FRISCO, Texas – Hopefully this finds you somewhere comfortable, with people you love, enjoying the holiday season.
It's Christmas Eve, and what could have been a better early Christmas present than a division-clinching win on Sunday afternoon? It wasn't perfect at all, but the Cowboys' defense played impressively, while the offense had some moments to build on in a 27-20 win.
There will be a ton of things to sort out as we settle in to this final week of the regular season. How will the Cowboys handle playing time? Who will their wildcard opponent be? What can the offense do to improve heading into the postseason? We'll get to all of that.
For now, here's the review of the win against Tampa Bay, as the Cowboys punched their playoff ticket for the second time in the last three seasons.
· This was a much better job with the run fits by the Cowboys linebackers in this game as opposed to what they showed last week. Peyton Barber didn't have the necessary room to run and in large part it was those fits that made the difference. There was a particular run where the defense stretched Barber wide with Byron Jones setting the edge. Leighton Vander Esch filled with such force that he knocked Ryan Jenson to the ground and continued on to help Jones with the tackle. Jaylon Smith was also in the area of the play to clean up if needed.
· Outstanding job by La'el Collins keeping Carl Nassib wide to allow Dak Prescott to step up to make the long completion to Michael Gallup. Nassib tried to bull rush Collins and gained some initial ground, but then Collins sat down in his set and stopped Nassib in his tracks. The block allowed Prescott to feel no pressure as he delivered the ball to Gallup.
· Good to see Taco Charlton show up after missing time with an injury. Charlton had a DeMarcus Lawrence-type of move where he tackled Peyton Barber in the backfield for a loss. Charlton was able to come off the ball, dip his left shoulder under Donovan Smith, then close down on the ball coming from his right to left. Smith was left completely off balance as Charlton was able to wrap up Barber.
· Michael Gallup is getting a feel for how to run the dig routes early in his NFL career. He did a fine job of running Brett Grimes off, then working to the inside with separation. Gallup found space right behind Jordan Whitehead and in front of Andrew Adams for the completion. It was a comfortable pocket for Dak Prescott with Zack Martin battling Vita Vea right in front of him, but with plenty of space to operate.
· Xavier Woods continues to impress me with his willingness to step up and deliver a blow, regardless of the situation. I wrote about his textbook hit on Adam Humphries last night. His shot on Cameron Brate might have been even better, because it knocked the ball loose. Woods timed his run perfectly and struck Brate in the ribs with his right shoulder as he was attempting to secure the ball. Jaylon Smith was right there for the assist and Antwaun Woods was on the ball just in case the officials had ruled a fumble on the play.
· I like what I saw from Dak Prescott, adjusting the protection by bringing Dalton Schultz back in line to help with the blitz by Javien Elliott. Prescott saw that he didn't have enough blockers to handle the blitz, so by making the adjustment Schultz was able to take Jason Pierre-Paul. That allowed Prescott the time he needed to get the ball outside to Cole Beasley for the pitch-and-catch first down.
· To play good pass defense you have to be able to defend the sticks -- and Jaylon Smith does just that. Adam Humphries had been hurting the Cowboys all day with his receptions underneath for first downs. Jameis Winston tried to get back to him in the middle of the field, but Smith was waiting for him. Humphries is not a big guy, so Smith was able to bully him as he tried to get his route past the markers. Smith was able to maintain position with his right arm but also stay off Humphires' back in order to prevent the pass interference call. Winston tried to fit the ball in there but there was really no window at all.
· Big-time play by Cole Beasley of snatching the ball on the crossing route where Dak Prescott was a little high with the pass. But what made the play possible was the block by Xavier Su'a-Filo coming across the pocket to pick up Carl Nassib. Su'a-Filo was able to get just enough of Nassib to push him past Prescott where he could deliver the ball. With that clean pocket, Prescott had enough time to find Beasley, and that allowed the route to develop.
· I was worried about the Buccaneers' willingness to throw the ball down the field. They hit a pass to Mike Evans against Byron Jones early in the game, but after that the secondary did a much better job of defending those plays. Jones had a third down snap where Winston tried to take a shot with DeSean Jackson and he couldn't have played it any better. Jackson tried to hit him with the double-move, but Jones never bit on the route. Jackson was then forced to try and just outrun him, but Jones maintained his position and -- using his body -- just ran him to the sideline and out of bounds.
· Bad decision by Dak Prescott to hold the ball and take the only sack of the game for the Buccaneers. It appeared initially that he wanted to hit Blake Jarwin on the spot route over the middle, but he wasn't confident he could fit the ball to him with Jordan Whitehead in coverage. His next-best option was Cole Beasley working inside, then breaking back to the outside. Prescott had a chance to climb the front of the pocket and make that throw. Xavier Su'a-Filo was in trouble with Vita Vea and Prescott did him no favors by spinning in that direction. By doing so, he spun right into the sack.
· Mike Evans is a hard cover for defensive backs due to his size and length. I now fully understand why he generally has the success that he does. The way he is able to push off is impressive. He is talented enough to gain separation on his own, but it's those subtle extensions of the arm just at the right time that are so impressive. Evans shoved Chidobe Awuzie with two hands while two officials were watching the play. What was comical after the play was Evans asking the official for a call against Awuzie. Even if Evans had caught the ball, I am not sure he would have been able to get both feet down. It would have been a close call.
· What an impressive game by Leighton Vander Esch from the defensive side of the ball -- but his recovery of the onside kick by Cairo Santos was no easy task. Vander Esch really had no protection on the play, as Jeff Heath did his best to rally over to help with a block. Santos hit a ball with the laces toward him, which caused it to knuckle and dip. Vander Esch had to play it before it took that extra hop or it would have been a problem. Andrew Adams was right behind him and was in excellent position to clean up any ball that was misplayed.