The week for Jason Garrett started with questions of which players might be available to play in a Monday night contest against the division rival Washington Redskins.
To Garrett’s credit, he was able to focus his squad despite several key players not being able to practice during the week in preparation for the game. In the media opportunities that we had with Garrett during the week, you knew that he was not going to allow the injuries to be an excuse for how his team was going to perform. Garrett was clear that he was going to take his best 46 players and go find a way to win a difficult football game on Monday night.
Here are some thoughts from that victory:
In our Countdown to Kickoff Show on 103.3 FM ESPN on Monday night, our group got into a discussion about whether the Cowboys could win this game without Tony Romo in the lineup. When it came my turn to answer that, there was no doubt in my mind that the Cowboys had to have Romo to win.
I respect Jon Kitna and what he was able to do when pressed into duty last season, but this was the type of game that Romo needed to play in. Even at 80 percent and with what he was able to do last week against the 49ers in the fourth quarter, I felt that just by stepping into the huddle it was going to be a huge boast for his team and they would find a way to make plays for him.
With all that was going on with this Cowboys offense, the injuries and the missed assignments, Romo had to find a way to win this football game.
With the Cowboys facing a third-and-21 from their own 30-yard line, Romo was joined in the backfield by John Phillips and Tashard Choice, who came in after Felix Jones re-injured his shoulder trying to dive for another early snap from Phil Costa. Romo had Dez Bryant wide to his right, Jason Witten in the slot to the left with Kevin Ogletree outside of him.
The Redskins showed the same blitz that they used at the 10:00 mark in the third quarter, rushing eight and playing man coverage across the board behind the blitz. The Cowboys had seven men to pick up the blitz and the line turned the farthest rusher loose for Romo to handle.
At the snap of the ball, Bryant read the all-out blitz and ran the “smoke” route, turning his body to Romo and looking for the ball quickly. Romo pumped the ball in Bryant’s direction, but feeling the pressure, decided to pull it down and flush to his right. As Romo was working farther right, Bryant saw Romo point up the field. Bryant took off at Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who was playing loose in coverage and got turned around.
One of the key points of the blitz pickup was that Tashard Choice came across the pocket from right to left to pick up Ryan Kerrigan on the edge, which bought Romo enough time to get the ball down the field. Bryant had separation on Hall and easily caught the ball and started up the field. Hall was forced to try to bring Bryant down any way he could and grabbed his facemask on the tackle, adding another 15 yards to an already big play and putting the Cowboys into field-goal range.
Last week, the offensive line wasn’t at their best until the fourth quarter. When studying this Redskins defense, it presented a whole different set of problems for this line.
Outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan put a great deal of pressure on teams' offensive lines, not only with the way they rush the passer, but also with the way they play the run.
Last week, Doug Free had one of the worst games he's had since he was named as a starter before the 2010 season. Free was off-balance with his footwork, his punch and his ability to control San Francisco’s Justin Smith in the running game, as well.
Free drew a tough assignment with Orakpo. Early in the game, it appeared that he was on that same path of struggles that he had in San Francisco. Orakpo is an explosive, pressure player. He is a relentless rusher and if he gets the corner, he can make you look terrible.
On one series, Free missed Orakpo with his punch and allowed him to grab that corner, quickly giving up a pressure. Free also gave up a sack to Rob Jackson because he was unable to get his hands on him to carry him wide around Romo. Free’s footwork on the play was terrible. He was slow and overextended. Free also gave up a holding call to Stephen Bowen on a reach block when all he could do his grab his jersey.
As the game wore on, Free was able to catch himself, find his technique and do a much better job in his sets and punch. One of Free’s greatest strengths is his ability to use his feet to stay in front of his man. There are times where he will struggle with power, but again as the game wore on, he was much better dealing with that, too.
Tony Romo didn’t make many mistakes in the game, but the one he did make was the interception by nickel back Kevin Barnes.
For Romo, this was a tough one to deal with because quarterbacks are taught when it's man coverage and there is no safety help in the middle of the field, throw the ball there and have your receiver make the play.
It was third-and-18 from the Cowboys 45 with 10:00 left in the third quarter. Garrett put the offense in an empty formation and the Redskins went to a nickel to match. Ogletree was in the slot to the right and Bryant was outside him. The snap from Costa was once again low and to Romo’s right. Ogletree started his route inside, getting Barnes to turn his shoulders, but he felt Barnes hanging inside, not allowing him to the middle of the field. Ogletree adjusted his route to the outside, but Romo was facing a blitz and unloaded the ball for the middle of the field.
Barnes was in much better position to play the ball than Ogletree, who continued to work wide on the play, resulting in an easy interception. On that route, Ogletree has to get to the middle of the field to meet the ball, but he didn't read it the right way.
To be honest, I really didn’t know much of the work of fullback Tony Fiammetta before he came to the Cowboys.
In the locker room, he didn’t appear to physically be the type of fullback that I thought that Garrett would have on the roster. But watching him play against the Redskins, I was impressed with his work as a point-of-attack blocker. A trait you look for in a fullback is his ability to do is dig linebackers out of the hole. Fiammetta was able to hit his man, keep his feet going and work them out of the hole.
Fiammetta also showed the ability to adjust on the move when the Cowboys worked to get the ball on the edge. Fiammetta adjusted to take a defender when one of the offensive linemen missed their blocks to help out. When he was in the game, there were positive plays.
It was the first game back for cornerback Terence Newman after missing the entire preseason and the first two games of the regular season while recovering from a groin injury. Newman moved well in coverage and didn’t look like he was laboring or struggling to turn and break.
There were plays where he had Santana Moss one-on-one in coverage where Moss drove hard at him, but Newman was able to pedal smooth, turn and adjust in the route. Newman was able to also come forward in the running game and force the ball back inside.
He did have a play where he was trying to help Alan Ball with a tackle but was unable to wrap up the receiver.
Newman left the game with a slight concussion, but he was able to return to finish the game. He didn’t move like he was having any problems with the injured groin at all.
For the third week in a row, linebacker Sean Lee's overall play was outstanding. The thing that makes Lee such a strong player is his ability to quickly read blocking schemes and get to the ball. If Lee sees the play, he is gone.
One of the problems that Lee had earlier in his career was that he would read too quickly and take himself out of the play. You don’t see Lee overrunning plays now.
In pass coverage, his drops have been correct and in the right areas. He had an interception when Rex Grossman tried to look away to his right and come back to Fred Davis to his left. Lee was in perfect position on the play to make the interception.
If he did have a mistake, it appeared that on the Redskins’ touchdown on the goal line that he adjusted inside instead of to the flat, and Tim Hightower was able to sneak out of the backfield and catch an easy touchdown from Grossman. On the snap, you see Lee get sucked inside with no one in the flat. It was the only real mistake that he made during the game.
When you watch these linebackers play, you see that James is playing a step slow. When James needs to be filling on the edge, he is getting hooked or engaged, where Lee and Brooking are past the blockers and filling the hole.
If you want a negative to the night on defense for the Cowboys, it is the injury to defensive end Jason Hatcher. Hatcher had been playing outstanding against the run as a disruptive player and as a pass rusher, as well. Hatcher was the one end that was able to get consistent pressure on the ball.
Marcus Spears didn’t play badly in his place, but he doesn’t give you the pressure of Hatcher.
It’s a calf injury for Hatcher, so he should miss the Detroit game and we will see what happens after the bye week getting ready for New England. The Cowboys’ defense doesn’t need this injury to linger long because Hatcher was finding his grove as a pass rusher and run defender.