An ugly victory counts just the same as a blowout, so the Cowboys never need to apologize for a win. Looking forward, though, there's no doubt that the 'Boys need to improve in a major way if they want to continue to rack up the wins necessary to stay in the NFC East hunt. It all starts up front with the offensive line.
- I attributed the Cowboys' seven sacks allowed to Doug Free (three), Jermey Parnell (two), Mackenzy Bernadeau and Felix Jones. The sack allowed by Jones came on a Browns blitz that the running back seemed to read too late. Otherwise, the other six sacks resulted from a lineman losing his one-on-one battle. With left tackle Tyron Smith now banged up, head coach Jason Garrett will need to get creative to work around his offensive line woes. One way to do that might be to ramp up the screen game. The Cowboys didn't run any screens on Sunday and have averaged only 1.3 per game this season.
- Another tactic we might see the Cowboys employ is keeping tight end Jason Witten in to block more often when they want to take shots downfield. We actually saw this on the big 30-yard completion to Dez Bryant in the third quarter. While it's obviously generally advantageous to have Witten out as a pass-catcher, utilizing him in max protection from time to time could help the 'Boys give Tony Romo the time he needs to get the ball to Bryant and Miles Austin. On Sunday, Witten stayed in to block on just five of the Cowboys' 59 designed passes.
- The Cowboys didn't cross the Browns' 40-yard line in the entire first half. Interestingly, the Browns rarely blitzed Romo through the first two quarters, sending five or more rushers on just four of the Cowboys' 28 offensive plays (14.3 percent). For whatever reason, Cleveland changed their strategy at halftime and sent far more pressure in the second half and overtime, blitzing on 27 of the Cowboys final 49 plays (55.1 percent). Such a high-variance strategy, as you might expect, led to big plays for both teams. Cleveland was able to sack Romo four times, but they also allowed completions of 30 and 28 yards to Bryant, the second of which went for a score.
- Romo attempted five deep throws of 20-plus yards on the day. Two of them, the aforementioned completions to Bryant, were successful, while the other three fell incomplete. Of course, the deep passing game paid big dividends late in the fourth quarter when Romo looked deep for Dwayne Harris and the Cowboys were able to draw a pass interference penalty. That doesn't show up in the box score, but it was a smart move by Romo to get the ball deep against man coverage when the offense needed a big play.
- The Cowboys ran play-action just twice, and it resulted in two completions for nine yards. That might sound trivial, but one of the receptions was by Lawrence Vickers on a pivotal fourth-and-1. The conversion led to the Bryant touchdown.
- It's pretty obvious that Dallas desperately needs DeMarco Murray back in the lineup. There's such an obvious difference between Murray and any other running back on the roster that you really don't need stats to prove Murray's worth. When he returns, though, it might be smart for the Cowboys to run more often from spread formations. On the season, they have averaged only 2.87 yards per carry (YPC) when running out of tight formations, compared to 4.30 YPC from spread formations. It seems Garrett has noticed, running more and more often from the spread as the season has progressed. Although the Cowboys have run from the spread just 37.1 percent of the time this year, 10 of their 19 designed runs on Sunday came from a spread look.
- It probably wasn't a popular decision, but Garrett's choice to attempt another surprise onside kick was a good one. If you recall, I analyzed the merits of surprise onside kicks when Garrett called for one just before halftime earlier this season against the Buccaneers. With kicking teams recovering at around a 55 percent clip, the decision actually isn't even close; teams should try a whole lot more surprise onside kicks until the rate is high enough that the return team adjusts and the advantage no longer exists. The fact that Dan Bailey faltered on the kick and it didn't work out for the Cowboys does nothing to change the fact that it was a good decision by Garrett.