NFL Nation: 2013 Week 9 MIN at DAL

Jason Witten returns to form

November, 4, 2013
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Welcome back, Jason Witten.

It’d been a while since the perennial Pro Bowl tight end played a featured role in the Dallas Cowboys offense. Witten had a total of only nine catches for 90 yards with no scores in the previous three games.

Witten was back to being a weapon in Sunday’s win over the Minnesota Vikings, catching eight passes for 102 yards and a touchdown. Not coincidentally, the strong performance came after a week of working to find ways to make sure Witten was involved in the offense after he was targeted only twice in the previous week’s loss to the Detroit Lions.

With the Vikings playing primarily Cover 2 defense, Witten feasted. Tony Romo was 8-of-10 throwing in Witten’s direction, highlighted by a 26-yard touchdown on a seam route.

“It’s been a tough couple of weeks with the coverage,” Witten said. “It’s frustrating for all of us, but you work those situations and stay ahead of the chains. A big part of that is the tight end, and we can even clean it up more.

“When you play these defenses, the ability to find those underneath throws and get those first downs can really hurt this style of defense. We’ve worked it a lot over the years and it’s good to see it pay off in this game.”
ARLINGTON, Texas -- In a surprise move, the Dallas Cowboys' Ernie Sims started in the base defense over Bruce Carter as the weakside linebacker against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

However, after Sims struggled to make several tackles in the first half, Carter started in the base defense in the second half.

"I'm just trying to find the best combination for our football team at that position," linebackers coach Matt Eberflus said. "I'm still working that out. You got first down, you got second down and you got third down. Both of them have different things they bring to the table in terms of helping our football team, and we're going to work that combination during the course of the game and see what the best thing is for us to win."

Carter finished with six tackles and Sims with three. It's hard to say who took the lead, or if the rotation should continue, but coach Jason Garrett explained why Carter didn't at least start.

"He responded really well, really well," Garrett said. "He practiced this week, and you know Ernie got the start and Ernie played a lot in this ballgame, but Bruce got his chanced and he made some plays in this game. The best part about him is his demeanor and his spirit. We saw a little of Bruce Carter out there today, which is good. Flying around, making plays, having an impact on the game. He did a really good job."

Carter didn't make his first appearance until the Vikings attempted a field goal with about 2:08 to play in the first quarter. Before he entered the game, Sean Lee and Sims were the nickle linebackers.

In the first half, Sims missed two tackles on Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 140 yards on 25 carries. In the second half, Carter made a tackle on Peterson, causing a one-yard loss

"It's all based on combinations," Eberflus said. "I have two solid players, they're both trying to play better, they're still working and they're working their ass off, and we'll find the best combination."

Anatomy of Cowboys' game-winning drive

November, 3, 2013
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Tony Romo jogged on to the field with 2:44 to play, his team trailing by three points and 90 yards separating the Dallas Cowboys from a winning touchdown.

His most recent pass was intercepted. The crowd of 85,360 was restless, to say the least. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones was squirming in his perch at the 50-yard line.

What was Romo thinking?

"Honestly, you’ve got to disregard everything and just say, 'What do we need to do to win the football game?' and 'What do we feel like gives us the best chance to go do that?'" Romo said. "I know as a quarterback you love to be in those situations."

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhTony Romo was at his best when the Cowboys needed him in the fourth quarter against Minnesota.
On the ninth play of the drive, Romo found Dwayne Harris for a 7-yard touchdown pass with 35 seconds to play, and the Dallas Cowboys escaped with a 27-23 win against the Minnesota Vikings.

On the nine plays, the Cowboys used the same personnel grouping, 01 to be exact, with four receivers and a tight end. If the Cowboys were going to win, it would be on Romo’s right arm and nobody else. Some others might think it’s foolish, but the Cowboys don’t.

On first down, Jason Witten picked up 11 yards, running a simple out route with his receivers blocking just enough for him to get a first down.

"It gets the momentum rolling, gets you ahead of the chains, per se," Romo said. "And it gets you doing what you want to do calling-wise."

Harris caught a 6-yard check down before the two-minute warning. Cole Beasley added an 18-yard catch and run for the third longest gain of his career. He finished the day with six catches for 68 yards.

"Every opportunity we give him, he seems to step up and do something positive for us," coach Jason Garrett said. "He’s got a great feel and instinct for playing the game. Quarterbacks love throwing to him, great feel for beating guys in man coverage, settling in zones, going north and south after the catch. He’s just a damn good football player."

Romo’s first incompletion of the drive came on a Terrance Williams' drop, but then Dez Bryant, who had a key drop in the third quarter and had a disappointing game in general, came up with a 34-yard grab to the Vikings' 20.

The Cowboys had eight drops on the day, but Romo did not flinch, finding Bryant.

"You don’t want drops ever to happen," Romo said. "You’re going to have them happen one or two times. Today was a little extreme. You just have to keep your approach even keel."

He worked the edges with Beasley for 9 yards on first down and went back to the same play that opened the drive to Witten for 5 yards. His second incompletion of the drive came when he was pressured and forced to throw it away. The Cowboys were lucky Witten was not flagged for holding.

Perhaps they had it coming because of how they played that final drive. Minnesota pressured Romo on 36 percent of his drop-backs on the first nine drives of the game, according to ESPN Stats & Information, but sat back on the final drive. The line protected just well enough, pushing three defenders by, to give Romo time to step up into the pocket and find Harris.

As the officials signaled touchdown, Romo jumped into Witten’s arms. It might have been relief for those restless fans and the squirming Jones, but it wasn’t for Romo.

It was proof that the work put in during the week ad augmented in between series on the sidelines was worth it.

"Relief is never a term I would use," Romo said. "It’s a joy. You feel like you won the football game, and you feel like you gave yourself a chance to win at that point. More than anything it’s a little more competitive than that, if that makes sense ... I just picture Michael Jordan over Xavier McDaniel where he’s just kind of aggressively being, 'Yes!' That’s the feeling you have. Without swearing, you want to be like that."
ARLINGTON, Texas – Just imagine the overreaction if the Dallas Cowboys didn’t pull off the comeback.

This had the makings of all the most popular Cowboys narratives colliding together, which might have caused enough negative energy to blow the retractable roof off of Jerry Jones’ beloved $1.2 billion football palace.

It would've been awful under any circumstances to fall a game under .500 by losing to a one-win Minnesota Vikings team at home. But to do it in a game in which Dez Bryant made an emotionally charged mental mistake and Tony Romo threw a crunch-time interception?

All that was missing from the toxic mess was Jerry storming around on the sideline with a few celebrities by his side.

[+] EnlargeDwayne Harris
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsDwayne Harris' short touchdown catch capped a 90-yard drive in the final three minutes.
Still, if the Cowboys don’t march 90 yards with less than three minutes remaining …




But the apocalypse was avoided. The Cowboys survived against the 1-7 Vikings, pulling off a comeback to emerge with a 27-23 victory on Sunday, preventing Dallas for dominating the NFL news cycle for another week.

“It would have been tough, there’s no question about it,” said tight end Jason Witten, who has endured many media firestorms during his 11 seasons suiting up for America’s Team. “I try not to think about those situations. It was good to get this win, but I think we all know it wouldn’t have been a good setting, for sure.”

As it is, we can all take a deep breath and think in sentences that include lowercase letters and end in periods. It wasn’t the prettiest win, but at least the world isn’t ending.

Romo remains the highest-rated fourth-quarter passer in NFL history. That’s easy to forget after moments such as his interception with the Cowboys trailing by three and less than five minutes remaining, but it’s a fact.

Never mind that proven clutch quarterbacks with Super Bowl rings such as Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Joe Flacco throw picks in similar situations -- late in one-score games -- more often than Romo. Or that Romo has led 19 fourth-quarter comebacks -- more than Roger Staubach, aka Captain Comeback -- after going 7-of-9 on the winning drive Sunday for 90 yards and a touchdown to Dwayne Harris with 35 seconds remaining.

“If you really look at his body of work and you look at it objectively,” Garrett said, “he’s done this kind of stuff a lot.”

Of course, until he has playoff success, Romo will be perceived by many to be a choke artist. It’s really that plain and simple.

That’s why Romo is right when he says the media -- or more specifically, the discussion and debates about teams and players -- doesn’t matter. He’d be wasting energy to worry about it. If his work pays off and his focus bears fruit, the narrative will be rewritten anyway.

It’s a lesson Bryant needs to learn. That’s easy to say but hard to do for a guy who turns 25 Monday and spent the past couple of weeks as the primary target for NFL-covering critics. He’s bothered by inaccurate and unfair assumptions that he’s a selfish, me-first diva receiver.

Bryant knew the wrath would only intensify if the Cowboys lost Sunday. He knew his foolish penalty for pulling his helmet off while arguing a call, a personal foul due to a rule he says he didn't know about, one that knocked the Cowboys out of field-goal range, would be a huge topic of discussion. He knew his drop on a deep crossing route early in the fourth quarter, a play he probably could have scored on, would be replayed endlessly all week.

If not for that last drive, on which he made the biggest play with a 34-yard catch and run, Bryant would be the subject of harsh public scorn again this week.

“Oh, no doubt,” Bryant said. “Not once I didn’t think about that. I promise I thought about that after the drop and after the penalty. But we came out, we stuck together, we stayed as a team. We pulled this 'W' out.”

They pulled out the win, which meant Jerry didn’t have to field any questions about Garrett’s job security after the game. Or during either of his two weekly radio shows.

The Cowboys can move on as a 5-4 team that has flaws but also holds sole possession of first place in the NFC East.

A few minutes away from a full-blown crisis, the Cowboys put the narratives on pause.

Dez Bryant has another emotional day

November, 3, 2013
ARLINGTON, Texas -- In Detroit last week, it was about the sideline antics and how to act like a professional.

On Sunday, back in his home stadium, Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant was still struggling with it. He turns 25 on Monday, and while that can be used as an excuse for slipups in his behavior, when they do happen, they sometimes cost his team.

Bryant didn’t have a sideline moment, but he had another one of those "it’s always something with him" moments in the Cowboys' 27-23 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

While protesting a pass interference call against him with the referees, Bryant took his helmet off, drawing a 15-yard penalty and pushing his team out of field goal range.

[+] EnlargeDez Bryant
AP Photo/Tim SharpDez Bryant made a costly mental error that cost the Cowboys, but he made a crucial 34-yard reception on the game-winning drive.
Bryant said he didn’t know there’s a rule about not taking your helmet off on the field of play and only did it so the referees could see his face.

“I didn’t know it was a flag,” Bryant said. “The play was over with and I didn’t know it was a flag. I learned from it. Not a big deal anymore.”

Bryant gave you that smile of his, like we’re all in on the joke and we understand how the emotions of football and life sometimes get to us and we have those slipups.

Bryant finished with six catches for 64 yards and two drops. But Bryant had a 34-yard reception on a slant on the final offensive drive of the day, and that catch put the Cowboys in position to win.

Earlier, he dropped a pass; if he catches it, he’s running for days, stopping only until he gets to the end zone.

But the emotional Bryant became poised later in the game.

“I was kinda expecting the ball,” he said. “Whenever Tony [Romo] gives me the signal, and all I was thinking about was the pass that I dropped before that. That pass that was a touchdown and, man, I knew it before the ball that was thrown. It wasn’t the same play. I felt like I have to make up for it. I wasn’t down, I’m never down when I drop a pass. I’m ready to come back and make a play.”

That’s why the Cowboys love Bryant and understand why he’s the most important part of this offense.

The Cowboys need Bryant.

But what happened in Detroit -- where he was waving his arms, yelling and screaming about coverages and then getting into it with Jason Witten toward the end -- brought a staggering amount of attention.

“Yeah, I understand that. But come on, man, throughout this whole week that was a whole bunch of nonsense, that was uncalled for,” Bryant said. “It really wasn’t all that serious for people to be talking about that situation throughout the week. My quarterback said what it was, all the players in here said what it was, even the audio came out and people still talking about it -- that’s a damn shame. That’s just the world that we live in, man. All I gotta do is keep playing football and not let that stuff get to me.”

Bryant said he felt different with the cameras watching his every move on the sidelines. Receivers coach Derek Dooley told Bryant not to curtail the passion. Dooley said Bryant won’t let what people say about him change who he is.

“It kinda threw me off a little bit. I have to watch myself,” Bryant said. “I didn’t want y'all to get me on camera and make me look like a fool. I had to watch that a little bit and I had to contain it a little bit -- that’s me, it’s all positive. I feel like that’s who I am. That’s what brings the excitement to me and to others. I can’t let nobody destroy the passion I have for this game.”

The passion shouldn’t be shut down. How the Cowboys use Bryant needs more focus. He didn't get thrown to until a minute remained in the first half last week in Detroit. On Sunday, he was targeted on two of the first three pass plays of the game. He broke two tackles on his big 34-yard reception.

You can't teach what Bryant has: talent. He's got it, but he needs to relax sometimes. He needs to calm down. It's OK to get excited and pump up your teammates, but you can't have too many slipups.

The world is watching.

Locker Room Buzz: Dallas Cowboys

November, 3, 2013
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Observed in the locker room after the Dallas Cowboys27-23 victory against the Minnesota Vikings.

A big win: Cowboys coach Jason Garrett is not a big-picture guy. He is happy the Cowboys got to 5-4 and maintained their lead in the NFC East, but he’s not looking at this win as some sort of breakthrough. He knows the Cowboys will be in games similar to Sunday’s and won’t prevail. “Certainly all the games are important,” Garrett said. “They are, and we understand that. You have to play them as best you can and do everything you can to win them and learn from them and move on. We’ll let somebody else be the historian on the whole thing, but we’ve got to get ready for New Orleans.”

Another comeback: Tony Romo’s reputation might be one thing, but with his 7-yard touchdown pass Dwayne Harris with 35 seconds to play gave the Cowboys’ quarterback his 19th game-winning, fourth-quarter drive. Romo has 63 fourth-quarter touchdown passes in his career, and he was able to overcome his 24th fourth-quarter interception. “I relish being out there helping our football team win,” Romo said.

Dizzying day for Dez: All eyes were on Dez Bryant after last week’s sideline outbursts. He caught six passes for 64 yards, but had two drops and a key penalty after he could not control his emotions in the third quarter. Bryant was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct when he took his helmet off to complain about an offensive-pass-interference penalty. The flag knocked the Cowboys out of field-goal range and gave Minnesota life, even if its following drive ended in a turnover. “A bad play by him,” Garrett said. “You can’t do that.” Bryant responded later with a 34-yard gain on the Cowboys’ game-winning drive.

Locker Room Buzz: Minnesota Vikings

November, 3, 2013
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Observed in the locker room following the Minnesota Vikings' 27-23 loss to the Dallas Cowboys:

Defensive linemen frustrated: For the third time this season, the Vikings lost a game in the final two minutes, and just like in the team's Week 2 loss in Chicago, play calling on the final drive was a hot topic. But while players chose their words carefully after the loss to the Bears, they were more overt about their frustrations on Sunday. Both defensive tackle Kevin Williams and defensive end Brian Robison disagreed with the decision to rush only three defenders on the final drive, after the Vikings had sacked Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo three times before that and put consistent pressure on him all day. "We'd just like to get a four-man rush," Williams said. "Release the big guys, let them push the pocket. We did it all day, and then we just start dropping a guy the last drive on the line. I can say from that standpoint, it's kind of terrible when you're trying to stop them. I know they went empty [backfield], trying to throw it quick and all, but if we make them hold it one second, we can probably get there."

Conservative offense: If the Vikings' defensive collapses on two-minute drills have been a consistent theme all season, so has their inability to put teams away before the defense heads back on the field. On Sunday, Minnesota got the ball back with 4:29 left, but threw deep on first down and handed the ball to Adrian Peterson just once on that drive. Then, when the Vikings were on the Cowboys' 36-yard line, facing a fourth-and-5, the team opted to punt after quarterback Christian Ponder couldn't draw Dallas offside. Even the frustration over that call spilled over to the defense. "You'd think we'd run it and run the time out," Williams said, before adding, "I don't coach offense. I just have to play what they call on defense and go from there."

Frazier opts for more "presence" on defense: After the Vikings' loss to the Bears, coach Leslie Frazier blamed himself for not being more involved in the defensive play calling at the end of the game. Leading up to Sunday's game, Frazier said he "felt I needed to make sure the coaches felt my presence, and the players as well, from a defensive standpoint." He said he didn't take over play calling from defensive coordinator Alan Williams, but was more vocal about making play-calling suggestions, he said.

Injuries mounting: Right tackle Phil Loadholt, who left with a concussion just before halftime, could have a hard time returning before Thursday's game against the Washington Redskins, Frazier said. Tight end Kyle Rudolph left with a foot injury, but said X-rays were negative and added he will get further examination on Monday. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes said he landed awkwardly on his leg when he was injured in the fourth quarter, and left the game after returning for one play. "I will be rehabbing, and whatever they say after that is what they say, when I get done with the MRI," Rhodes said. And defensive tackle Letroy Guion, who left with a shoulder injury, was in so much pain after the game that he had to be helped into his dress shirt.

Rapid Reaction: Dallas Cowboys

November, 3, 2013

ARLINGTON, Texas -- A few thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys' 27-23 win against the Minnesota Vikings:

What it means for the Cowboys: They never make things easy, going down to the final minute before dropping the one-win Vikings.

Tony Romo's 7-yard touchdown pass to Dwayne Harris won the game with 35 seconds to go and kept the Cowboys in first place in the NFC East with a 5-4 record. Since the start of the 2011 season, the Cowboys are 17-1 against teams that are .500 or worse.

The win was the Cowboys’ fourth at AT&T Stadium, matching their home win total from a year ago.

It was an ugly win, but Garrett will undoubtedly say winning in the NFL is a hard thing to do. It’s even harder when you let bad teams stick around.


Who was most key to the Cowboys' win?


Discuss (Total votes: 11,353)

Stock watch: Tony Romo, rising. With the season on the line, Romo responded with a game-winning drive after throwing what could have been a crippling interception. Romo completed 7 of 9 passes on the 90-yard drive.

Forget the ground game: The return of DeMarco Murray was supposed to bring some sort of return of the running game, but it never happened.

The Cowboys chose to attack through the air against the 29th-ranked defense, but it’s not as if Minnesota has a great run defense. In the second quarter, the Cowboys got to the Vikings' 12 and did not even give a pretense of running the ball with back-to-back plays out of an empty set and a three-wide-receiver formation. The result was a drop and two sacks, forcing the Cowboys to settle for a Dan Bailey field goal.

Murray, who was playing after a two-game absence with a knee injury, finished with four carries for 31 yards and the Cowboys had just nine carries for the game.

Seeing stars: Last week the Cowboys couldn’t stop Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who had 329 yards. This week it was Adrian Peterson.

It wasn’t a historic day for Peterson, but he had some vintage moments when it mattered most on his way to 140 yards rushing. He busted free for a 52-yard run at the Minnesota 28 and then scored the go-ahead touchdown with 5:40 to play when he ran through safety Jeff Heath and linebacker Justin Durant for an 11-yard score on fourth-and-1.

What’s next: The Cowboys travel to New Orleans to take on the Saints next week. This was a game New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has had circled since he joined the Saints after he was dismissed as the Cowboys' defensive coordinator in January. The Cowboys have lost seven of their eight games to the Saints. Their only victory came at the Superdome in 2009 (24-17) when New Orleans was undefeated.

Rapid Reaction: Minnesota Vikings

November, 3, 2013
ARLINGTON, Texas -- A few thoughts on the Minnesota Vikings' 27-23 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.

What it means: The Vikings have matched their worst start in franchise history. They are now 1-7, having lost three games on touchdowns with less than a minute to play. Sunday's came on a scoring strike from Tony Romo to Dwayne Harris with 44 seconds left, and even though the Vikings held the ball for nearly 10 minutes in the fourth quarter, they went home wondering how they could let another game slip through their fingers.

Stock watch: Rising: Adrian Peterson. He'd never had a big game in his home state, but on Sunday, Peterson surged in the second half. He ran for 140 yards, breaking off a 52-yard run in the fourth quarter and finishing the drive with an 11-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-1. On the play, Peterson secured the first down, got a push from Chase Ford and bulled his way to the end zone, carrying Cowboys defenders from the 3-yard line to the end zone. It was his first 100-yard game since the Vikings' last win on Sept. 29 in London, and Peterson ran for more yards in the second half than he'd run for in an entire game since then.

Depleted secondary: Already missing Chris Cook, Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford, the Vikings saw their secondary depth depleted even further in the fourth quarter when Xavier Rhodes went off with a leg injury. That left A.J. Jefferson, Marcus Sherels, Josh Robinson and Shaun Prater as the team's only healthy corners. It looked like the Vikings might survive when Jefferson picked off Romo late in the fourth quarter, but on Dallas' last drive, Romo sliced through the middle of the Vikings' secondary on a nine-play, 90-yard drive, completing a touchdown pass to Harris, who beat Sherels on a crossing route.

Sack-fumble looms large: After right tackle Phil Loadholt left at the end of the first half with a concussion, J'Marcus Webb started the second half with the Vikings pinned at their own 5-yard line. He got beat by George Selvie, who sacked Ponder and forced a fumble that Nick Hayden recovered for a touchdown.

What's next: The Vikings (1-7) face the Washington Redskins at home on Thursday night.