Another Thanksgiving, another Cowboys victory. For the fifth time in the last six years the Cowboys’ celebrated Thanksgiving with a victory that, in terms of performance, was eerily reminiscent of late season games in seasons past – even if the result didn’t match. The Cowboys can, to an extent, count themselves fortunate to have walked away from this game with the win. The Dolphins had the better of the game and the measure of the Cowboys but some costly errors lost it for them.
In previous seasons’ games like this, where they are on the short end of the stick in terms of performance, the Cowboys have found themselves on the short end of the stick on the scoreboard as well. Not so in this game as they halted the Dolphins’ winning streak at three thanks in large part to some crucial mistakes by the Dolphins and some crucial drives of their own.
Miami will look back on this game ruefully as their first opportunity to play the role of spoiler down the stretch wasted. The Cowboys will try to look on the result positively, that this maybe the year for them when they win games when not as their best as a sign that this team is on the rise. Let’s take a look at some of the performances that set the tone for the game and helped turn the result for the Cowboys.
Miami – Three Performances of Note
The Dolphins had a lot of joy in this game attacking the Cowboys down the field and, with a lack of overall pressure, were able to make those downfield shots count quite frequently. On all throws aimed more than 10 yards downfield, Matt Moore (+5.5) was 10-for-15 for 218 yards – and a touchdown pass for good measure. That is more completions beyond 10 yards than short of 10 and far more yardage as Moore really had the Cowboys on the run down the field. He was also extremely good when the Cowboys chose to blitz. Moore was 5-for-7 on 10 dropbacks when he was blitzed, recording 105 yards and a touchdown. Dolphins Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll called his offense in practice against Rob Ryan for all of the 2010 season and his team certainly didn’t seem as affected in this game by Ryan’s defense as other have been this season.
Flying off the edge
One result of the Dolphins’ poor start and them falling off of the radar so quickly this season has been that the momentum Cameron Wake (+3.1) was gaining in terms of media attention has slipped away somewhat. What hasn’t slipped away is Wake’s form, as he put in another strong showing on Thanksgiving to backup what has been another strong 2011 season to follow his breakout display of 2010. Wake added a sack, a hit and two pressures to take his season total to 56 total pressures, only 10 short his 2010 season total. But it was his run defense that took a step forward this week in comparison to other 2011 displays. Wake came into the league as a pure pass rusher but his tackle for loss on DeMarco Murray at the 7:08 mark of the second quarter showed his progress against the run. Wake drove Jason Witten inside to squeeze the run that his interior defenders stood up, but was then able to peel off of Witten’s block to take Murray down as he attempted to bounce the run outside.
For a game that marked his return to Dallas for the first time since a five-year spell for the Cowboys, this is not a game that Marc Colombo (-4.9) will look back on with a great deal of fondness. One false start in the third quarter reminded him that he was no longer on the home sideline, and on the other occasions that he made it to the snap, the end results were poor. Four pressures yielded to a combination of Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff in the passing game and a couple of poor blocks in the running game all added up to bad all-around game for the former Cowboy. Colombo had started the season poorly but recovered with some solid displays during the Dolphins’ winning streak. Dolphins’ fans and coaches will hope that Colombo doesn’t see a longer downturn in form again.
Dallas – Three Performances of Note
Turkey day special
The man to benefit from Colombo’s far-from-graceful return to Cowboys Stadium was Anthony Spencer (+3.9) and he made sure to make the most of it. Spencer registered four pressures on the day, three of them coming against Colombo, and was a persistent pest in the Dolphins’ backfield on both run and pass downs. Spencer registered two tackles for loss, both on screens, to go with his four pressures and also disrupted a rush off left end, standing up a pull block by Richie Incognito at the 13:56 mark in the fourth quarter. The stat line may not scream big day, but Spencer was the most incisive and disruptive of Dallas’ defensive players on this day.
Questions at corner
Incisive and disruptive, however, is not something that you could accuse the Cowboys’ cornerbacks of being in this game. The four corners that the Cowboys deployed were responsible for 277 of the 298 passing yards that the Dolphins amassed, giving up a completion percentage of 66.7% on the day. They also accounted for three of the five defensive penalties the Cowboys conceded, with one of those penalties not even being good enough to stop the touchdown pass to Brandon Marshall. However you slice it, the coverage in this game wasn’t good enough, and the only two really positive plays came from Orlando Scandrick (+0.9) recording a sack and a pass defense at 3:21 in the fourth quarter. In coverage, Terence Newman and Frank Walker are the only Cowboy corners to grade positively on the season. When teams come up with protection schemes to neutralize the Cowboys’ pass rushers (as the Dolphins managed in this game), the corners need to come up with better games than they managed this week.
The Cowboys’ penalty reports on defense and offense were identical, five penalties each with one declined and the chief culprit on the offensive side was left tackle Doug Free (-0.6) who tarnished a strong display with three pre-snap penalties. One false start would be considered by a line coach as too many. At home, with the crowd quiet for the offense to go to work, there should be no excuse to be jumping early. To do it three times at home is completely inexcusable, two came on second downs and one extended a 3rd-and-11 to a 3rd-and-16. These three penalties took Free’s season total up to nine (five false starts – his other two were on the road), and are taking some of the shine off of an otherwise solid season. Fans can be fickle and if Free’s penalties turn into drive killers (three of his penalties have come on third downs), he may start to feel the heat from rookie RT Tyron Smith (-0.1) who added another strong display in pass protection this week.
– The two hits DeMarco Murray yielded in pass protection were the first hits he has yielded in his NFL career. He had only given up two pressures on 35 pass blocks before Thanksgiving.
– After recording a batted pass in this game, Tony McDaniel now has as many batted passes this season as he does sacks, two.
– Tony Romo’s “danger zone” in this game was intermediate throws (10-19 yards downfield) outside the right numbers. Romo was 0-for-5 with two interceptions on these throws.
PFF Game Ball
DeMarcus Ware may have won Phil Simms’ “Iron Man Award” but for the game ball we’re heading to the other side of the Cowboys defense. Anthony Spencer had the better day registering four quarterback pressures and four defensive stops in run defense and pass coverage.
Follow our main Twitter feed @ProFootbalFocus