Sunday’s matchup between the Lions and the Cowboys was about which backup quarterback was going to be able to lead his team to victory.
The Lions are a team that always played hard for Jim Schwartz but had trouble finishing games. Losses to Philadelphia, Green Bay, the Giants and Jets were all hard-fought games but losses nevertheless. There are talented players on both sides of the ball for the Lions, but the biggest hole is at quarterback, where Shaun Hill was making another start for the injured Matthew Stafford.
Hill’s numbers against the Cowboys might have been impressive, but what did it get the Lions? Another loss.
In studying Hill, there was no doubt in my mind that he was going to check the ball down to backs, throw the ball to tight end Brandon Pettigrew and try to find a way to get the ball in Calvin Johnson’s hands without any of the opportunities really going down the field. Hill is a take-what-they-give-me quarterback and nothing more.
These next three weeks the Cowboys will see quarterbacks that will push the ball down the field.
I spoke of some of the talent that the Lions do have. I came away impressed with Johnson, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, running back Jahvid Best, Pettigrew and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. Johnson and Suh are big time players and how the Cowboys were going to deal with them was the question that kept me searching for answers.
The majority of the Cowboys struggles have been laid at the feet of their offensive line, namely with guard Leonard Davis. There is no secret of Davis’ struggles on a weekly basis with quickness more than power. In Suh, there was a combination of both. To Davis’ credit, he started the game well against Suh, not allowing him to control the front like he had against other quality opponents.
The Cowboys offensive coaches had a nice plan in how they blocked Suh. Davis would take him one-on-one, then Andre Gurode would block back on him, then Davis and Gurode would double him. Then there was one time where Davis showed some lightness of his feet and slipped inside of Suh to allow Kyle Kosier to deliver a crushing trap block.
The Cowboys had a smart scheme where they tried to hit Suh from all angles and never give him the same look. To Suh’s credit, he was still able to make some impressive plays. The holding call on Davis that resulted in a safety was sheer power. Davis was never able to set his feet and work in front of Suh as he fought his way up the field. Once Suh got to his corner, it was over. Davis really had no choice but to try and grab on to Suh and hope he didn’t get called.
As good as he had been the last two weeks, right tackle Marc Colombo didn’t have his A game Sunday afternoon against the Lions. When Colombo has a problem, it’s usually when he gets overextended with a wide base and struggles to move his feet. Colombo throughout his career has been a dependable player in space, but he struggled to secure his block on the screen to Dez Bryant, which got him tackled. Colombo also got beat on a twist stunt and missed a cut-off block.
With Colombo, it’s never pretty technique-wise, but he played like a guy that was frustrated in the way the game for going for him.
*For the second consecutive week, the Cowboys’ undrafted rookie corner made a play in the game to save his team from potential disaster.
In the third quarter with the Lions leading 12-7, Detroit punter Nick Harris was waiting on the snap to once again try to pin the Cowboys deep in their own end, much like he had done all day. At the right gunner spot is John Wendling, who leads the NFL in special teams tackles and who was having an outstanding day of defeating Jesse Holley and Terence Newman and now was working against Bryan McCann.
At the snap of the ball, Wendling takes a hard charge to the inside and starts up the field. McCann has trouble cutting Wendling off, bumping him three times down the field. Harris’ punt is another beauty, hitting on the Cowboys 1 and backing up into Wendling, who has positioned his body to tip the ball back into the field of play. McCann is in a trail position as Wendling tips the ball to the ground, bouncing into McCann’s waiting hands.
With no one within seven yards of McCann, he begins his journey up the field and around the corner. The Lions have eight players inside the 18-yard line, but McCann has a wall of teammates between him and the defenders. The first key block on the return was thrown by the most unlikely of blockers -- Tashard Choice, who knocks down Harris. The second key block was thrown by Orlando Scandrick, who was looking back for someone to hit 8 yards ahead of the sprinting McCann. Scandrick slows up enough to keep himself between McCann and the onrushing Maurice Morris, who tries to blast through him to get to McCann. Scandrick takes the direct hit as McCann tightropes down the sideline and into the end zone for his second game-changing play in the last two weeks.
What was most interesting about the play is that it was McCann’s inability to handle Wendling that set up the play. If McCann was doing his job and keeping Wendling from the ball, he would have never been in position to make the play.
Sometimes you need a little luck in a game. For two straight weeks, the Cowboys have been a little lucky.
*Coming out of training camp, I really believed that the Cowboys were doomed to fail with Jon Kitna as the backup quarterback. In my view, the club was taking a huge chance with both Kitna and Stephen McGee as the backups to Tony Romo. There was nothing that I saw in training camp that led me to believe that Kitna could do the job if called on.
In my career, I have been wrong about players before. But never this wrong.
For two weeks, Kitna has been accurate, decisive and dependable. His throw to Bryant on the first touchdown was clinic reel material. The offensive staff knew that their receivers had a height advantage over the 5-foot-9 Lions cornerbacks and took full advantage of that. Bryant is such a dynamic player in the air and Kitna threw a pass that corner Chris Houston had no chance to defend.
Kitna showed some mobility in the pocket, moving forward to hit Roy Williams with a strike and then later Jason Witten on some outside routes.
Miles Austin might not have the large number of receptions, but the throws that Kitna has made to have him the last two weeks have been productive, resulting in touchdowns.
If Kitna would like to have a throw back in the Lions game, it would be trying to fit a ball into the corner of the end zone to Chris Gronkowski when he had Scott Chandler dragging wide open along the goal line from left to right, which would have been a sure touchdown.
With three of the top quarterbacks in the NFL on the schedule, Kitna needs to continue to make plays to put his team in the best possible situation to win these games.