ST. LOUIS -- A few thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys' 34-31 win over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome:
What it means: Any win on the road against any team cannot be taken lightly when the expectations for the Cowboys this season are as low as they are. So give the Cowboys credit for their win after overcoming an abysmal start, even if a lot of it was overcoming themselves.
DeMarco Murray fumbled for the third straight game, and the Rams countered with a touchdown. Tony Romo had an interception returned for a touchdown. As a result, the Cowboys were down 21-0 with 6:06 left in the half.
But then they scored 34 of the game’s next 37 points, culminating in a Bruce Carter interception return for a touchdown with 6:13 to play.
It matched the largest deficit the Cowboys have overcome in team history and the first time they did it in regulation. On Oct. 21, 1984, they beat the New Orleans Saints 30-27 in overtime. In the 1999 season opener, they did the same to beat the Washington Redskins 41-35 in overtime.
Century mark once more: Murray became the third Cowboys running back to start the season with three straight 100-yard games, but it was a fight. It was also Murray’s third straight 100-yard game against the Rams, as he finished Sunday with 100 yards on 24 carries. Did we mention it was a fight? In the first half, Murray carried 10 times for 40 yards, but 38 of those yards came on the final drive of the half. The seven other first-half carries gained 2 yards.
In the second half, Murray found it a little bit easier but was helped by a 44-yard run in the third quarter. When the Cowboys needed to run the clock out, they couldn’t do it.
Murray joined Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith as the only Cowboys runners to open with three straight 100-yard games. Dorsett did it in 1981. Smith did it in 1995, when he had four straight games.
Game ball: Yes, Romo had an interception returned for a touchdown in the first half, but the Cowboys quarterback looked far different than how he had played in the first two games. Romo was nimble, as evidenced by his 16-yard scramble on a third-and-13 run in the fourth quarter. Later, on third-and-14, he found Terrance Williams for 20 yards. Four plays later, he hit Williams on a 12-yard touchdown pass. There was no wild celebration. Romo simply pumped his fist and went to the sideline. His stats were modest -- 18-of-23, 217 yards -- but he made the plays when it mattered most.
Stock watch: When the Cowboys drafted Morris Claiborne with the sixth pick of the 2012 draft, they said he was their highest-rated defensive back since Deion Sanders. It looked like they could not have been more wrong until Claiborne sealed Sunday's win with an athletic interception in the closing minutes to stop the Rams’ final drive. Before that, however, Claiborne was beaten by Brian Quick for a 51-yard touchdown on the first play of the second quarter. In the third quarter, he was beaten on a go route for 38 yards by Kenny Britt and then missed a tackle on a 16-yard run by Zac Stacy. That drive led to a Rams field goal. Later, he was flagged for illegal contact and was the closest defender on St. Louis’ final touchdown. All is not forgiven with the interception, but at least Claiborne made the deciding play.
What’s next: The Cowboys return to AT&T Stadium to take on the Saints. Last year, the Cowboys were embarrassed at the Mercedes Benz Superdome 49-17 in a game when the Saints put up an NFL-record 40 first downs and 625 yards. After the Cowboys saw 49ers fans overtake the home stadium in the opener, the Saints fans will be out in full force as well. New Orleans has won both meetings at the new stadium in Arlington, Texas.
McClain did not practice all week and was listed as doubtful. He will be replaced in the starting lineup by rookie Anthony Hitchens, who started last week against the Tennessee Titans at weakside linebacker. The coaches have credited McClain with 22 tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss, two quarterback pressures, one interception and one pass breakup.
McClain did not go through any pregame tests in warm-ups to try to convince the medical staff he could play.
The Cowboys’ second leading tackler, linebacker Justin Durant, will miss his second straight game because of a groin injury. Also inactive are: defensive tackle Davon Coleman, defensive end Anthony Spencer, quarterback Dustin Vaughan, tackle Donald Hawkins and cornerback Tyler Patmon.
Cornerback Orlando Scandrick will make his debut after missing the first two games of the season due to a suspension for failing the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. The suspension was cut short once the NFL and NFL Players Association reached an agreement on a revised drug policy.
Getting to 2-1 hasn’t been a problem. They have done it in each of Jason Garrett’s first three seasons, including a 31-7 win last year against the Rams. The problem has been staying over .500 for more than one week at a time.
The last time the Cowboys visited St. Louis, Brad Johnson was their starter in the 2008 meeting, a 34-14 loss that wasn’t even that close as Tony Romo missed the first of three straight games with a broken pinky finger.
Three in a row? DeMarco Murray leads the NFL in rushing with 285 yards in the first two games of the season. He joined Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith as the only Cowboys runners to open the year with consecutive 100-yard games.
With another 100-yarder today against the Rams, he would continue on the paths Dorsett and Smith paved in 1981 and 1995. Dorsett opened the ’91 season with three straight 100-yard games. Smith opened with four straight in ’95.
In his last nine games Murray has had at least 86 yards rushing seven times and four 100-yard games.
“I think the O-line is doing a good job of blocking and we’re having fun out there and we’re all on the same page,” Murray said. “So that’s really what it takes to have the success that we’ve had and to make sure the guys are blocking well, receivers, tight ends, they’re all doing a great job in assisting in the running game. It’s all 11 people doing their jobs. That’s very crucial and we’re on the right way.”
Who’s the QB? Rams coach Jeff Fisher said he will make a decision before the game as to whether he starts Shaun Hill or Austin Davis at quarterback.
Garrett said it is more important to know the Rams’ scheme. According to Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, it doesn’t matter who the Rams start.
“One thing I’ve always done is we prepare ourselves each and every day it’s our defense and how we do it it’s our disguises and I try to look at those guys as kind of grey matter really,” Marinelli said. “It’s about us. Every day it’s about us, what we do, how we prepare.”
Some backup quarterbacks gave the Cowboys issues last year. Josh McCown parlayed a four-TD performance against the Cowboys into a big free-agent deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Chicago Bears’ 45-28 pasting of the Cowboys. Matt Flynn kept the Green Bay Packers’ season alive with a four-touchdown effort against the Cowboys in a 37-36 win
The ref: Clete Blakeman’s crew will work today’s game. Here is a breakdown of Blakeman from last week.
The return of cornerback Orlando Scandrick from a suspension would seem to put Tyler Patmon on the bench. The need for a fifth cornerback just isn't there, but maybe the Cowboys want to cover themselves in case they don't want to over-tax Scandrick in his first game.
With Lavar Edwards released earlier Saturday, that puts Jack Crawford in the lineup for the second straight week.
Now let's get to linebacker. Officially, McClain is doubtful with a groin injury. He did not practice the entire week but the Cowboys will wait to see how he warms up Sunday morning. The Cowboys called up Keith Smith from the practice squad so that should give you an idea McClain is not playing.
McClain is not like other veterans because he has not played much the past two seasons. He does not have a track record with the Cowboys of not practicing and playing. But he might be too valuable to keep off the field.
So the guess at the inactives is: Durant, Coleman, Spencer, Vaughan, Hawkins, Patmon and McClain.
The Cowboys need depth at linebacker with Rolando McClain expected to miss Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams due to a groin injury. McClain, the Cowboys' leading tackler, is listed as doubtful and did not practice this week.
The Cowboys acquired Edwards on Aug. 30 by trading a conditional 2015 seventh-round pick to the Tennessee Titans.
Dallas owes Tennessee the pick if Edwards is on the Cowboys' 53-man roster for 10 games. The Cowboys are expected to re-sign Edwards.
- DeMarco Murray or the offensive line
- Rolando McClain, Comeback Player of the Year
- McClain, Sean Lee or both?
- Anthony Spencer update
- Sticking with 8-8
@toddarcher: I hate to go all Jason Garrett on you here, but I think it's a combination of the two. I'd lean more to the offensive line as the bigger factor, but I wouldn't give it that much of an edge. Murray has done a good job of turning nothing into something a few times so far. But the line has been better, as expected, with three first-round picks up front. I don't think that will factor into the negotiations. I think the Cowboys realize Murray is more valuable than just being able to plug a guy in there and receive the same production. But I don't see them going crazy on a deal for Murray or any running back. Remember, this position has been devalued across the league. Teams aren't signing them to big-time contracts, so forget any Marion Barber type deal, and they're not going crazy to draft them in the first round either. I've put Murray in the $4 million average neighborhood. Does that go up as he plays this year? Probably, but I think the Cowboys will draw a line at some point.
@toddarcher Is the success of the running game more due to DeMarco or the OL? If OL, does that factor in to Boys decision to extend Murray?— Thomas M. Grove (@ThomasMGrove) September 19, 2014
@toddarcher: Well, he's certainly off to a good start, but if this groin injury keeps him out for a few weeks then that would dampen his case. McClain has been a strong addition for a relatively low price. But I think Darren Sproles will get plenty of consideration for what he's done so far too. The Philadelphia Eagles got him for a song from the New Orleans Saints and are using him the right way. Sproles' production dipped each year in New Orleans. He was still dangerous but not the guy that has shown up the first two games with Chip Kelly. McClain might be coming back from more, considering he didn't play in 2013, but Sproles shouldn't be ignored.
@toddarcher: I think we still need to temper the McClain train some. It's been two games. Let's see if he has staying power before we wonder about how he would fit in 2015. And remember, he will be a free agent after this season. Let's say he continues on this path. Well, that would cost the Cowboys to keep him. He has said the Cowboys are the only team he would come off the couch for. Are they the only team he'd be willing to play for after taking a chance? I don't really know. I do believe there is a way for Lee and McClain to play together. Lee could play on the weak-side if necessary. He has the instincts for the position. There was chatter that he could move there this year to potentially save him from injury to a degree but the coaches never really put much into that. Lee has come back from a torn ACL before, but has to show he can do it again. There are questions about him. There are so many ifs in this answer, but if they all pan out, I think the Cowboys can find a way to get both on the field at the same time.
@toddarcher: Spencer returned to practice this week and will need time on the field to build up his endurance before he comes back. I do think he'll be back before Week 6 at the Seattle Seahawks. What role? I think you'll see the Cowboys use him as a situational pass rusher early on, playing in the nickel package. I don't think they want to run him out there 45-50 snaps a game. That wouldn't be wise on his knee and it wouldn't follow what Rod Marinelli wants to do with his defensive line rotation. As for Ryan Williams, why does he need to be activated? He wouldn't play. He's not going to take snaps away from DeMarco Murray, Lance Dunbar or Joseph Randle. The better move is to keep him on the practice squad and if something happens to their top three backs, then add him to the roster. Until that happens, there is no need to add a fourth tailback to the 53-man roster.
#cowboysmail what's status of Anthony Spencer? Ryan Williams going to be activated?— Will (@melbeverly) September 19, 2014
@toddarcher: Why change? They have done what they have always done -- win one, lose one. I'd remind you of one of Bill Parcells' favorite quotes: Don't eat the cheese. Yes, the defense has been better than many thought, including me. The running game has been great. I'd say the running game has a better chance to continue this way than the defense. I want to see this defense against a passing offense that can truly threaten you. The San Francisco 49ers don't have one or they just shut it down in the second half. The Tennessee Titans certainly don't have one. And I don't think the St. Louis Rams have one. Next up is the Saints. They have one. But I wouldn't get carried away with a 1-1 start. This is what they do. If they can string games together early, then I'll think about changing my prediction, but not now.
With how the defense has looked and the running game do you still stick with your 8 and 8 prediction? #cowboysmail— Casey Nelson (@CaseyNelson60) September 18, 2014
- It’s not often Tony Romo has been considered a game-manager as the Cowboys’ quarterback. He did that last week and wouldn’t mind doing it some more.
- But in order to manage the game, Romo will have to manage his back. He did not practice on Wednesday.
- Orlando Scandrick’s suspension was cut short with the adoption of the NFL’s new drug policy, and the Cowboys are glad he is back.
- DeMarco Murray has lit up the Rams in his first two games against them, and he’s off to a monstrous start.
- How much stock does Murray put in those games entering Sunday?
- Now that Scandrick is back, what happens to Morris Claiborne?
- Calvin Watkins and Jean-Jacques Taylor bring you this week’s segment of The Boys.
- Nick Wagoner and I bring you this week’s game preview.
Bryant hurt his right shoulder in the first quarter of last week's game against the Tennessee Titans, but he was able to return and finished with 10 catches for 103 yards and a touchdown. He did not practice Wednesday and was limited in workouts Thursday and Friday.
He has played in 42 straight games after missing five of the first 18 games of his career.
On Thursday, Bryant said the shoulder was "a little bit sore, but nothing that's going to keep me out. I'm going to be ready to roll on Sunday."
Linebacker Rolando McClain is doubtful but did not practice this week with a groin injury. If he can't play, then the Cowboys will move rookie Anthony Hitchens to the middle with Bruce Carter (weak side) and Kyle Wilber (strong side) handling the outside linebacker spots.
"It's not my decision," McClain said. "It's coach's decision. I'll just do whatever he'll ask me to do and we'll go from there."
Quarterback Tony Romo (back) went through his second straight full practice after sitting out of Wednesday's practice with tightness in his back. He is listed as probable.
For all of the matchups discussed this week across the NFL, for the football purists, Smith vs. Quinn might be the best of Week 3.
“[Quinn] is just a great player, for a lot of different reasons,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s quick. He’s fast. He’s explosive. He can bend, accelerate to the quarterback. He’s just a disruptive guy, disruptive every week and every game and certainly a guy that opposing offenses will give a lot of attention to. Tyron has played against him before. He understands what the challenge is over there. The other part about him is that he plays with a great motor. He’s not one of these guys who (says) ‘Hey, I have a lot of ability and can go get the quarterback when I want to.’ He comes every snap. He challenges you both as a pass-rush guy and a run defender. Tyron and everyone else is going to be responsible for blocking him -- they understand how good a player he is and have a healthy respect for him.”
Rams coach Jeff Fisher was as effusive in his praise of Smith.
“Tyron’s playing really well,” Fisher said. “He has two solid games against good rushers. He’s very, very strong. He’s got good feet. He’s got hands. He does a nice job with his hands. So I think it’ll be a great matchup. As we’ve played many games with Rob, you get the sense that people are not going to hold the football, the seven-step drops don’t take place. It’s a quick game. It’s play-action protection, those kind of thinks, chip with a back. You know we’ll just wait and see. I think it’ll be a great matchup. They’re two outstanding players.”
When these teams met last year, Smith matched up against Quinn on 20 pass plays. He received help on one, a chip from DeMarco Murray. Quinn did not have a sack or a pressure. He did have a tackle for loss and a forced fumble in the run game.
“Just knowing that what type of player he is, it’s not going to be easy,” Smith said.
Quinn, who was second in the NFL last season with 19 sacks, is looking for his first sack this season.
“He’s a young, athletic tackle,” Quinn said. “I happen to be the same draft class. It’s definitely going to be a nice little athleticism matchup.”
In two games against the Rams, Murray has 428 yards and two touchdowns on 51 carries. The Cowboys won those games by a combined score of 65-14. Both of those games were at AT&T Stadium, so now Murray has to see if he can take it on the road to the Edward Jones Dome. He is coming off a 29-carry, 167-yard effort at the Tennessee Titans. The Cowboys’ running game has not been this efficient since the Emmitt Smith days.
The Rams counter with the 30th-ranked rush defense, giving up 171 yards a game on the ground through two weeks.
Add it up and the Cowboys will win road games on back-to-back weeks for the first time since 2009, although this one will be closer than the laughers they have had against the Rams at home.
Prediction: Cowboys 31, Rams 27
Rookie Anthony Hitchens would start at middle linebacker if McClain is out, with Kyle Wilber moving to strongside linebacker and Bruce Carter on the weak side. Justin Durant will miss his second straight game with a groin injury, but coach Jason Garrett said Durant has improved.
Running back Joseph Randle returned to practice for the first time this week after suffering a concussion last week against the Tennessee Titans.
Defensive end Anthony Spencer is not practicing after going through limited workouts on Wednesday and Thursday. Those were Spencer’s first practices since last season as he comes back from microfracture surgery on his left knee.
"He’s feeling good," Garrett said. "We just want to make sure we do the right amount of work with him as he’s coming back."
Defensive tackle Davon Coleman (calf) missed his third straight day of practice.
In those two games, the Dallas Cowboys’ running back has picked up 428 yards on 51 carries. On Oct. 23, 2011, he ran for a franchise-record 253 yards on 25 carries in a 34-7 win against the Rams, and he didn’t even start that game. Last year he picked up 175 yards on 26 carries in a 31-7 win.
Murray gets his third chance against the Rams on Sunday. How much will the previous games factor into this one?
The Rams have a new coordinator in Gregg Williams with a new scheme. They have new players but also will be missing one of their best players, defensive end Chris Long.
“I think you’ve got to be really careful of going back and saying, ‘Boy, he plays great against these guys,’” coach Jason Garrett said. “Well, these guys aren’t necessarily the same guys he’s played against in the past. But, he’s certainly playing well right now. We’ve run the ball well the first couple weeks, and he’s been a big part of it.”
St. Louis hasn’t exactly stopped the run, either. The Rams have the 30th-ranked run defense through two games, giving up 171 yards per game on the ground. Minnesota wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson had 102 yards on three carries in Week 1. Tampa Bay’s Bobby Rainey had 144 yards on 22 carries in Week 2.
“I didn’t watch any film of the last two years that we played them at all,” Murray said. “I’ve watched them preseason and the first two games to get a feel for what they do and it’s totally different.”
St. Louis defensive end Robert Quinn played in both contests, though he was not one of the NFL’s best defenders in 2011. Stopping the big run is at the top of Quinn’s to-do list this week. In the 2011 meeting, Murray had 172 of his 253 yards on four carries, including a 91-yarder. In 2013, 118 of his 175 yards came on five carries.
“We want to keep him within the box so our big guys and our ‘backers and sometimes safeties can get downhill and just keep him to as minimal yardage as possible,” Quinn said.
With as well as the Cowboys have started the season on the ground, play-caller Scott Linehan knows he will have to devise different ways to get Murray loose as defenses key on tendencies. But he doesn’t want to get away from what the Cowboys and Murray do best.
“He runs angry,” Linehan said. “It’s a great compliment to do that because a lot of guys are running to daylight. DeMarco has that ability but he plays the game like one of those big backs that run with that fierce, tenacious kind of style. You don’t realize it, but he’s not the biggest back in the league. I don’t know where you put him as far as where that is, but he plays that way. The physical nature, he brings a lot of identity to our team the way he plays because our guys are doing the same thing up front. The tight end, the receivers are playing with that same kind of physical nature. To be good at the run game, your back has to have that style to be the guy that’s packing it most of the time.”