During the Cowboys’ four-game winning streak, I learned that no matter the opponent's record, there will always be a reason for caution and concern.
The only time this season I've felt the Cowboys would clearly handle an opponent was against the Rams. In breaking down the Cardinals, I didn’t let their record affect me. There is talent on their squad. The more I studied, the more I believed that the Cowboys couldn’t just roll their helmets out on the field and feel like they would get a favorable result.
Where it all started to go wrong for Cowboys
Defensively for the Cowboys, this game really hinged on two areas: Could this secondary hold up against one of the league’s top five playmakers in Larry Fitzgerald and could they control Beanie Wells? For three quarters, Rob Ryan’s defense was up to the task, not allowing Fitzgerald or Wells many opportunities. All that changed on a play to start the fourth quarter to wide receiver Andre Roberts.
With the Cowboys holding a 10-6 lead, Roberts lines up in the slot with Terence Newman in coverage on the defensive right side. Fitzgerald is lined up outside Roberts with Mike Jenkins in coverage on Fitzgerald. At the snap of the ball, Fitzgerald runs a vertical route inside of Jenkins and past him but right on the toes of Gerald Sensabaugh, who is playing single high safety in the middle of the field. The other safety, Abe Elam, is on the left side of the defense near the line and in coverage on tight end Rob Housler, who is lined up as a wing right.
Roberts runs a route like he is going to curl, squaring his shoulders to quarterback Kevin Kolb. Newman, reading the route and feeling that Kolb is going in the direction of Roberts, drives forward to get into position to handle the ball. As Newman gets to Roberts’ back, he spins away from Newman and heads up the field and toward the sideline. There is no safety help in the middle of the field because Sensabaugh is running with Fitzgerald through the middle of the field. Newman is left trailing Roberts who now has separation on Newman.
In the backfield, Kolb is using a play-action fake to Wells and begins to roll to his left after the fake. The protection for the Cardinals is outstanding, allowing Kolb to make a perfect pass down the field to Roberts on the Dallas 49 with Newman still in chase. Newman manages to finally catch up with Roberts, getting him out of bounds on the Cowboys’ 33.
Four plays later, the Cardinals scored to take the lead. If the Cardinals don’t make this play to gain some momentum, I don’t believe that they would have won this game.
Costly series of mistakes by Terence Newman
In overtime, the Cardinals win the toss and go on offense first. Newman’s problems continued when he allows Roberts to run a slant on the first play, which looked like a sight adjust by Kolb, who takes the snap and the throws the ball to Roberts, taking advantage of a 12-yard cushion.
A couple of plays later, Newman commits a costly penalty. Newman is playing press coverage on Roberts and is in good shape on the jam, but he gets overextended and is out of balance on the route. Newman has to grab Roberts and ends up holding him. That turns a second-and-20 into an automatic first down.
Later in the drive, after a false start penalty against offensive tackle Levi Brown that makes it first-and-15, the Cardinals come with the perfect call against the Cowboys defense. Fitzgerald is lined up in the slot to the right, Roberts is outside right. Kolb is in the shotgun with LaRod Stephens-Howling to his right and fullback Anthony Sherman to his left.
At the snap, Anthony Spencer blitzes off the offensive right side, Stephens-Howling slides underneath from left to right, as the line slides to the right as well to form the blocking for the screen. Kolb manages to get the ball to Stephens-Howling in the flat and he heads up field.
The first line of support is Newman, who is blocked to the outside by Roberts and has no chance on the tackle. Sean Lee tries to chase from the inside along with Bradie James, who gives an outstanding effort but isn’t fast enough to make the tackle.
With Fitzgerald in front blocking on Gerald Sensabaugh, Stephens-Howling cuts back to the inside and then quickly back out. Elam tries to get into position to make the tackle but overruns the play when Stephens-Howling makes his second cut. Sensabaugh has fought off Fitzgerald’s block, but he has a hard time adjusting to make the tackle and misses. Orlando Scandrick tries to get in position to make a play from across the field but is too late arriving. The touchdown on the screen gives the Cardinals victory in overtime.
Missed opportunities for Cowboys offense
Offensively for the Cowboys, when you only score 13 points in a game, there is a pretty good chance that you will lose. This was the case for the Cowboys.
It really was a game of missed opportunities. There were several plays where the normally reliable Dez Bryant dropped balls that he would never put on the ground. Bryant has improved greatly this season as a route runner. This is important because with Bryant finding ways to get open, it’s giving Tony Romo more opportunities to get him the ball.
Throughout this season, I have been critical of Jason Garrett’s play-calling, but in this case I have to give him credit for a nice design of a play. When I worked for the Packers, Mike Holmgren used to have this play he called “swing arrow.” The design of the play is to get the ball to a running back down the sideline after you ran the receiver hard inside to pick off his man in coverage. It is one of those calls that works when you feel like the defense is in man coverage.
On this play, the Cardinals were in man coverage and Garrett tried to take advantage of that. At the snap, Bryant took off hard inside, trying to pick off Felix Jones’ man. Jones appears to start his route too far inside instead of trying to arch wide. If Jones takes his route wider, there is a better chance of gaining separation and getting the ball up the field.
When Jones finally works outside, he is unable to find the football in the air. In the backfield, Romo has to deliver the ball a little early because he is feeling a blitz from safety Adrian Wilson, who is unblocked coming from his right side. Romo has to throw the ball more to the sideline than to the middle of the field where Jones is running. The play was well designed and had a chance to be successful, but the blitz by Wilson made Romo have to hurry his throw.
Jones has to do a better job of running the route and finding the ball in the air. Garrett got the defense and coverage that he wanted and the execution from Bryant, but the result was a missed opportunity.
There are always plays in the game plan that when called have a great chance to be successful. This was one of those times.
Play-by-play: Cowboys' final drive in regulation
On the final drive, the Cowboys get the ball with 2:54 left on the clock. The drive starts with a nice completion to Jesse Holley on a curl when Romo buys time by moving to his right away from the pressure inside.
On the next play, Garrett sends three wide receivers in the game left and Romo wants to throw that way. Holley is on the back side and works to the middle of the field between the corner and safety. Romo again heads to his right with Holley still open in the middle of the field. Now Romo heads back to his left to throw the ball to Jason Witten in the flat for a loss of a yard. Romo never sees Holley in the middle of the field.
On second-and-11, the Cardinals go with single high safety as Romo moves Jones from the right to the left to help with protection. Kevin Ogletree runs the inside slant from the slot, and cornerback Michael Adams can’t stay with Ogletree. Nice throw and catch. Gain of 10.
On third-and-1, Romo gets the team to the line for the quarterback sneak. First down.
Garrett sends three wide receivers, one tight end and one back in the game, but Montrae Holland moves at left guard for a false start that costs the Cowboys five yards. With the Cardinals in a two-deep look, Laurent Robinson gets doubled on the outside. Late pressure from linebacker Paris Lenon causes problems because Holland doesn’t adjust. Incompletion.
On second-and-15 from the 50, Garrett and the offense get a delay of game penalty. This was strange because it comes after an incompletion with the same personnel on the field for the Cowboys as the previous play. Don’t understand why there would have been a delay of game there.
On second-and-20, there are two missed blocks on the play by Holland and Jones that cause Romo to have to throw off his back foot. He manages to get the ball to the outside to Bryant, who does a wonderful job of working the sideline and coming back to the ball for the reception for a gain of nine.
On third-and-11 from the Cardinals’ 46, Bryant is lined up wide left, Ogletree slot right and Robinson outside right. Witten is on the line to the right. Jones is next to Romo to his left in the gun. At the snap, Witten heads up the field, then out, Ogletree drives hard inside and sets up over the ball, Bryant runs his best route, which is the “In” 10 yards behind where Ogletree is set up. Romo throws the ball over the top of a jumping Ogletree, and Bryant adjusts low to make the catch with Peterson on his back. Great throw and even better catch.
On first-and-10 from Cardinals’ 31, Romo -- with direction from Garrett -- spikes the ball to set up the attempted game-winning field goal.
Dan Bailey has been money all year for the Cowboys. With the game on the line from 49 yards, there was no reason to believe that he would not be able to get this ball home for the win.
With every successful kick comes a good snap and hold. The snap to Mat McBriar was slightly above his eyes. As Bailey moves forward with his eyes down, he sees the laces are facing him. Two steps from the ball, McBriar does the best he could to get the laces forward before Bailey gets to the impact point.
Just before Bailey gets there, McBriar gets the laces away from Bailey, but the ball looks to be moving at impact. That split second of operation can affect the kick. In this case, it did.