of the key plays that presented the offense with problems, as well as the keys to the defensive effort.
First Offensive Series a Sign of What Was to Come...All Day Long
The first possession sort of summed up the kinds of problems Dallas had on offense throughout the day. It put itself in a hole with a fake end-around on first down and gave Tony Romo a 2nd-and-10 to begin throwing. But the Buccaneers defense settled into a pattern like that all afternoon, and Jason Garrett's offense made little effort to mix it up.
The problem was that the team was making too many mental mistakes to deal with 2nd- and 3rd-and-longs.
It followed up the botched screen off the fake end-around with a penalty and a drop. First, disaster case right tackle Doug Free committed a false start and then Jason Witten dropped what would have been a first-down pass.
The ball's right in Witten's gut here, a few yards shy of a first down. It would have been third-and-manageable.
But instead, Romo was forced to be more aggressive on 3rd-and-long. As a result, he tested the vulnerable but talented Aqib Talib, who jumped a Miles Austin route, giving the Buccaneers the ball deep inside Dallas territory with an interception.
Romo had Witten open at the 26 (circled in red), but instead threw a few yards deeper but into tight coverage to Austin (black). Did he fail to see Witten despite having plenty of time or is he losing faith in his veteran tight end? As I mentioned, Witten had dropped a pass on the previous play and has struggled a lot early this year. It's also possible Romo went to Austin instead of Witten because Witten was a few yards back of the first-down spot, which I've marked in blue.
But this all epitomizes the struggles the Cowboys have had on offense of late. The pass protection hasn't been good, and pressure ruined the opening play. They lead the NFL in penalties, and a big penalty to Free killed them on the ensuing down. They lead the league in drops, and a big drop from Witten hurt them on the next snap. And then, on third down, Romo made a questionable throw, leading to a turnover.
Defense Could Have Been Perfect
If not for mistakes like those from the offense, the Cowboys D would have been pitching a shutout before the Bucs put up a garbage-time field goal in the final minute. In other words, it might have been a perfect day from a points perspective if not for the tough spots the rest of the team kept putting them in.
Tampa Bay started on the Dallas 29-yard line following that pick, and it still took the Bucs quite the six-play effort to punch it in for the first score of the game.
But later in the day, the same unit stepped it up time and again. And the key might have been the way in which Rob Ryan messed with Josh Freeman's head early.
On Dallas' second offensive possession, the offense committed two more false starts (one on Witten, one on Free), killing the drive. They'd punt from a 4th-and-18, giving the Bucs a chance to take a big early lead and establish momentum.
On first down, the coverage was perfect, as it has been for much of the year:
On second play, they were wise to an unconventional run from Doug Martin, forcing 3rd-and-long. And this is where Ryan flexed his muscles. The Cowboys put only one defensive lineman—Jason Hatcher—on the field, flanking him with DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. Victor Butler also joined the defensive front but dropped back into coverage.
This would be an ideal moment for Freeman to check to a run or something underneath, but it's 3rd-and-14 and he's losing a mind game with Ryan.
Making things more difficult for Freeman is Morris Claiborne, who blitzes on a delay from the bottom of the screen. Claiborne comes so late that he's not going to make a difference, but that's enough to rattle Freeman on his blind side. He panics and goes straight to a check-down option in D.J. Ware, but Spencer gets his hands up and forces Ware to lose sight of it. It bounces off of Ware and is intercepted by Sean Lee.
That's the defense stepping up to make a big play when needed. Great concept. Great execution. And Freeman appeared to be off his game the rest of the way.
And with that short field, Dallas would score its only touchdown of the day from the Tampa Bay 23-yard line.
Later in the first half, the Bucs would again be given a good starting spot at the 35-yard line, and a Sean Lissemore facemask gave them the ball inside Dallas territory with a chance to re-take the lead.
But on a 3rd-and-3, the coverage is superb and the rush is effective, leaving Freeman with only Dallas Clark on a screen. Bruce Carter (red) does a fantastic job identifying Clark (blue) in the crowded backfield, reading the play and getting to the spot to prevent a first down.
Just solid fundamental defense to get the offense the ball back. On the ensuing possession, though, Witten would take a false-start penalty after a dud DeMarco Murray run, leading to another punt.
And the defense would also bail out the coaching staff on Sunday. After a failed onside kick attempt late in the second quarter, Tampa Bay had a chance to gain momentum heading into halftime. But the Dallas D would force a 3rd-and-11 from mid-field, and Freeman had nowhere to go. The rush was stellar and the coverage was again perfect. They'd punt, and Dallas would hold onto the lead at halftime.
The Bucs could barely move the ball in the second half, mustering a grand total of three first downs before a garbage-time drive at the end of the game. Prior to that final drive, Tampa Bay had fewer than 100 total yards passing.
Too Obvious on Offense
While the defense brought a wide array of fronts, it's as though Garrett became gunshy after that failed attempt at a quasi-fancy play on the first offensive snap of the game. The Cowboys would hand the ball off to Murray on the first play of four of the next five possessions, accumulating a grand total of zero yards on those plays.
That put Romo and the passing game in holes which they struggled to dig out of, partly due to the odds and partly due to poor pass protection, penalties and dropped passes.
Witten and Free combined for five penalties (four false starts, one holding) and three drops (all on Witten, obviously). On the five offensive series in which one of those players screwed up, the Cowboys mustered a grand total of three points.
Even when the offense did get breaks from the Bucs, it failed to take advantage. Like in the second quarter when Jordan Shipley muffed a punt, giving them the ball at the Tampa Bay 24-yard line. On that possession, they were able to get a single first down, but the problem was that they ran at the strong side for negative yardage on two first-and-10 situations. Romo made a nice throw to dig them out of a hole on the first set of downs, but on 3rd-and-11 from the Bucs' 13 they weren't able to convert for six points.
Prior to that third-down play, Romo looked like he had a chance to hook up with Austin for six, but Austin (in red) stops at the eight-yard line, while Romo's throw sails four yards into the end zone. A communication error between two veterans who have played together for six years.
They'd settle for a field goal.
I'd like to be able to elaborate on what went wrong on Romo's two second-half fumbles in some sort of enlightening way, but the truth is that in both situations, the offensive line failed to give Romo enough time, while Romo failed to go into panic mode when necessary.
The first "strip sack" came against a four-man rush deep in Tampa territory. Tampa's coverage was perfect, so there was no quick option. Romo only dropped back a bounce and a half out of shotgun and the interior of the line collapsed. Instead of taking the sack and living to see third down and a field goal attempt in the worst-case scenario, he pulled a classic Romo and tried to flip it away in awkward fashion, turning it over.
How did the defense respond? By bending but not breaking and forcing a punt.
What did Romo do with a new opportunity? Another fumble, this time on only a three-man rush on 3rd-and-4 in his own territory. This one's more on Tony, though, because he had over two seconds to get rid of the ball and it appeared he had Austin breaking open (in red).
He was slow to recognize that, got sacked and turned over the ball.
How did the defense respond? By blitzing Freeman into an intentional grounding penalty and removing the Bucs from field-goal range in order to force a punt and maintain the team's narrow lead. The highlight of that defensive stand was probably on 2nd-and-20, when Mike Jenkins was draped all over Vincent Jackson before the 5'10" Jenkins rose up to swat the ball away from the 6'5" Jackson. Just making plays.
At that point, Jackson had been targeted six times and had yet to make a single catch.
In a Nutshell
It helped the defense that Freeman and the Bucs struggled offensively, and I'll give some credit to a Tampa Bay defensive unit that played pretty a lot better than they did against the Giants in Week 2. The coverage was significantly more crisp. With that said, you can't blame Ryan's unit for dominating a bad offensive team, and there's definitely a lot of blame that has to go to Romo, his line, his backs and his receivers.
This team has far too much experience to be making that many mental mistakes. The line is weak, but the penalties they're taking and the drops they're committing are inexcusable.
Yes, they still won Sunday. But the Cowboys offense can't expect the defense to bail them out often. When tougher competition comes knocking, there'll only be so much Ryan's guys can do.
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