Coming off the disappointing Thanksgiving loss, Jason Garrett continued to preach to all those that would listen about finding a way to handle adversity.
As bad as the loss was to the defending Super Bowl champ New Orleans Saints, the NFL schedule-makers did the Cowboys no favors with a trip to face the defending AFC champion Indianapolis Colts. In studying the Colts, injuries had taken a toll in several key areas, except for quarterback Peyton Manning.
Despite lacking a running game and a playmaking tight end and having some banged-up wide receivers, Manning still presented a challenge to a Dallas defense that was making the transformation from Wade Phillips' blitzing, man-coverage style to Paul Pasqualoni's zone coverage and assignment-first scheme.
The Colts have been terrible running the football. You could make an argument that the loss of Joseph Addai was a huge hit for this offense, but breaking down the previous games the Colts played against the Patriots and Chargers, you would see an offensive line that struggled to get any type of push at the point of attack. The Colts are a zone-blocking team that gets no movement up front.
James was a physical tackler, attacking the line of scrimmage and not allowing any room for the Colts to run. Lee had some nice plays clearing blocks as well and playing with his hands.
But Lee was even more of a factor in the passing game with the two interceptions, tackles on the edge against backs out of the backfield and blows delivered to receivers crossing underneath.
Lee also made the last tackle on the punt team to keep the Colts pinned in their own end. That was before the series that Manning had the tipped ball by Mike Jenkins that Lee played well for the game-clinching drive for the Cowboys.
To the naked eye, it would have appeared that DeMarcus Ware had a quiet game against the Colts because he didn’t have any sacks. Coming into this game, the Colts were first in the NFL in protecting Manning. There had been some games this season where he had taken hits in the pocket, but not many sacks.
Ware was a handful for tackles Ryan Diem and Charlie Johnson, who coming into the game I thought played soft on the edge. Ware was able to take advantage of some opportunities with his rush that affected Manning in the pocket by using a spin move on Johnson. Ware at times was held but still managed to fight through and get pressure. He also ran down a screen and was able to play off blocks to help in the running game along with the other linebackers.
In the secondary, we all saw the huge game that Reggie Wayne had against this Cowboys secondary and mainly Jenkins.
Jenkins started the game well by doing a nice job of running with Wayne on the route as they both worked down the field, allowing Alan Ball to work over from the middle of the field for the first interception of Manning.
On the touchdown catch that Wayne had, it looked like Jenkins was expecting from the inside from Ball. Jenkins is playing outside technique as Wayne heads inside on the route. Ball is late reacting, giving up the play.
The second big play also involved Wayne, who once again takes his route inside of Jenkins, who appears to be in position to make the play in the middle of the field without safety help. But it was just an outstanding throw and catch.
On the Colts' drive for the game-tying touchdown, Wayne had been running routes inside during the two-minute drill. Wayne fakes the slant, which makes Jenkins react drawing him inside. Wayne then heads up the field as Manning fits the ball between Jenkins and Sensabaugh, who is a little late arriving. Wayne dives to make another big-time reception.
Where Jenkins also struggled once again was as a tackler. He did have one low tackle on the outside, but he also had two misses in space.
With the concussion suffered by Orlando Scandrick in the game, look for rookie Bryan McCann to get the nod as the nickel corner. In the times he was in the game, he wasn’t tested as much as I thought he would be, but look for the Eagles to maybe make it a part of the game plan with their receivers.
On offense, Garrett did a nice job of making the Colts have to defend the entire field with his play-calling. He took advantage of the Colts’ lighter front seven by using misdirection to get them moving, then bringing the ball on the edge with Felix Jones and Tashard Choice.
The offensive line did a much better job of combo blocking, securing the down linemen then getting a blocker up on the linebackers. This allowed the backs to find the hole without having to deal with a defender in their face immediately.
In the passing game, Jon Kitna did a nice job of moving and buying time when things broke down in the pocket.
Colombo wasn’t pretty and never is, but for the Cowboys to run over 70 offensive snaps, I thought he played as well as could be expected. That was my same view of what I thought with Free. Like Colombo, gave up a sack and also had two holding calls (one accepted).
Freeney is such a difficult player to play at Lucas Oil Stadium because of the crowd noise and his explosive first step. Freeney can also get you with his bull or power rushes.
There were several times where it took all Free had to stay in front of him, but in the end, Free and Colombo both managed to survive where others had failed.
There are those that feel that the fumble recovery of Cowboys rookie Lonyae Miller on the kickoff return was the key point in the game. There is no doubt that it was huge, but I want to point out three other plays that might have been just as an important.
With the Cowboys leading 17-14 with 5:52 remaining in the third quarter, the Cowboys lined up for a 46-yard field goal. At the snap, Colts DT Daniel Muir tried to jump onto the back of Andre Gurode, who was lined up at guard. Muir halfway got up on Gurode's back, then fell off. After the kick, Gurode asked umpire Rueben Fowler about what Muir had done, trying to get a call for leverage, but didn't get it.
In the fourth quarter, the Cowboys, trailing 28-27, moved the ball to the Colts 1 and again opted for a field goal. David Buehler made the kick to give the Cowboys the lead, but a flag on the field and a delay of game call against the Cowboys wiped out the kick.
On the play, Muir once again jumped on the back of a Cowboys blocker -- this time, snapper LP Ladouceur. Again Gurode pointed to Fowler, who did nothing. After the penalty was assessed, Buehler again tried the kick, but this time DE Eric Foster jumped squarely on Gurode's back in plain sight of Fowler, who had no choice but to throw the flag and give the Cowboys a first down.
The Cowboys got a fresh set of downs, ran clock and were able to cap the drive with a touchdown and a 2-point conversion instead of settle for three points. Under Wade Phillips, the Cowboys played like a dumb football team. But now, under Jason Garrett, they appear to be a little smarter -- thanks to a heads-up play by Gurode.