Sturm: The Morning After - Cowboys rise above ugly performance with winning plays in 4th Quarter

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By Bob Sturm Nov 5, 2019

There is a rather-clichéd moment in football when the third quarter expires that we have all seen a few thousand times. Many players on both sidelines put four fingers in the air to let us know we have now advanced to the final stanza of that evening’s performance. We have made it to the fourth quarter.

Teams are trained from the earliest of ages that while this quarter may be the same size as the others, it is also much more meaningful. The fourth quarter will usually determine who leaves with the victory and who regrets how close they came to a win, only to fall short when they were forced to dig a little deeper a few hours into the proceedings.

The Cowboys were in the exact stadium of their season’s largest humiliation. They lost to a Jets team on October 13th that was and is going nowhere, and was playing for nothing on this very field, to the delight of the audience on hand, who loved nothing more than to send those smug Dallas guys back from whence they came with a defeat.

Now, it was the Giants’ turn in MetLife STadium. What is with this Cowboys team, anyway?

The first several hours of the night did very little to convince us that Dallas had learned much from their worst moment of the season. They were coming off a bye week and looked like they might have stayed on it, shooting themselves in the foot from the opening snap, when Dak Prescott assumed that veteran safety Antoine Bethea was falling for the play-action fake and walking into a trap. Instead, Bethea knew what was coming and was sitting on the pass, just waiting for Prescott to throw his slant right at him.

A dreaded turnover inside your own 10-yard line is a great example of the shambolic execution early – but certainly not the only one.

There was a second drive that included a perfect snap fumbled, a holding penalty that nullified a touchdown, an open wheel route for another touchdown that was lost in the lights and a dropped screen pass that hit Tony Pollard right in both hands. The third drive featured a crucial negative run, two pass protection issues on pressure calls from the Giants and then a missed field goal.

The fourth drive stalled out when Randall Cobb appeared to have the yardage for a first down on 3rd-and-5, only to have the ball knocked loose when Jabrill Peppers hit him so hard the ball flew ten yards into the hands of Bethea again. Yet another giveaway, and this offense was looking like the same one that let the Jets and Packers off the hook. Productive, for sure, with big plays available, but generous and sloppy. That won’t cut it.

Good things started to happen on the fifth drive, with Blake Jarwin pushing the Cowboys into the end zone with a brilliant yards-after-catch touchdown stampede down the sideline before halftime. Then, the defense quickly got the ball back, and Brett Maher actually gave Dallas a halftime lead of 13-12.

So, it is all good, right? Wake up, fix the mistakes and then all good in the second half against a withering opponent that hasn’t led a game before this night since September 29th. Right?

Not exactly. A holding penalty stalled the first drive of the second half as Tyron Smith was flagged for the fourth time in his last two games, giving him a co-league- leading fifth holding penalty this season. (Among the other league leaders? Old friend Ronald Leary.). Those are called “drive killers” for a reason, and the punt team was given more work. Then Maher and the Giants traded field goals, giving us a very dicey Cowboys lead of 16-15 as the players put their four fingers in the air.

Here we go. Either the Cowboys make the plays to get this one safely into the win column, or the sun rises on Tuesday with an entire fanbase talking about firing the coaching staff and starting over in 2020.

To their credit, the fourth quarter went very, very well for the visitors, who were trying to be the only true road team in the league to win in Week 9 other than the Thursday night game, when San Francisco dispatched Arizona.

If people are going to call this an ugly win, then let’s examine the several beautiful moments in the final quarter for the Cowboys to see if those claims stand up to scrutiny.

First, Dallas had driven to the edge of field goal range and faced a 3rd-and-3 from the New York 31, where Prescott could not find anyone open but was afforded top-notch pass protection despite a blitz and was able to run himself for an important 11 yards down the left sideline to the 20, with another five yards tacked on with a defensive holding.

On the very next play, Prescott gunned a pass to the right sideline over the outstretched arms of DeAndre Baker to Michael Gallup. Gallup caught it, leapt over a diving Janoris Jenkins and tight-roped all the way into the end zone to get Dallas a 23-15 lead with 12:47 to play.

Because nothing is ever easy around here, the Giants’ only explosive play of the night happened on the very next snap from scrimmage, as Saquon Barkley followed a convoy on a screen pass 65 huge yards that nearly put the Giants right back on even footing until Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie were able to at force Barkley out at the 11-yard line. That would prove to be huge because, instead of tying the game with a touchdown, the Giants would settle for yet another red-zone field goal, which ultimately was the story of the night. The Cowboys’ work on third-down defense (5-16, 31%) and red-zone defense (1-5, 20%) saved their bacon repeatedly by minimizing damage at the end of drives.

23-18 is hardly a time to feel safe and sound with 11:45 to go in this game, and the Cowboys repossessed the ball at their own 10-yard line because of a very curious and silly personal foul penalty when Justin March apparently just learned about the “pulling guys from the other team off the pile” initiative of the last few years. Not the smartest night from many Cowboys players, to be honest.

But here was a great opportunity to see what the offensive disposition on the road would be from Kellen Moore, Jason Garrett and Dak Prescott in a situation where you certainly don’t have to go get points, but you are advised to do so to put this game out of reach right here, right now with an aggressive attack despite having a five-point lead. In the old days of “cloud of dust” football, teams would try to grind out the rest of the clock instead of risking the dreaded, deadly mistake. In modern times, we know the only way to win games in the fourth quarter consistently is to keep scoring. It is almost like the NBA now, where stops are too hard to get. You have to keep attacking.

Attack, they did. On this vital drive – which ultimately included the kill shot – they threw the ball to Amari Cooper three times and to Randall Cobb and Jason Witten three other times. They ran the ball three other times, with Ezekiel Elliott carrying the mail, but two of them were unsuccessful with a tackle for loss and a stuffed run. The Giants were not going to let Elliott continue his hugely productive night with the game on the line. They knew what the Cowboys like to do here.

We don’t know what happens in a scenario where this drive isn’t extended without a friendly pass-interference call given to Cooper over DeAndre Baker. It was a pass-interference penalty by definition, but one seldom called in this situation unless you have a rookie corner with no confidence trying to get physical with one of the game’s elite wide receiver superstars right now. Since the trade to Dallas, Cooper is undoubtedly the latter, and so the Cowboys now had a fresh set of downs at their 41 after the kind 26-yard penalty.

From there, with the proceedings really heated up with shoving after every whistle, the Cowboys methodically kept driving and kept throwing. Dak Prescott did not have a perfect evening, but his ability to diagnose and get them into the right play and look for each blitz scare or coverage was exceptional for most of the night. He needed a veteran quarterback performance, and he provided one in New York on Monday.

The drive fell into peril when he hit Jason Witten on a play-action roll-out to the right, and Witten lumbered 22 yards after the catch, only to have a penalty thrown on Randall Cobb for an illegal blindside block after the slot receiver pushed David Mayo out of Witten’s path. This is a player-safety rule, for sure, but Cobb did not hit Mayo in the back and appeared to simply throw a reasonable block. Nevertheless, the call was made and, marching the Cowboys back to midfield.

So, here you are. 3rd-and-12, and the Giants are about to get the ball back if you run your “give-up draw” or screen. Maybe the game is still won, or maybe it isn’t. This is the moment of truth. Do you trust your quarterback and your offense, or don’t you?

Our eyes looked to see what Kellen Moore would decide.

They ran what they love in that situation – the dagger concept to the left, where the slot receiver takes a vertical route to clear out the middle and then Cooper can run the deep-in right behind it into an open space against the two-deep coverage. Cooper in open space is a real problem, and he took that pass into the end zone with ease to not only convert a 3rd-and-12 – the league converts 3rd-and-12+ at 14.5 percent, while the Cowboys are tops in the NFL at 33 percent in this situation – but convert the game into a win.

The defense would do the rest and while they were far from perfect, either, they did a great job with Barkley all night (save for one play) and also applied plenty of pressure on Daniel Jones, with five sacks and a massive night from both DeMarcus Lawrence and the newly acquired Michael Bennett. Lawrence blew things up all night with three quarterback hits, two tackles for loss and a sack. Bennett added four quarterback hits, two tackles for loss and a sack. Add in Robert Quinn and Maliek Collins, and this front is going to be a problem for most teams as the season turns colder.

We also should not lose sight of the ball-hawking quality of Xavier Woods, who is starting to get on a turnover roll with another interception and a forced fumble, as well. Add in Jourdan Lewis finding another big play, and the playmakers are starting to emerge defensively against the always-generous Giants.

There is no question that this was not their best performance, nor was it their best opponent. This was, as Tiger Woods used to say, winning with your “C-game,” and while that is irritating to many, it is also not a trick that most teams have very often when they go on the road in the NFL. Winning is very difficult, and games like these trip up teams every week in this league. There are no apologies for victories – especially not divisional road victories.

And while we do discuss the sloppiness, the untimely penalties and even the turnovers, let’s not lose sight of this: This was yet another performance of 400+ yards, 30+ points and a double-digit win. As hard as it is to believe, every single win this season has been of that variety, and that is now five for the year.

Do you know the franchise record for this?

Five. The 2019 Cowboys have now tied the 1983 and 2007 Cowboys for the most wins of that variety. I know everyone wants better from this team right now, but let’s not overlook some pretty impressive accomplishments while they are happening.

In other words, this team is pretty good, and they might be on their way to even better in the weeks to come.

Get your win, get on the bus and get home.
 
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