When the season started, I had the Cowboys at No. 4 in my Power Rankings and felt very self-satisfied after their opening win in the Meadowlands. Needless to say, smugness has been in rather short supply since then.
Regardless of how torturous this win against the Browns turned out to be, Dallas is now only a game out of first in the NFC East with a relatively easy schedule beckoning. Given just how far off their best they’ve been, it’s remarkable the Cowboys are now legitimate playoff contenders who may end up making me look more misguided than stupid.
As for the Browns, I’m sure they have a headache from the patronization they receive — always try hard, very unlucky etc., etc. I hope they don’t think I’m piling on by saying they look a quarterback away from being a good team. Despite an awful display from Brandon Weeden (-5.5) they played solid defense, got pressure and showed enough on the O-line to suggest even a marginal signalcaller would have them close to .500. Here’s why:
Cleveland – Three Performances of Note
Lies and Damned Lies
So Weeden ended up with a quarterback rating of 93.8 and nearly a comeback win. Color me hugely unimpressed. The reason we grade every player on every play is because it’s lucky, not good, when a dropped interception caroms off a cornerback for a 13-yard gain. Not content with that slice of fortune, he also had interceptions dropped by Anthony Spencer and Josh Price-Brent on throws that probably had his family calling for Colt McCoy.
As with most poor (I nearly said rookie, but that would be unfair) quarterbacks, Weeden’s biggest nemesis is his short game. On throws between 0 and 9 yards, he was graded -5.1 of his overall -4.6 rating on targeted passes. His offensive line gave him so much time this really shouldn’t be an issue. But when he was pressured, he reacted so poorly he gave headless chickens a bad name.
I’m in a camp (probably of one) that’s been a little disappointed by Alex Mack (+2.2). He’s never played poorly. But after a ridiculously underrated rookie season, when he showed the ability to be one of the best centers around, he regressed and never achieved his promise. Until now. He’s currently our seventh-rated center and has been a model of consistency. His lowest grade was a -0.4 against the Bengals and Geno Atkins, and in every game since he’s been “in the green.” This was a tough test against Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher, and he more than held his own with his best play coming in the second quarter (6:58 left) when he drove Ratliff backward from the point and to the ground.
Tough Young Gut
One of the more enigmatic players we saw last year was Phil Taylor (+1.3). He started off 2011 with his best performance of the year and never hit those heights again. Taylor is interesting because he has demonstrated both the bulk to hold the point and the quickness to get pressure on the quarterback. This was only his second game back and again he started with a bang — getting across the face of Nate Livings on the first play and later making life miserable for Mackenzy Bernadeau, including drawing a holding penalty. He can be a superior force in the middle, but will his display here be the exception or the rule?
Dallas – Three Performances of Note
Dez Does …. Cleveland?
When the much-discussed wide receiver backed into the sideline untouched rather than try for the beckoning first down, it looked like Cowboy fans might be in for another day of hair-pulling exasperation with Dez Bryant (+1.1). In the end, though, he did little else wrong on his way to 12 receptions (on 15 targets), 145 yards and a touchdown. In particular he took advantage of Sheldon Brown, whose soft coverage invited frequent hitches and slants. Bryant also beat Brown in the end zone, and his final tally on the ex-Eagle was six catches for 101 yards and that 28-yard touchdown.
It wasn’t so long ago we were applauding Doug Free (-1.6) after an excellent 2010 campaign during which he allowed only five sacks and 28 other QB disruptions on 668 pass drops from his right tackle position. He was rewarded with an $8 million per year contract and a new position at left tackle. Unsurprisingly, he struggled a little. When it was announced he was moving back to the right side, we expected a resumption of normal service.
Nothing could be further from the case, and instead he’s fallen even further. On 460 pass drops Free has already given up more QB disruptions (40) than in 2010. He gave up three sacks and three other hurries in this game, and the way Jabaal Sheard went around him with 1:51 left in the second quarter is indicative of his demise.
Just as with my initial feelings about the Dallas power ranking, I was also pretty happy with my view of John Greco as a more than serviceable left guard. I’d always thought Greco deserved a chance and was delighted when Cleveland moved him in as a replacement in Week 6 and he played really well. He kept the job and, if anything, improved.
It appeared my future as a talent evaluator was assured until Greco met Jason Hatcher (+4.0) in this game. After a slow start when it looked pretty even, Hatcher simply took over and effectively bullied Greco with a combination of speed and power. Hatcher picked up a sack, hit and two hurries on the left guard alone as well as overpowering him regularly in run defense. Although Hatcher has been playing very well of late, Greco will need to do far better to keep his job.
– It appears Josh Cribbs’ days as a wide receiver are behind him. After running 373 routes last year, he’s played 33 in 2012.
– Left tackle Tyron Smith only played 16 snaps before being replaced by Jermey Parnell after suffering an ankle injury.
– Cowboy fans sweating on rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne after his five-penalty display last week can breathe a qualified sigh of relief. His stats were two targets, one reception for 13 yards and no penalties.
PFF Game Ball
I wasn’t sure he had it in him any more than I thought I had it in me to give it to him, but Dez Bryant is the recipient of this award.
Follow Neil on Twitter @PFF_Neil