IRVING, Texas – For two months, I've helped you sort out the misery that is a seven-game losing streak.
As I shouldn't need to tell you, that won't be the case this Monday. The Cowboys snapped their skid on Sunday afternoon, as they downed the Dolphins, 24-14. If you watched the game, you know it wasn't the prettiest effort. But on a rainy, muggy day in South Florida, the Cowboys showed flashes of what made them a playoff favorite in the preseason.
The tape bears all of that out in greater detail, so let's get into it – the good, the bad and the ugly.
- The Miami Dolphins under Dan Campbell had been playing better defensively – in particular Ndamukong Suh. There are feared players in this league and then there is Suh. What I did like about this matchup for the Cowboys was that Zack Martin and La'el Collins would be able to handle Suh from a power standpoint. Last week against the Eagles, Suh destroyed their guards because neither of them play with any type of power or strength. For Dallas, that was not going to be a problem. The majority of the game, Martin was the one that had Suh over the top of him and at times it wasn't All-Pro pretty – it was exactly what this offense needed. By keeping Suh occupied, he was able to tie him up along the line of scrimmage long enough for the ball to get past him. Down after down, Martin gave Suh his best shot and by the time this offense was on that final game clinching drive, Ndamukong Suh had had about enough of Zack Martin and his own relentless technique.
- On the plane flight home, Dez Bryant told me that he and Tony Romo made an adjustment early in the game based on how Brent Grimes and Reshad Jones were playing him. Bryant said that he had a hard time getting both Grimes and Jones to move in coverage, and you could clearly see that on tape that they were sitting on him. Bryant asked Romo to think about throwing more inside routes where he could escape the coverage. In the second quarter, Romo hit Bryant on an "in" cut where he was able to snatch the ball for a 10-yard gain. He also hit Bryant out of the slot coming across the field. Bryant drove hard at safety Walt Aikens and broke so hard to the inside that Aikens was left flat-footed on the play as Bryant gathered the ball in for a touchdown. Dez Bryant has always seen safety help over the top, but each week his understanding of how to beat it is growing.
- "Scissors" is a simple name for a big play in the Dallas offense. It's designed for the ball to start one way and then cut back the opposite direction. Scott Linehan called it on the Cowboys' final drive of the third quarter – and Darren McFadden took it for 35 yards. The execution of the play was outstanding, and due in large part to the point of attack block by James Hanna on defensive end Derrick Shelby. Hanna drove Shelby so far inside that when Zack Martin and La'el Collins came around the corner, all Martin had to do was kick out cornerback Jamar Taylor. Collins hooked linebacker Neville Hewitt, and all McFadden had to do was run in the alley. What makes the play such a weapon is when you have offensive linemen like Zack Martin and La'el Collins who play so well in space.
- I wasn't sure whether this was going to be a part of the offensive game plan, but I can understand why the Cowboys coaches felt it was necessary. There were three snaps where a tight end stayed in and created "Max" protection. They used it early in the third quarter when Terrance Williams broke off a double move for a 16-yard gain. You never want to have your future Hall of Fame tight end staying in on passing downs, but it was a nice wrinkle offensively that provided the necessary protection to get the ball out against this talented Dolphins front.
- It had to be nice for these Dallas defensive coaches to see their line get home on some four-man pressures to seal this victory. Two of the final four plays the Dolphins attempted ended up with Ryan Tannehill being taken down on the Sun Life Stadium turf. What was interesting about the pressure that the Cowboys were able to generate came from some different rush combinations. Greg Hardy and DeMarcus Lawrence rushed off the right side – while Randy Gregory and Jack Crawford went from the left. I have to admit that I was curious to see what Lawrence could do if he was once again put on the right side. Hardy did a really nice job of getting him home on that final rush of the game with Hardy getting tremendous push and Lawrence diving inside on top of Tannehill.
- Cole Beasley wasn't very happy with the way he played after the game. When I told him how much I liked how he held up nickel corner Brice McCain on Terrance Williams' touchdown, he smiled and said "If I had run a better route – he would have never been in position to even make a play on the ball." Beasley said he that he needed to work his route more to the inside and that would have held McCain away from Williams -- who had to make the contested catch. Beasley shouldn't be too disappointed, because his catch and run on 3rd-and-4 during the final drive was classic Beasley. The execution was perfect, from the ball that Romo threw, to the clearing block by Dez Bryant and the downfield block from Tyron Smith. It was a well-designed play, called at the perfect time.
- It wasn't the best game for Tyron Smith, and as I always encourage you to do when grading offensive linemen: don't just look at two or three plays, but all 65. In this case, Smith had his struggles throughout. His run blocking was at a high level, but his pass protection against Olivier Vernon was up and down. Vernon has the quickness and athletic ability as a rusher to break down a blocker. He doesn't just rush to the same spot or with the same technique down after down. He was able to keep Smith guessing the entire afternoon, and when that happens it's not about technique – it becomes survival mode, and that's where Smith was. There were several snaps where Vernon had Smith badly off balance and lunging. It's rare to see a defensive end get the edge on Smith consistently, but that was exactly what Vernon did to him. Smith was never able to get his hands on Vernon to keep him from attacking him.
- It was another game where the film showed that Brandon Carr came to play. Moving from the left side to the right side might sound easy, but when you factor in vision and technique – it really isn't. Carr did have to one slant route against Rishard Matthews where he wasn't nearly physical enough in denying the ball. But a positive sign for me in this game with Carr was the deep ball that went to Jarvis Landry early in the game. There was a time where he wouldn't have fought through a pick, rallied to catch up and knock the ball away – instead he would have allowed Landry to make the catch and most likely score. But that didn't happen on Sunday. This defense needs Brandon Carr to play well. He's not going to get you an interception, but if he can knock balls away and tackle in the running game, then you can live with him. It was this time last season where he was one of the best defensive backs on the roster and that included Orlando Scandrick.
- I need to ask this question after studying the tape: was there something that La'el Collins could have done to pick up the blitz on the first Romo interception? I was told on the flight home that the angle in which safety Reshad Jones blitzed was different than the way the Cowboys practiced it. Linemen and backs are taught to turn the furthest blitzer from the ball loose, and that's the quarterback's man. Darren McFadden picked up the first threat, which was Jones, but Collins turned out and that allowed linebacker Neville Hewitt a free run at Romo. With experience, maybe Collins sees what is happening and slides inside to grab Hewitt -- which would have given Romo the opportunity to find Dez Bryant, who had beaten Brent Grimes inside for a potential touchdown. I need to get this answer.
- Rolando McClain is a smart football player. He baited Ryan Tannehill into throwing that pick-six. McClain walked up to the "A" gap like he was going to blitz, and Tannehill was prepared to handle that – instead McClain dropped and began working to his right. He cleared Jordan Cameron and J.J. Wilcox, and that was when McClain knew that Tannehill was going to throw the slant to Greg Jennings. McClain put himself in position, and, being as athletic as he is, easily snatched the ball out of the air and walked it into the end zone to get the defense off to a great start.
- On the two pass plays that Byron Jones gave up in this game – it appeared that both were technique problems that are correctable. On the pass up the sideline to Jarvis Landry, he simply didn't find the ball quickly enough. The tape showed him looking for the ball, but he was just a tick late getting his head around to do it. On the touchdown pass to Kenny Stills, the way that he carried him up the field, his positioning put him behind Stills instead of what we always hear from Jerome Henderson -- and that is to cut him off. If you look at the route he played on the Dolphins' opening series, where the ball went across the middle to Rishard Matthews, he was right where he needed to be to make it a contested catch.
- The Cowboys held a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter with 6:29 remaining in the game when Dolphins coach Dan Campbell made what I thought was questionable decision to punt the football. He punted with all three time outs and the two-minute warning, but Campbell got the ball back with no time outs and only 1:04 left in the game -- still down by 10 points. It was quite a drive for the Cowboys with some timely play calling and execution in order to finish the game in the manner in which they did.