Dallas Cowboys: Jacquizz Rodgers
They are second to Houston in the NFL in three-and-out drives at 29.6 percent (24 of 81). Wade Phillips’ Texans are No. 1 at 29.9% (29 of 97).
They are No. 10 in third-down defense, giving up a first down 36.3% of the time. Houston is No. 1 at 26.5%.
But then you look closer at their big plays allowed through the air, especially on third down. It’s why former Indianapolis general manager turned ESPN analyst Bill Polian said this morning on SportsCenter, “the Cowboys can’t finish on defense.”
He mentioned the Jacquizz Rodgers fourth-quarter catch as an example. Orlando Scandrick was in position to make a play and didn’t make it. Polian wondered where the rest of the defense was on the play to help Scandrick.
The Rodgers’ grab for 31 yards was the 12th catch of 20 or more yards the defense has allowed this season on third down. That’s an alarming number. Eight of those catches came on plays of third-and-5 or more.
On 10 of those 12 drives the opponents have scored a touchdown or a field goal.
If the Cowboys want to be better in the second half of the season, they need to make a play when it counts most.
For a few plays, the Cowboys looked like they had a legitimate running game. Felix Jones busted a 15-yard run on the first snap of the second half and followed it with a 6-yard gain. Lance Dunbar ripped off an 18-yard run the next snap. The Cowboys' other 15 carries gained a grand total of 26 yards. That's not nearly good enough. The Cowboys once again didn't get much push up front, with the interior offensive line particularly struggling. Phillip Tanner, who was jumped on the depth chart by Dunbar, was stuffed on fourth-and-short on his only carry. No wonder Jason Garrett lacks confidence in the running game.
Tony Romo put up some pretty statistics. He completed 25 of 35 passes for 321 yards without an interception. But the Cowboys' passing game didn't generate enough points, with Romo's 21-yard strike to Kevin Ogletree accounting for Dallas' lone touchdown. Dez Bryant was a nonfactor with only one catch for 15 yards. Ogletree was a pleasant surprise with three catches for 96 yards and a TD, but he had a drop that killed a drive. The most memorable play of the night for the Cowboys' passing game was a drop by a wide-open Miles Austin on third-and-long. If he catches that ball, the Falcons might not have caught him.
The Cowboys simply couldn't stop Michael Turner in the second half. Turner, the big Falcons back whose tires don't have a lot of tread left on them, rumbled through the Dallas defense for 83 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries after halftime. He finished with 20 carries for 102 yards, highlighted by a 43-yard run, the longest allowed by Dallas this season. Inside linebacker Sean Lee's absence was felt in the second half. So was the absence of nose tackle Jay Ratliff, who played only a handful of snaps after spraining his left ankle. Inside linebacker Bruce Carter (10 tackles, including two for losses) looked like a star in the making, but the Cowboys still allowed Turner to run for more than five yards per carry.
The Dallas pass defense tightened up in the red zone, not allowing any touchdown passes. But the Cowboys couldn't stop Matt Ryan and his electrifying receivers until the Falcons hit the red zone. Ryan had 342 yards on 24-of-34 passing despite the Cowboys getting pretty consistent pressure on him, with DeMarcus Ware registering half of their three sacks. Roddy White (seven catches, 118 yards) and Julio Jones (five catches, 129 yards) both had big games. And the Cowboys failed to generate a turnover, blowing a golden opportunity when nose tackle Josh Brent couldn't hold on to a loose ball after Ware forced a Ryan fumble.
Joe DeCamillis' units made no killer mistakes and several plays. Dwayne Harris had a beautiful punt return on his only opportunity, going 37 yards to give the Cowboys great field position on their first possession, which resulted in a field goal. Punter Brian Moorman pinned the Falcons inside the 20 of three of his four kicks and had a net average of 44.0 yards. Lance Dunbar had a 39-yard kickoff return. They Cowboys held dangerous Falcons kickoff returner Jacquizz Rodgers in check. Dan Bailey missed a field goal, but it's hard to hold a 54-yard attempt against him.
X's and O's weren't the issue on most of the critical plays in the game, such as Miles Austin's drop and Orlando Scandrick's missed tackle. However, the Cowboys' poor efficiency in the red zone is a direct reflection on play-calling head coach Jason Garrett. Throughout his tenure, the Cowboys' point-to-yards ratio has been out of whack. That's one of the primary reasons they're 3-5 and a playoff long shot at the midway point of the season. The Cowboys' lone touchdown drive occurred when Tony Romo ran the hurry-up offense. Why doesn't Garrett give Romo that freedom more often?
When the Cowboys’ defense absolutely, positively needed a stop to force a punt or long field-goal try by the Falcons, Scandrick was unable to make a play.
On third-and-6 from the Falcons 24, Scandrick was in position to stop Jacquizz Rodgers short of a first down but missed. Rodgers ended up with a 31-yard gain. Later Scandrick was flagged for a holding penalty on Roddy White on a third-down play.
Atlanta was able to burn all but 17 seconds off the clock as it ended the drive with a 32-yard field goal by Matt Bryant.
“I’m more upset with the missed tackle,” Scandrick said. “The holding penalty I was competing trying to get off the field. When it came down to that it was like a dogfight when it comes to third down. It’s just very upsetting. My first penalty and my first missed tackle of the season come in one game, in a crucial part of the game. I don’t have any excuses. I accept full responsibility. I’m not one to make excuses. I’ll bounce back. I’ll continue to work hard. I’ll work harder on those things, getting my hand placement, my feet in great tackling position and won’t let it happen again.”