What is the only thing better than a divisional win over a rival in the NFL regular season?
Probably a divisional win over a rival – at their place. And in winning a 17-3 decision in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon, the 4-3 Dallas Cowboys sit all alone in 1st place in the NFC East for the time being. Whether they can maintain their perch from here on in will depend on their demonstrating a little consistency and the ability to find clear waters amidst a high number of injuries, but their accomplishments in the first half of the season appear to center around their ability for them to win their divisional match-ups.
And in taking down the Giants, Redskins, and Eagles in succession in the first round of the annual home-and-home divisional series, the Cowboys have emerged as the leaders at the present. That award is certainly nothing more than discussion fodder, but it puts them in an advantageous posture in a division that seems there for the Cowboys’ taking as many of us projected a few months back.
Is the NFC East very good this year? No. And it doesn’t matter. The league mandates that you win your division to earn a home playoff game, which means that finishing 2nd in a division with 14 wins is worth less than winning a division with 8 wins. It is just the way the league is presently set up. And no apologies need to be offered.
Last night, the Denver Broncos (6-1) lost their first game of the season in their game at Indianapolis, and in doing so they fell out of 1st place in their division because the Kansas City Chiefs are 7-0. What an amazingly difficult division, right? Well, maybe, but let’s not forget that it took 12 weeks last year for the Broncos to clinch the AFC West as they won that “powerhouse” division by a mere 6 games just last season and the runner-up 7-9 Chargers never troubled them all season. In fact, there were 3 divisions last season in which only the champion was better than 7-9, so let’s not act like this is that uncommon.
The point is, keep your eyes on your own paper, and this season in the NFC East, the Cowboys are very much on schedule to battle for a division title with a 3-0 start inside the division – and in large part they owe that to the performances of the last two weekends where they had to function almost completely without their superstar pass rusher, DeMarcus Ware. And, 4 interceptions and 6 sacks later for this “no name defense”, the Cowboys are restoring the good names of Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli by employing the “next man up” philosophy with great effectiveness for the time being.
Collectively, against the division, the Cowboys have allowed a passer rating of 62.5 with 4 TDs (all to Eli Manning on opening night) and 7 INTs and 9 sacks in those 3 divisional games. Given that this team surrendered a 93.5 passer rating inside the division in 2012 and only found 3 interceptions all season in 6 divisional games, this is a marked improvement against Manning, Robert Griffin, and now, Nick Foles.
The Cowboys have taken chances on churning that roster and switching out their defensive personnel – many by necessity due to a myriad of injuries – at a lot of spots up front, and to the credit of those who we are still getting to know, the work is being done and the opposing QBs (at least those not named Peyton Manning) are having a hard time finding openings down the field. Marinelli and Kiffin have committed to their career-long philosophies of not risking coverage to bring pressure, and although it does seem that too often the QB has too much time to stand back there and look for opportunities, the Cowboys coverage is getting better and better at staying on their men and limiting big play chances.
Yesterday was a day where many of those in Cowboys uniforms wanted to quiet this discussion about Chip Kelly “owning” Monte Kiffin after those clinics that were administered at Oregon against USC, and on this day Kiffin can enjoy his clear victory. The Eagles have rolled up production every week, but that stopped in major fashion on this Sunday afternoon against a Cowboys defense that surely looked like the next in a long line of victims.
In 2013, how many times had the Eagles reached 400 yards? All of them – until yesterday. The previous low was 425 against Tampa Bay and the previous low for yards per play? 5.7. So, it should interest you to know that even with a fair amount of yardage coming late in garbage time, the vaunted Eagles attack only rolled up 278 yards and 3.7 yards per play. That is phenomenal work from the Cowboys defense and while Nick Foles certainly did not appear to be anywhere close to on his game, I might point out that between Sam Bradford, Robert Griffin, and Alex Smith, we might be seeing that Kiffin/Marinelli are capable of making QBs have “bad days” when they play this scheme. Not all of them, of course, as Phil Rivers and Peyton didn’t seem troubled at all, but enough to put you in a spot where you can contend for divisional titles and may be the difference between 8-8 and winning your division.
And LeSean McCoy, the awesome running threat and NFL’s leading rusher through this point of the season had to battle for his 55 yards on 18 carries for just 3.1 yards per carry and one run of 10 yards – something he does routinely. For this banged up and largely cast away defensive front to do the type of work that they did – with phenomenal support from Sean Lee and the linebackers – against the inside zone play of the Eagles attack is worth noting. And, although Matt Barkley was generous in his ball generosity on his 3 interceptions, it is also worth pointing out that the Cowboys are now at 15 takeaways through 7 games this season after getting 16 in the entirety of 2012. 9 games to play and they need but 1 more takeaway to equal last season’s totals.
Meanwhile, the offense saw another week that required grinding to the extremes of everyone’s level of patience before they eventually solved their protection issues in the teeth of an Eagles’ blitz that threw them off their game in the 1st half.
The Denver game brought on a lot of observations from those of us obsessed with NFL tactics and how a team attacks while another team tries to thwart those attacks. It is a league filled with brilliant minds and if they sense that you have a weakness, they will force you to defend it. That is particularly amplified in road games where you must deal with the noise and the swagger of a home team playing in front of its demanding faithful masses. The Broncos game showed the Cowboys what their offense was capable of, but it showed the league that allowing the Cowboys to have Tony Romo sit in the pocket and pick apart a secondary in coverage is suicidal. So, while Dallas people were excited to go and score 48 against everyone, the defensive coordinators of the NFC East decided to stop that nonsense by sending more and more pressure at Romo’s face and see if he can still find big plays.
That has been the subplot of the Washington and Philadelphia contests, as Jim Haslett blitzed over and over again. And, Billy Davis decided to mimic that same approach. Blitz with 5 and sometimes 6, while trying to take away the hook/curl to Witten that has been the staple of the Cowboys blitz counters. And for much of the 1st half, it worked like a charm. You could see the frustration mounting as the Cowboys were periodically moving the chains, but just not finding any points. The Eagles even did something that was more effective than what Haslett was trying the week before in that they seemed to have the ability to drop off after faking or “sugaring” blitzes and getting a quick linebacker drop into Romo’s blitz beating spots. They were showing a 6 or 7 man blitz, but only 4 or 5 actually did blitz and Romo had to decode that with a man in his face and not throw the ball where he normally liked to go (Witten).
This tactic worked well for most of the 1st half and the Cowboys frustration was obvious. They entered the game pretty sure they would need 30+ to win, and when the defense was giving them an opening to put some space between themselves and the Eagles on the scoreboard, they were not pouncing on the chance – partly because they were giving up sacks and committing penalties at a rapid rate.
But, after the intermission, the Cowboys did a much better job of getting the protections right, and after a Dwayne Harris kick return gave them some space, they started carving things up. Romo hit Dez Bryant 3 times on that first drive for 13 yards, 12 yards, and then 18 yards on a play that was close to being a touchdown on a crossing pattern, but Bryant did step out at the 2. Each one of those big plays came against big pressure and the Romo to Bryant combination proved to be too strong on this very important drive. They only needed 1 3rd down conversion (3rd and 2) on the way down the field and then drew a pass interference in the end zone on Bryant again as the Eagles were having fits trying to deal with the dominant game-breaker. Philip Tanner punched in the touchdown and the Cowboys finally broke through to take a 10-0 lead before the Eagles touched the ball in the 2nd half.
Despite the breakthrough in strategy and execution, it is still a tight-rope walk in dealing with the blitz, and although the Cowboys had the answers, a missed throw and catch to Miles Austin on the next drive (where Chip Kelly won a challenge) was followed by a major offensive mistake late in the 3rd Quarter.
The Cowboys offense was driving again with a 10-0 lead and in Eagles territory with a chance to take the game by the neck. Facing a 3rd and 3, the Cowboys were expecting pressure, and had Cole Beasley – who might be the Cowboys great 3rd Down conversion discovery and counter punch to teams suffocating Witten – in a preferable man-to-man matchup with a much slower Mychal Kendricks underneath from the right slot, stacked behind the TE.
Romo waited for Witten to take coverage down the seam and clear out the space by the sticks, and then Beasley fakes Kendricks to the outside and heads back in front of Romo with all sorts of space. Meanwhile, on Romo’s left, Tanner is picking up the blitz, but when he sees that DeMeco Ryans is not blitzing, he decides to clear out across the field back to the right. This puts Ryans crossing the path of Beasley who is 5 yards deeper, and Ryans picks off a pass that is going to a wide-open Beasley. First, the interception itself was a magnificent play by the middle linebacker and he returned it into Cowboys territory in a play that could have swung the entire game.
The announcers seemed to not fully notice what was happening as Troy Aikman and Thom Brennaman never seemed to acknowledge that it was not an errant pass intended for Tanner (that would have been well behind him), but rather a pass that was for Beasley. And here is where it appears Tanner was supposed to clear out in a way that would not bring a linebacker into the path of the throw from the opposite side. Tanner admitted his error later, but the milk was already spilled. A small mix-up from a RB in a check-release responsibility might have just swung the game.
And this is where you love what the defense did next. They held the damage to a minimum – with some help from Foles missing an open Jason Avant – and kept the game from getting out of hand. JJ Wilcox made two great defensive plays during this sequence, and then George Selvie and Jarius Wynn combined on a sack that ended Foles afternoon altogether. A field goal cut the game to 10-3, but the stand from the defense after the offense’s gaffe was huge.
The Cowboys offense then redeemed itself with a clinical drive that slammed the door with the Eagles continuously blitzing Romo hoping for another gift. But, there would be no such gifts given as Romo used Bryant, Beasley, Witten, and then finally Terrance Williams on a slant for a touchdown that made the blitz look silly. 17-3 and game over.
This was not easy, nor pretty. But, it is the type of game that makes you feel that the Cowboys have a grit and resilience that will serve them well as the season develops. They can deal with adversity and still stay on task. They can outlast some opponents and fight to the very end each week. These are characteristics that are vital in the NFL when there are too many wise men on the other sideline to allow for easy conquests.
Winning is difficult in the NFL and so is winning on the road.
But, on Sunday, the Cowboys quieted a fair amount of questions for the time being and got above .500 and into 1st place with a well-earned victory.