Dallas Cowboys: A.J. Green
The Cowboys' running game never got in a good rhythm, gaining only 49 yards on 24 carries. The Cowboys could not block Bengals DT Geno Atkins, who had three tackles for losses in addition to his sack and three quarterback hurries. But there were two big bright spots for DeMarco Murray, who rushed for 53 yards on 21 carries. He went over the top of the pile for a 1-yard touchdown in the second quarter and made a tough, 6-yard run on third-and-5 with 1:17 remaining in the game to ensure that the Cowboys would have a chance to win as time expired.
It wasn't necessarily a pretty day for Tony Romo and the Cowboys' passing game. The Bengals' front four got consistent pressure, sacking Romo three times and forcing several hurried throws, a handful of which Romo is fortunate weren't picked off. The Cowboys' starting receivers were nonfactors for most of the game. But Romo finished with 268 yards on 25-of-43 passing and threw a 27-yard touchdown to Dez Bryant. Romo was at his best while leading the Cowboys' comeback, completing 11 of 15 passes for 128 yards and the score during the fourth quarter.
Why didn't the Bengals run the ball more often? That's a question that will be asked a lot in Cincinnati. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who had three consecutive 100-yard games entering the day, carried only 12 times. He gained 89 yards, an average of 7.4 per carry. Receiver Marvin Jones gained 37 yards on an end-around when a play-fake to Green-Ellis fooled the Dallas defense. It's a mystery why Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden didn't opt to test the middle of a Dallas defense missing its top two nose tackles and top two inside linebackers much more often.
The Bengals helped the Cowboys' cause with some drops, including a couple of uncharacteristic ones by star receiver A.J. Green, including one play that should have been a touchdown. Nevertheless, the Cowboys contained Green (three catches for 44 yards) and quarterback Andy Dalton (20-of-33 for 206 yards and a touchdown with one interception). Cornerback Brandon Carr's 37-yard interception return, which came after he dropped into a zone and perfectly read Dalton's eyes on a throw to Green, set up the Cowboys' first touchdown. The Cowboys had a season-high five sacks, including two by Anthony Spencer.
Punter Brian Mooman had a miserable day, averaging 33.0 yards per punt. His two shanked punts -- 23-and 29-yarders -- set up a pair of Cincinnati field goals. Moorman did bust out of the yips to boom his last punt 49 yards, pinning the Bengals inside the 10 on their first possession of the fourth quarter, a critical shift in field position. The Cowboys got cute on their only kickoff return, with Dwayne Harris faking a handoff to Dez Bryant. That resulted in a 14-yard return that might have been a big play if not for a quick whistle that ruled Harris down. Dan Bailey calmly delivered by booting the 40-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.
Forget about X's and O's for a moment. This wasn't about Jason Garrett's game plan. It was about his ability to hold a team together after an awful tragedy. Garrett handled a horrible situation about as well as humanly possible, deftly balancing delicate emotions with the cold, hard reality that the Cowboys had to be ready to play a game that was critical to their playoff hopes. The Cowboys showed tremendous poise and character by rallying from a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win. That's a testament to the mental toughness that Garrett has instilled in his team.
Here are some adjustments:
1. Press the wide receivers. Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton is getting rid of the ball very quickly. There were a few throws where he let it go at 1.2 seconds, which makes it hard for defenders to reach him. One way the Cowboys can combat this is by pressing the wide receivers. The cornerbacks are playing zone defense, which allows Dalton to get rid of passes in front of the corners or in soft spots in the zone. The Cowboys need to press receivers A.J. Green and Brandon Tate. The Cowboys do have a turnover, an interception by Brandon Carr as Dalton scrambled out of the pocket. If the Cowboys continue to get pressure on Dalton, maybe he'll make another mistake.
2. Run the football. If this game gets out of hand in the second half then change things, but right now the Cowboys trail the Bengals by three. So keep running the ball. Dallas is using lots of three-receiver sets, which is nice, but run it with Murray, who has 10 carries for 21 yards with one touchdown. It seems the Cowboys' offensive line is getting a good push along the line of scrimmage and Murray is running better than last week. His score, a 1-yarder, came when he jumped up and pushed the ball over the goal line. Murray is cutting better across the field this week than in the Eagles game, his first after returning from a five-game absence from a sprained foot.
3. Find Dez Bryant. It's nothing strange to see the Cowboys' most explosive receiver not get a catch in the first half. Bryant was targeted twice; he dropped a pass on one targed, and Tony Romo threw one over his head on the other. It appeared to be a miscommunication on the second target. But in the second half, the Cowboys need to find Bryant. He's getting pressed at the line of scrimmage and the Bengals are also playing off him. He did get open on a slant on press coverage, so it's possible for him to become a weapon. Bryant finished the first half without a catch.
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 14:
Rookies making history. The Washington Redskins are the first team in NFL history to feature both a 2,000-yard rookie passer (Robert Griffin III) and a 1,000-yard rookie rusher (Alfred Morris). Griffin is poised to join Morris as a 1,000-yard rusher if he can average 71.5 rushing yards per game the rest of the way. Griffin already is just the fourth player in league history to pass for at least 2,500 yards and rush for at least 700 yards in a single season, joining Cam Newton (2011), Michael Vick (2002) and Randall Cunningham (1990). The Redskins are 6-6 and pushing for a playoff spot, and the success or failure of the rookie engines of their offense over the final four games could determine whether they can get in.
Flipping the rookie script? Philadelphia Eagles rookie running back Bryce Brown has been more impressive since taking over for concussed starter LeSean McCoy than rookie quarterback Nick Foles has been filling in for concussed starter Vick. But that could change this week in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers are allowing just 82.3 yards per game on the ground this season, the lowest figure in the NFL. They are allowing an NFL-high 309.4 yards per game through the air, which could turn out to be historically bad. No team in NFL history has allowed an average of 300 or more passing yards per game over a full season. So Foles has a chance for his best game yet, while Brown is likely to find the going tougher this week.
Not going to be a Brees. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is 4-0 with 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions in his four career games against the New York Giants, who host the Saints on Sunday in New Jersey. ESPN Stats & Info tells me the 11 touchdowns are tied for the most any player has had against a team that has not intercepted him. Drew Bledsoe had 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions in his career against the Cardinals. Of course, the Giants could be catching Brees at the right time. He threw five interceptions and no touchdowns in Week 13 against the Falcons in Atlanta. It broke a league-record streak of 54 consecutive games in which Brees had thrown at least one touchdown pass.
On the ground. Neither the Saints nor the Giants have been very good at stopping opposing runners in the backfield. New Orleans is allowing an average of 3.4 yards per rush before initial contact, which is the second-highest figure in the league, while New York's 3.2 yards allowed per rush before initial contact is third worst in the league. So Ahmad Bradshaw and whichever Saints running backs are active this week could have an easier time than usual making it to at least the line of scrimmage.
IRVING, Texas -- So, how many receivers on the Cowboys’ roster does Rob Ryan consider better than A.J. Green?
“That’d be none,” Ryan said with a laugh, refusing to take the bait. “And we’ve got some good ones. I’m not going there. I don’t think so.”
For those who don’t recall, Ryan made the ridiculous claim before last season’s meeting with the Lions that the Cowboys had two receivers better than Detroit’s Calvin Johnson. That predictably blew up in Ryan’s face when Johnson scored two late touchdowns in the Lions’ crazy comeback win.
The Bengals’ Green, the fourth overall pick last year, is one of the few receivers in the NFL who are close to Johnson’s class. Green is tied for the league lead with 10 touchdown catches and ranks sixth in both receptions (76) and yards (1,107).
Green is obviously the best under-25 receiver in the NFL. Or is he?
“I don’t want to answer that question,” Dez Bryant said. “He’s nice, I’ll give you that. He’s good. He’s real good. He’s real talented, very explosive, makes plays, clutch.”
That description fits Bryant’s recent performance, too. After blowing up the last four games, Bryant also ranks among the NFL’s top 10 in catches (71), receiving yards (978) and touchdown receptions (eight).
Bryant admitted that the presence of Green in the same stadium Sunday will pump his competitive juices just a bit more. While Bryant’s focus is on helping the Cowboys win, Bryant wants people to think of him when discussing the NFL’s elite receivers.
“It ain’t about proving,” Bryant said. “I don’t want to prove myself to nobody. I just want people to already know this is what it is.”
Sunday presents Bryant a chance to make a statement with a stud receiver on the opposing sideline.
The Dallas Cowboys have won three of their last four games to get back to .500 after a 3-5 start. Sunday’s opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals, have been playing much better as well, winning each of their last four games following a four-game losing streak.
The biggest difference for the Cowboys has been an offense that has topped 30 points in three of the last four games after not scoring as many as 29 in any of its first eight contests. The Bengals’ winning streak has not come against the NFL's elite. Though the Bengals defeated the NFC East-leading Giants, each of their other wins during their current streak came against AFC West cellar-dwelling team with a combined record of 9-27.
Here are four other statistical areas to watch Sunday:
- While the play of Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has been a catalyst for their better play on offense, the return of DeMarco Murray has made Romo even more effective, especially on play-action passes. Romo was 4-of-5 with two touchdowns on play action in Week 13 against the Eagles. When Murray has been available this season, Romo is 21-for-28 passing with four touchdowns and 10 yard per pass attempt using play action. Without Murray, Romo was 12-for-19 passing on play action but had two interceptions, only one touchdown and averaged just 3.9 yards per pass attempts.
- The Bengals’ A.J. Green and Dez Bryant of the Cowboys rank first and second, respectively, in touchdowns receptions on passes outside the painted numbers this season. Green, who also has league-leading 49 receptions on outside-the-numbers passes, has the most targets (79) without a drop on such throws, while Bryant’s four drops are tied for third most in the NFL.
- The Bengals have averaged a sack once every 12.2 dropbacks this season, the best rate in the NFL. The Bengals are tied for first in sacks overall with 39, including 26 using a standard four-man pass rush. Nineteen of the 28 sacks the Cowboys have allowed this season have been with four or fewer pass rushers.
- Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has rushed for at least 100 yards in each of his last three games. The only Bengals player to produce four consecutive games with at least 100 rushing yards was Paul Robinson, who did so in 1968. Over the past three games, Green-Ellis has picked up 292 of his 348 yards rushing between the tackles. The Cowboys have allowed 5.5 yards per attempt on 37 rushes between the tackles the last two games.
Todd Archer - How has Terence Newman played in his first year for the Bengals?
He's stayed healthy, which will surprise some Cowboys fan.
Geoff Hobson - He's been their most durable corner and is having a very solid year starting opposite Leon Hall. They have allowed one TD passin their four-game winning streak, and they've held QBs to a 65.2 passer rating. Web sites from profootbalfocus.com to ESPN have graded him highly through the year. He says 70 percent of it is being re-united with Mike Zimmer.
TA - Let's stick with the former Cowboy theme and move on to Mike Zimmer. The Bengals defense is performing well and Zimmer really seems to have found a home there. How has he done it and do you think he can be a head coach somewhere one day?
GH - Vintage Zimmer. Tough vs. the run, no screw-ups, no big plays, make them think you're blitzing a lot when you're really not and when you do it is just full barrel. They've given up just five-plus 20 runs and none of 40. He's got his kind of corners, physical, smart, and they think he walks on water. Plus, he's really riding this defensive line. Has to be the best he's ever had. A lot of four-man pressures so he can toy with different coverages.
The guy will be a head coach, I'm convinced. His reputation is just too good around the league and there are just too many teams in trouble. Players love him.
TA - From afar, how do you see the similarities in the way Mike Brown and Jerry Jones run their teams as the only owner/general manager types in the NFL?
GH - Pretty damn close in the since both have the final say in football matters and both have refused to relent against withering criticism. The biggest difference is Jerry has other business interests while Mike's only gig is the Bengals. They also have polar opposite views of NFL economics. But they've got more in common than people think. Note neither has naming rights for their stadium.
TA - We saw Andy Dalton excel at TCU and he seems to be doing the same there. Is he a franchise quarterback or a notch just below that level?
GH - Good question. I think so, but it's hard to say he is right now when he's 0-5 vs. the Ravens and Steelers. But he got them to the playoffs as a rookie and has them in the hunt again, which speaks volumes of his ability and his ample intangibles. To me, he is one in the making with Montana-like bent with brains and touch passing. Just give me a few more fourth-quarter comebacks (five of his 16 wins, which is excellent) and a couple of big AFC North wins. But he's on his way.
TA - How good is A.J. Green?
GH - He'll be the greatest Bengal who ever touched the ball and the debate will be between him and Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz for the greatest Bengal ever. He catches everything, from crossing routes to 9 routes. He can run after the catch and he can power up like he's going up on an NBA backboard. Beast is an understatement
|Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer says he's very impressed with Tony Romo and that Dez Bryant is starting to remind him of Michael Irvin.
Cincinnati (7-5) somehow went from becoming one of the most disappointing teams in the league to jumping back in the postseason hunt all in the same season. The Bengals are tied with Pittsburgh for the final playoff spot in the AFC, and they're two games behind the Ravens (9-3) in the AFC North race with four weeks remaining. It's been a remarkable turnaround for the Bengals, who had a 3-5 record on Nov. 4 after losing four straight games. The Bengals have since won four games in a row, and have done so in impressive style. Their margins of victory have been 18, 22, 24 and 7 points.
What has everyone learned from the Bengals' win streak? While the Bengals often make people regret making predictions about them, it's time to start taking the Bengals seriously. They're looking like a playoff team and they're playing like they have something to prove.
"This team is getting better each week," wide receiver A.J. Green said. "A lot of people said it was out of our reach to make the playoffs, but I feel like we have momentum on our side coming down the home stretch of the season."
There's not another team with more momentum on both sides of the ball. That includes teams that have already clinched a playoff spot like Houston, New England and Denver.
|Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer says he's very impressed with Tony Romo and that Dez Bryant is starting to remind him of Michael Irvin.
Their defense is stonewalling teams from the end zone. The Bengals are allowing 10.5 points during the win streak and have given up one offensive touchdown in three weeks. Over the past four weeks, Cincinnati's D has four interceptions and 15 sacks.
There's also a different attitude with this team. It surfaced against the Raiders two games ago when offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth was ejected in coming to the defense of quarterback Andy Dalton. In other words, these Bengals aren't going to be pushed around.
These young Bengals are growing up quickly. Dalton is among the best quarterbacks in getting the ball into the end zone. (His 24 touchdowns rank behind only Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.) Green is one of the most explosive wide receivers in the game. And defensive tackle Geno Atkins is the best player no one outside this division knows about.
“We control our destiny," linebacker Rey Maualuga said. "We can only control what we can. That is preparing for the next game. Show up and win. Be disciplined. Play with the same intensity and effort that we have been playing with the past couple weeks. I think that is all the coaches can ask for.”
What the Bengals' coaches have asked for has changed throughout the season. Early last month, coach Marvin Lewis was challenging his team leaders, Dalton and Maualuga, to step up. A month later, Lewis sounds concerned about overconfidence.
Maybe that's why the Bengals needed a victory like the one in San Diego on Sunday. Cincinnati turned the ball over three times and trailed by three points with four minutes remaining. But, as the Bengals have done this season, they bounced back from adversity and escaped with a 20-13 win.
Still, Lewis doesn't want his players to feel satisfied by that performance.
"Break up the glee club because we've got to do better," Lewis said. "It wasn't good enough [on Sunday] -- in a lot of areas. Everybody is patting them on their backs about what they're doing. Well, we haven't done anything. We just got back to even, and now we have to move forward. These last four are what counts."
The Bengals' next two games are home against Dallas (6-6) and at Philadelphia (3-9). What likely will determine their playoff fate is their final two games: at Pittsburgh and home against Baltimore.
This generation of Bengals -- Dalton, Green and other second-year or rookie players -- once again face their biggest obstacle. Since the start of the 2011 season, the Bengals are a combined 0-6 against the Ravens and Steelers, while they're 16-6 against the rest of the NFL.
Another sweep by Baltimore and Pittsburgh likely would eliminate Cincinnati from the postseason. The Bengals have to split with the Steelers because of tiebreaker implications.
Before the Bengals can become a playoff team again, they have to show they're a consistent team. The Bengals need two wins to put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1981 and '82.
“I think we are a far better football team than we were last year when we finished the season. That’s key," Lewis said. "We have to go prove that we’re better-equipped to finish out this last quarter of the season. That’s where we are now. We put ourselves back in position. We were able to overcome October, which was hard. We’ve done this by playing one snap at a time. We can’t lose sight of that."
By how they've turned around their season, the Bengals are suddenly a team to watch in December.
Three nuggets of knowledge about the Redskins-Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game:
The history: The Dallas Cowboys have won five of their past six Thanksgiving Day games, the only loss in that stretch coming against the New Orleans Saints in 2010. This will be the eighth time the Washington Redskins have played a Thanksgiving game, and the seventh time they've done so against the Cowboys. And while they did beat the Lions 20-0 on Thanksgiving in 1973, they are 0-6 all-time against the Cowboys in Thanksgiving games. The previous time they played one was 2002, when the Cowboys beat them 27-20.
Coverage improving: In their first seven games this season, the Redskins allowed eight opposing players to rack up 100 receiving yards in a game. That included staggering totals such as A.J. Green's 183 for the Bengals in Week 3; Danny Amendola's 160 for the Rams in Week 2; Percy Harvin's 133 for the Vikings in Week 6; and the Week 4 game in which two Tampa Bay receivers reached the century mark. However, in their past three games, no opposing player has more than 82 yards against the Redskins' defense. What does this mean for Dallas pass-catchers Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, who have combined for seven 100-yard receiving games this season? History says at least one will have a big game, but it's also possible the Redskins' coverage schemes have improved enough to limit the damage.
Away we go:
Todd Archer - Will the ownership change recently make much of a difference? Is this Joe Banner's show?
Tony Grossi - Not entirely. I think Jimmy Haslam will be very hands-on, much like Jerry Jones but without the additional roles of president and GM. Like Jones, Haslam has made a huge financial and emotional investment in the Browns. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and has quickly picked up on the frustration and disappointment of long-suffering Browns fans. He will rely on Banner a lot, but I expect Haslam to be in the draft room, on the practice field and in the Dawg Pound -- but not on the sidelines.
TA - Is there reason to believe Brandon Weeden is the guy for the Browns? They've gone through so many quarterbacks that you wonder if they're ever going to get it right.
TG - For a dozen or so years I've advocated the need for a more physical quarterback for the Browns to compete in the AFC North and also in their geography. Weeden has those tangibles -- big stature, big arm. He has an exceptional arm and also a nice release. I'm of the opinion that's where you start with a quarterback in this climate, playing outdoors, in an extremely physical division. The days of Brian Sipe magically floating balls into tight windows are long gone in the NFL. The jury is still out on Weeden's intangibles -- reading defenses, decision-making, etc. I'm liking what I'm seeing, though.
TA - Are we starting to see the Trent Richardson that had everybody excited back in April?
TG - Maybe not Sunday, but he's trending up, no doubt. He missed all of preseason after knee scope in August. He had 100 yards in his second NFL game. Then the coaches fell in love with Weeden's arm for two games and underused Richardson. Then he hurt his ribs. He played through a painful injury for two games and wasn't effective. Then he had two 100-yard games, still not at 100 percent. He said this week he's still not completely over the injury. I can't wait to see him totally healthy. Barring a setback, he should have the final month to show us the real Trent Richardson. He is the ultimate team guy.
TA - The Cowboys are going through some growing pains with Morris Claiborne and they use Joe Haden as an example for the rookie CB to follow. He was suspended for four games but seems to have come back and played well. Where is he in terms of his development?
TG - In training camp, Haden viewed this as his breakout year. He dropped 5 INTs last year and he was all geared up to establish himself as a shutdown corner, a Pro Bowl CB. The suspension kept him out Games 2-5. He had INTs in Games 1-6. He is their best player on defense -- a very good cover corner who is not shy about tackling. But I feel his size (5-foot-11, 190) will always betray him when covering the real giant elite WRs like A.J. Green, Calvin Johnson, etc. Green, one of the very best WRs, and also a divisional opponent, always seems to make the great catch over Haden. But Haden is very good and his absence showed his value. They were 0-4 without him and gave up 10 TD passes.
TA - I know I asked about Weeden already, but how has Colt McCoy handled this season and is there a future for him in the NFL if not in Cleveland?
TG - McCoy has impressed everyone the way he has handled his situation. You can tell it is eating him up. He is such a competitor. It's not like Weeden is lighting it up. I mean, they are 2-7, and Weeden has 12 INTs. I'm sure McCoy feels they'd have more wins with him. But he is a true team player and I respect him a lot for holding his tongue. I feel he's gotten a raw deal here, what with the concussion game last year, and then having to watch his job taken from him. Everyone says he's the ideal backup now, but, really, I've never seen him enter a game as a backup and manage the game from that perspective. I truly believe he has a greater chance at success in the NFL with a dome-based team or one in a milder climate. I wouldn't rule him out as a starter in the right situation, but I'm afraid it's not in a cold-weather, physical division. He can't spin the ball through the wind like Weeden.
Our offseason Cowboys Position Series continues with a look at the wide receivers.
Players:Roy Williams (signed through 2013), Sam Hurd (free agent), Manuel Johnson (free agent), Miles Austin (signed through 2016), Jesse Holley (free agent), Dez Bryant (signed through 2014), Kevin Ogletree (signed through 2011), Troy Bergeron (free agent)
Top draft prospects: A.J. Green Georgia; Julio Jones, Alabama; Randall Cobb, Kentucky; Torrey Smith, Maryland; Tandon Doss, IndianaAJ
2010 review:This was a talented group. It has speed in Miles Austin and Dez Bryant along with the big play ability of Roy Williams. Williams scored five touchdowns the first five weeks of the season then disappeared. Austin had over 1,000 receiving yards and earned another Pro Bowl berth. What was telling for Austin was his 10 droops, fifth most in the NFL and he was tied for 28th in fourth quarter receiving with 18 catches for 255 yards. What can you say about Bryant? He was fantastic. He had more third down catches than Williams and more fourth quarter touchdowns than Austin. Once he masters the playbook he could be an unstoppable force. A lack of playing time hurt Sam Hurd and Kevin Ogletree last year. Hurd is a free agent and he could play for another team. Ogletree will get a chance to emerge as a receiving threat.
Offseason preview: It might be time to cut Roy Williams, but it appears he’s going to be here in 2011. The lack of a No. 3 receiver if he should go, gives him the security. But the Cowboys need to make him productive for an entire season. Bryant has to master the playbook, something he didn’t do last year and Austin was a steady threat in the passing game. Ogletree was a good route runner now he has to get more chances to do it in games. If so, he could move past Williams up the depth chart. Drafting a wide receiver isn’t out of the question, but you wonder if Jesse Holley will get opportunities to play on offense in 2011.
Need meter (1-5): 2