IRVING, Texas – By now you've all had a chance to digest the Cowboys' last-second heroics against the Giants – so now it's time to take a closer look.
As usual, I spent my Monday with the tape of the 27-26 win, and I wanted to put together some notes on what I saw. Given the turnovers and some of the sloppiness we saw, there's plenty that Jason Garrett and his coaches will want to correct.
But there was also no shortage of encouraging play from this Cowboys team, as you'll see below:
1)I thought J.J. Wilcox's hit on Odell Beckham Jr. in the first quarter was a tone setter -- not only for this Cowboys defense, but Wilcox as well. Wilcox hit Beckham with such force that the Giants receiver got up and started toward the wrong bench. Wilcox surprisingly was asked to play man- to-man coverage on Beckham out of the slot on two different snaps, and on both occasions Wilcox was right where he needed to be to deny him the ball. It was also a productive game for Wilcox as a space tackler, where in the past we would have seen him too aggressively attack the ball and end up out of position. His tackle late in the fourth quarter on Rashad Jennings was textbook and saved a likely touchdown that would have put the game out of reach.
2)As good as Jason Witten's game-winning touchdown was, I thought the one on the previous drive that resulted in a touchdown was a better call. When Romo brought Witten across the formation from the right to left, it created separation on Landon Collins, who was a good three to four yards behind Witten. Collins not only had to fight through his own teammates, but through the route of Cole Beasley running inside to try and track Witten down. It was a clutch call by Scott Linehan knowing he was going to get man coverage in that situation and dialing up the right play.
3) I thought these Giants cornerbacks played well against Dez Bryant, but in going through the tape -- they had plenty of help. It showed that Bryant was fighting double and triple-team coverage the entire night. Each play, there was usually a safety over the top with a linebacker in his path underneath in certain situations to prevent the slants and "in" cuts that Bryant is so dangerous running. When you do see Romo go in Bryant's direction it was primarily when he was able to draw just single coverage.
4)Can't say enough of Morris Claiborne's technique when facing these Giants receivers – especially Odell Beckham Jr. Where Claiborne tends to get in trouble is when he is lined up in press man and holds the receiver off the line. What Claiborne did to prevent this was line up in a press position, but instead of putting his hands on Beckham, he got within a foot of him, then just turned and mirrored him up the field. By playing this way, it allowed Claiborne to stay with Beckham by putting himself in better balance and it made it easier for him to adjust without the possibility of drawing the penalty.
5)Coming into this matchup I thought the Giants' best pass rusher was defensive end Robert Ayers, and I was concerned how he was going to be used. Ayers took the majority of his snaps against Doug Free, who was limited in his work during the preseason and at times has appeared to be a step slow in his technique. What was most surprising about this matchup was how athletic Free looked in dealing with Ayers. When Ayers tried to carry Free wide, he was able to stay with him and just work him past Romo. It didn't appear as if Free was struggling with Ayers' movement and looked completely comfortable with the situation the entire night.
6)The loss of Randy Gregory is going to be difficult for this Dallas defense to have to work around these next four weeks. Up until his injury, he was playing the best of all the linemen and could have easily drawn three or four holding flags that were not called. Gregory was taking full advantage of Ereck Flowers, and he was only denied one or two sacks because of how quickly Eli Manning was getting rid of the ball. Until Greg Hardy returns from suspension, this defense currently doesn't have a rusher that has Gregory's explosiveness that they can use in those sub packages.
7) Some days you get breaks from the officials. On that crucial 3rd-and-1 late in the fourth quarter on the goal line, Dallas caught a huge one. Giants tight end Daniel Fells matched up with Barry Church -- who off the snap clearly grabbed Fells with both hands and continued to hold him up the field. It was a situation where I have seen an official make a defensive holding call 10 out of 10 times -- but in this case, Church got away with one and Manning made a huge mistake by throwing the ball away and stopping the clock.
8)It wasn't surprising that Tyrone Crawford was able to get the first sack of the season on this defense. Coming into this game I had an idea with the way that Eli Manning liked to climb the front of the pocket to escape the rush, there was a good chance with inside pressure that he was going to be the guy. Crawford's ability to defeat Geoff Schwartz quickly with an arm-over move, then adjust back to Manning put him in perfect position to finish the play.
9)Cole Beasley will be the first to tell you that fumbling the ball before half was a huge play early in the game. But to Beasley's credit, he did not let that mistake affect how he played the remainder of the game. His 16-yard catch and run put the offense in position to get points quickly instead of having to potentially run more plays in the red zone and use up valuable time.
10)If you followed us on Training Camp Live this year during the one-on-one periods, you would have seen the move that Lance Dunbar put on linebacker Uani Unga to gain 24 yards on that first offensive play on the game-winning drive. Where Dunbar put Unga in a bad spot position- wise is how he came through the line and stopped -- which froze him. Once Dunbar saw Unga stopped, he then exploded to the outside, gaining the needed separation for Romo to find him underneath. It might have been a simple little option route by Dunbar, but the way he executed it helped him gain a big chunk of yardage in a short amount of time. That was exactly what Romo needed to get the two-minute drill started.
11) Look for Byron Jones to continue in his role as a sub-package safety in this defense. Some of his best work against the Giants came when he was asked to match up against these large tight ends and carry them all over the field. What makes this assignment work for Jones is that he has the size and coverage skill to take these players and not allow them to overpower him. He is comfortable playing tight and being physical when he needs to where most cornerbacks would struggle with that. Jones also showed a nose for the ball and was not afraid to mix it up when he was working in that direction. It was a very solid start for a rookie that was asked to do plenty of things.
12) As a fan you might get frustrated with the way that Tony Romo likes to carry the play clock down to :01 before every snap, but there is a reason for that. Romo and Travis Frederick are working together to set the pass protection and make sure that everyone involved is on the same page. There were several key snaps in the game where Romo moved a back or Jason Witten. What allows Romo to get away with this is that Scott Linehan does a really nice job of staying ahead of the game in the way he gets the plays into Romo. By doing this, Linehan gives Romo all the time he needs to get the play off -- but more importantly to have success doing it.