Cowboys youth movement aids team in playoff win

Quarterback Tony Romo deserves to be heralded as the Dallas Cowboys’ stable veteran presence that led the team to a 24-20 victory over the Detroit Lions in Sunday’s NFC Wildcard at AT&T Stadium. Other veterans such as defensive lineman Anthony Spencer, receiver Dez Bryant, and tight end Jason Witten are worthy of praise. However, the Cowboys’ youth movement played a key part in securing just the franchise’s second postseason win since 2009.

Second-year center Travis Frederick and rookie guard Zack Martin were both part of the dysfunctional blitz pickup that allowed Romo to be sacked for six times, tying an NFL postseason record. Later in the game, when the Cowboys needed to move the football on critical third and even fourth down plays, Frederick and Martin, along with the rest of the line, kept Romo upright to deliver the converting strikes.

Receiver Terrance Williams is in his second-year, and he provided the spark the team needed down 14-0 late in the first half. After having only one catch for eight yards, Williams was called for offensive pass interference on a pick play to help Witten convert for a first down.

On the very next play, Williams caught a 76-yard slant that took him to the house to cut Detroit’s lead to 14-7 and give the Cowboys life.

Rookie linebacker Anthony Hitchens was a controversial selection in the fourth round, and the ex-Iowa Hawkeye was part of another controversial call. On third-and-1 from the Dallas 46, Stafford’s pass nailed Hitchens right in the back with the defender never seeming to turn around and look for the ball headed for tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Referee Pete Morelli picked up the flag for pass interference, because face-guarding is not illegal in the NFL, only college. The Lions ultimately punted.

This is where Williams struck again. On third-and-8 from the Detroit 8, Romo found the ex-Baylor Bear in the middle of the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown to take a 24-20 lead. Williams finished the game with three catches for 92 yards and two touchdowns.

Rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence was another controversial pick from 2014’s draft. The Cowboys sent their second and third picks to Washington to slide up to the 34th overall pick to select Lawrence, who battled injuries all season and failed to record a sack. On the second play of the Lions’ final drive, the Boise State product scooped up a Stafford fumble forced by Anthony Spencer. Rather than fall on the ground, Lawrence danced around looking for a lane, but lost the ball and gave Detroit another shot.

Lawrence redeemed himself eight plays later on a crucial fourth-and-3 from the Dallas 3. Not only did Lawrence knife through the offensive line to strip-sack Stafford, but he fell on the loose ball to give the Cowboys possession to run out the clock. In doing so, Lawrence became the first Cowboys rookie defensive lineman since Russell Maryland in the 1991 wildcard in Chicago to record a sack in the playoffs.

The Cowboys have one of the youngest rosters in the NFL with an average roster age of 25 years old. What has held the Cowboys back in previous years is their rookie and second-year players failing to contribute. Now, the younger players are getting valuable on-the-job training while helping carry Dallas further into the postseason.

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