Thoughts from the film room at Valley Ranch:
• Most people had a problem with the head coach Jason Garrett's third-and-9 call with 3:28 left in the fourth quarter. I think we all question coaches and the decisions that they make, but this is one time where I thought Garrett did the right thing. It's a play-caller's job to run the play that gives his team the best chance to have success. Sure, quarterback Tony Romo wants to throw the ball, and rightfully so. But in this case, it was the wrong route to take.
If you remember the previous play, Romo has to field a snap one-handed from center Ryan Cook that was wide right. Only Romo's athletic ability saved that play from being a disaster because left tackle Tyron Smith has to hold Frank Alexander, and if there is a fumble, there's a great chance that Alexander is going to recover it. But, Romo manages to handle the ball and get a pass off to Dez Bryant, who in all honesty, should have made the catch.
On the third-down call, Garrett gets what he wants from the defensive front. The Panthers are in a four-man line with Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly at linebacker. Safety Sherrod Martin is lined up five yards off the ball in the box. At the snap, Jason Witten is able to carry Alexander wide outside while Smith is on Kuechly with left guard Nate Livings blocking back on defensive tackle Greg Hardy. Right guard Mackenzie Bernadeau pulls clean around the corner, but instead of following him, running back Phillip Tanner plants off his left foot to cut inside. Downfield there are blocks from Smith and Miles Austin, but no one picks up Davis on the inside and he is able to make the tackle on Tanner. It was a good solid tackle that left the Cowboys short of the first down.
On the following play, Dan Bailey was able to kick the go-ahead field goal and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and his group did a nice job of closing the game out.
• There was no doubt in my mind that Romo was going to have an outstanding game against the Panthers. I thought he did an exceptionally nice job of taking what the Carolina defense gave him. There are times when you should take chances to make plays, but there are others when your defense is playing well enough that you just need to manage the game.
I thought that Romo really managed this one well because Garrett used different personnel groups, which requires different players to be a part of those packages. The more packages you run, the more opportunities you have for mistakes, but Romo handled it all well.
The only play where I thought Romo missed a real chance was on the switch route that Garrett called to try and get the ball to Austin. The play was well designed and called at the right time. You see that Romo sees that there is no safety help to the left side of the field where Austin and Kevin Ogletree are lined up. At the snap, Ogletree, who is on the outside, drives hard inside as Austin comes off the ball trying to rub cornerback Captain Munnerlyn off in coverage. Austin has three steps on Munnerlyn as Romo lets the ball fly. It's a throw that we have seen Romo make plenty of times, but he just put too much on it, resulting in a missed opportunity.
Overall, I thought his accuracy and touch in the game were near flawless. The Panthers, like the Ravens last week, didn't present much of a challenge as a pass-rush unit, but the offensive line did do a nice job of giving Romo enough time to work in the pocket when he needed to. In a contest where the running attack did just enough, Romo was once again able to make some key throws in the game, which allowed his team to win.
• I thought that right tackle Doug Free, for the first time in two seasons, played at the level that we saw from him before he signed his contract extension. Free was quick out of his stance, he was in balance, and his technique put him in position to secure his blocks throughout the day.
There have been too many games where we have seen Free struggle with his technique when playing against power, but it really was a complete game for him, run and pass. I was really impressed with his ability to anchor down on the edge and keep the width of the pocket, allowing Romo to step up when he needed to move forward in order to make a throw down the field. And like we saw in the Ravens game, Free also managed to once again use his athletic ability to secure the edge in the running game, get the ball to the corner and work to the second level to get a block. Of the five starters and later Ryan Cook, Free was the most consistent down after down in this contest.
• Going into this matchup against the Panthers, I didn't feel like the Cowboys were going to have the same success running the ball as they did against the Ravens. First off, not having DeMarco Murray doesn't help, but it's when this line has to block a front that likes to move that they tend to have their struggles.
Like previous games, there were some plays that were blocked well, but the backs didn't get all they could. What I was able to see on tape, though, was there were times against the Panthers when the line would allow one of the linebackers to remain unblocked.
So many times at Baltimore the unit was able to handle the down linemen, but also get blockers up on the Ravens linebackers. When the Cowboys offensive line, tight ends and fullback get hats on hats, you see a much better running game. When they don't do that, you see limited yards.
Whether it's the Buccaneers, Bears and now the Panthers, teams that slant their lines or move their linebackers tend to give these blockers trouble, and if they continue to see these kinds of schemes, then there are going to be some issues successfully running the ball in the future.