At the two-minute warning in the second quarter, the Dallas Cowboys were staring down the barrel, about to come under even more pressure from an ever expectant fan base as a home loss to the Oakland Raiders on Thanksgiving was looking like a real possibility.
In a bad season for the NFC East the Cowboys have failed to separate themselves in spite of looking very much the best team early in the season, but they came up with a timely response yesterday. When a Rashad Jennings touchdown sent them down by 14 points just after the two minute warning, a failed drive and going in two scores down could have led to a whole lot of negative energy in the stadium — and we all know how the Cowboys tend to cope with that. Instead, the offense stood tall and came up with a touchdown drive of their own to go in with momentum on their side, narrowing the lead to just seven points at the half.
In the second half the Cowboys were simply too strong for the Raiders who again were solid, and better than many would have given them credit for ahead of the season, but simply not good enough at this point to match up to a team like Dallas when they got on a roll. The Cowboys built their lead on the ground with key plays in the air before grinding out the fourth quarter with punishing runs from both Lance Dunbar and DeMarco Murray to close out the win. This win early on Thanksgiving weekend now puts the pressure back onto the Eagles who will have to respond to hold on to their tie for the division lead as we head towards the final month of the season.
Oakland – Three Performances of Note
Breakout Performance for Holmes
Earning significant playing time for the second week in a row, third-year receiver Andre Holmes took full advantage. Snagging seven catches for 136 yards, Holmes showed off his physical ability at times while benefiting from some sloppy coverage by the Dallas secondary at other times. Holmes took advantage of his 6-foot-4 frame on intermediate routes to nab all four of his targets from Matt McGloin aimed between 10 and 19 yards downfield for 67 yards along with one deep grab (on four targets) for 24 yards. Working predominantly against Brandon Carr (4-of-6, 70 yards), Holmes also came away with a big gain against Orlando Scandrick (1-of-3, 21 yards) and benefitted from a coverage bust on a crossing route early in the fourth quarter for his longest gain of the day; a 35-yarder to put the Raiders into scoring range that was followed three plays later by Carr’s interception.
On a similar snap count last week (48 snaps last week, 53 this week) against Tennessee, Holmes could only bring in two of five targets for 32 yards. The Raiders, and especially Holmes, will hope, however, that this game is a sign of bigger things to come in the final month that will give him the opportunity to nail down a bigger role in the coming offseason.
Struggles Up Front and in the Back End
There are two aspects of pass defense and the Raiders didn’t exactly excel in either facet yesterday. While middle linebacker Nick Roach extended his sack streak to three games with a pair yesterday, the production from the rest of the defense was somewhat lacking with only 10 pressures (2 Ht, 8 Hu) combined. Linebacker Sio Moore has been a source of pressure for the last couple of months, but was blanked for the first time this season (when he played a representative number of snaps) having recorded just one hit against the Titans on Sunday. On the back end this led to troubles in primary coverage and also in making tackles where the Raiders’ defenders missed four en route to surrendering 5.2 yards after the catch per reception. In spite of his touchdown surrendered to Dez Bryant, former Cowboy Mike Jenkins likely walks away from the game with the most credit of the Raiders’ coverage defenders surrendering 8 yards on his three other targets while also snagging a pass defense and forcing a fumble from Bryant on his other target against the Cowboys’ No. 1 receiver.
Veldheer Makes His Return
Though you would struggle to call this season a success, the solid displays that the Raiders have shown meant that we haven’t been endlessly reminded about Jared Veldheer’s absence to this point of the season. Ahead of the season Veldheer was tabbed as one of the Raiders’ few bright spots and when he went down through injury in training camp many Raider fans bemoaned the loss of a rare player of quality on this roster. The Raiders have got somewhat surprisingly solid play from Khalif Barnes in Veldheer’s absence, but welcomed their left tackle back with open arms yesterday and will have been thankful to see him return with few signs of rust. There wasn’t much to get excited about in terms of run blocking in a quiet game, but at the same time there wasn’t much to be concerned about in pass protection — which isn’t always the case for players returning from injury, especially those returning to face DeMarcus Ware. Only a solitary pressure late in the first quarter was surrendered to Ware with just a false start, immediately after a neutral zone infraction by Ware, late in the fourth quarter blotting his copybook further. A free agent in the offseason Veldheer will be eager to remind everyone why he was one of the league’s emerging left tackles over the last month of the season.
Dallas – Three Performances of Note
Setting ’em Up and Knocking ’em Down
The Cowboys did not run a committee approach in the backfield but DeMarco Murray (55 snaps) and Lance Dunbar (13 snaps) certainly executed an excellent one-two punch in the running game yesterday. In terms of carries, the Cowboys’ backs were much closer with Dunbar carrying the ball on 12 of his 13 snaps and gashing the Raiders’ run defense for the game’s longest play midway through the third quarter and other solid gains thereafter. Not blessed with consistently quality run blocking, the Cowboys’ double act was able to maximize the gains when the blocking was there while also finding a way to make something out of nothing when their blocking broke down in front of them. Dunbar (+1.7 rushing) and Murray (+1.6 rushing) combined to force seven missed tackles and gained 120 of their 145 yards after first contact. Dunbar’s production in this game accounted for more than half of his production for the entire season while Murray has earned his sixth straight game with a positive rushing grade.
Wilber Stars in a New Role
The Cowboys were in full shuffle mode at linebacker yesterday and got a strong display from in the unlikely shape of Kyle Wilber (+2.7) who shone at strong side linebacker in place of the injured Justin Durant. Filling this spot for the second straight week, Wilber’s first involvement was to fall on a fumbled snap (which got the Cowboys back into the game at the end of the first quarter), but came into his own in the second and fourth quarter defeating tight ends, linemen and receivers alike to make tackles against the run, earning a +3.3 grade for his two-stop game. To this point in the season Wilber had been playing predominantly with his hand in the ground and has struggled to produce the sort of pass rush that Monte Kiffin needs from his defensive right end. Injury offers others opportunity to step up and, even if it is only temporary, Wilber has grasped his chance to show his versatility for the Cowboys.
Finding His Feet at Left Tackle
One of the players at the center of a feature from last season on linemen switching sides, Tyron Smith has looked more solid and consistent at left tackle in his second season there and has really started to build his form in the last month. Up against Lamarr Houston yesterday, Smith kept a clean sheet surrendering no pressure in pass protection, only the second time he has done so in a single game since his shift. Adding solid run blocking once again, a feature of his play ever since he moved to left tackle last season (+9.8 last season, +4.0 so far this season), to his excellent pass protection of late, Smith has settled in after understandable struggles. Such a move doesn’t always pay off (see Michael Oher in Baltimore) but Smith is making it work and both he and the Cowboys are ready to reap the benefits if he maintains this season’s form. Smith hasn’t surrendered a hit or sack since the Cowboys’ Week 7 trip to Philadelphia and earning a +8.7 overall grade in only three games this month (Week 10-13) he is likely to be a contender for our Team of the Month that we’ll post after this week’s games.
– The Raiders blitzed Tony Romo on 50% of his drop-backs yesterday generating both of their sacks for Roach but also surrendering Romo’s touchdown for a passer rating of 110.7 on 15 attempts.
– The Cowboys also blitzed Matt McGloin on 50% of his drop-backs, failing to register a sack whether they blitzed or not and snagging their interception on one of the 15 times they didn’t blitz the Raiders’ signal-caller.
– Jason Hatcher got somewhere back toward his well-rounded early-season form earning a positive grade in run defense (+1.6) and as a pass rusher (+2.5) in the same game for the first time since Week 7.
PFF Game Ball
Splitting the work in terms of carries, Lance Dunbar got some big plays to spark the running game while DeMarco Murray had a Thanksgiving to remember finishing three drives with touchdowns as the ground game made its presence felt for the Cowboys.
Follow Ben on Twitter @PFF_Ben