One-armed Knife Sharpener
- Apr 7, 2013
By Bob Sturm Nov 15, 2021
This one won’t require a deep dive of analysis.
Sometimes, you are just going to make sure that the opponent doesn’t matter that much. It really isn’t their fault and has very little to do with them. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The schedule works in mysterious ways.
Very sorry to the good folks of Atlanta for stepping in the way of that speeding train. You didn’t really do anything to deserve it.
Dallas was going to send a strong message to the NFL on Sunday and the team across the field was going to be victimized. The beatdown was thorough and emphatic and, frankly, without mercy.
Mike McCarthy told his team he was looking for a response and I think even he must have been pretty impressed with what that looked like from close proximity.
This was a dismantling of the highest order as the Cowboys left no doubt. It was a game where the statistics and specifics are secondary to a team that wanted and claimed a first-round knockout that was over before many were able to get concessions.
That is what you wanted to see because heading into this matchup, there was some creeping doubt about the true quality of the Cowboys. Were they a true contender? Were they able to deal with slight adversity and come back with an angry vengeance that would suggest to the football world that you won’t like them when they are angry?
It wasn’t just McCarthy looking for the response, though. We gather here every week to talk tactics, strategies, and X’s and O’s, but sometimes it just comes down to the emotions and heartbeat of a collective group of men who have a common goal. And maybe more importantly, the answer to the question, “Are you angry?” is because you should be. You should be personally offended that someone humiliated you like Denver did in Week 9. You should be chomping at the bit to be able to emphatically answer the doubters.
In Friday’s game preview, the focus was on this exact issue. We did not discuss which coverages or which game plan. We discussed from the Riffing column:
If one game where everything seemed to go wrong can derail your train, then your train was never much of one in the first place.
Prove the quality that you have been assigned. Win a home game against a mediocre opponent and do it with authority, conviction and maybe even confidence.
If you are what you say you are, this should probably not require your best effort. I will offer you a look at the Falcons below, but this isn’t about them. This is about the Cowboys deciding that the effort against Denver was universally unacceptable and they must immediately make it right.
Well, noon CT on Sunday beckons. Dismantle whoever is put in your way.
Assuming you are who we thought.
That is why that first half on Sunday was such a pleasure to behold. The Cowboys saw it the exact same way, it appears. They relished the opportunity to cut through a helpless opponent like a hot knife through butter. There would be no reasonable defense for what Dallas needed to do. The question was would they feel personally offended about the week that was and want this full measure of a proper response as much as those of us on the outside wanted to see it?
Asked and answered.
This whole line of conversation circles us back again to the point of desiring a new regime and a new identity for the Dallas Cowboys over the past decade. It is because the players with the star on their helmets were seldom able to exact revenge after slights of this nature. We have seen too many November and December tailspins at the first real signs of adversity. Too many times where a few injuries or bad plays snowballed. Even against a team like Atlanta (2017!), we have seen things unravel in the blink of an eye.
You want a team that personifies Michael Jordan sitting in his chair and suggesting that he took it personally. You want a team to take it personally. You want them to be mad, but not at the wrong things. You want them determined to not let that define them.
This is why it is so encouraging to have a QB who was at the center of this who basically lives that out for all to see. When you have Dak Prescott as not only the QB, but the true team leader, you can feel great about the emotional levers he will pull. Not only for himself, but show me a quarterback in this league who has the entire room feeding off his energy and leadership. He is not some celebrity QB who graces the team with his presence when he is good and ready. No, he maintains that fourth-round mentality and relates to people up and down the roster with the personality other QBs can often only fake. He is perfect for weeks like this. They take a cue from the guy with the biggest check that this is “statement game time” and then off you go to do just that.
It started very early as Dallas wanted the ball first, which alone was leaving its normal practice of deferring because they wanted things to be clear very early. From the opening kick, the Cowboys wanted to demoralize Atlanta for 60 minutes. They wanted to take the ball, take the lead and never look back. I doubt the Cowboys wanted to be up 33 at the half, but sometimes there is a combination of determination and execution that is swift and powerful that doesn’t slow down until the opponent taps out. This was just that.
The opening drive started the game by immediately setting the tone of having more weapons than the opponent can cover. We talked about the return of Michael Gallup and how that will be felt throughout the secondary. He attracts attention with his routes that try to take the safeties deep. Well, that will also allow CeeDee Lamb back into the slot where he can cook guys who are not the top coverage players. This is how elite offenses do what they do. Find the weak link and keep trying to attack it. Lamb had 50 yards receiving on the first drive that ended with him catching a touchdown.
From there, Atlanta had some offensive answers. In fact, in the first two drives, Matt Ryan hit the electric Kyle Pitts three times for 17, 18 and 17 yards. They were caught in the same soft spot in the defense over and over and it looked like it might be one of those days.
But, on those first two drives, Dallas was able to dig in a bit and slow Atlanta as the Falcons got deep into Dallas territory. The first drive appeared to have a huge third-and-7 conversion to the Dallas 5 when Ryan hit Russell Gage, but the excellent Jayron Kearse protested to his sideline that this needs to be challenged because the hit from Kearse knocked the ball loose. He was correct, despite the fact it was hard to see at first glance that he was.
Atlanta settled for the field goal and then forced Dallas to punt. It would be the only stop Atlanta would get from the Cowboys in the entire half. I suppose that was their window, down 7-3, to put all of their eggs in a fourth-and-7 basket from the Dallas 32. If Falcons rookie coach Arthur Smith thought that 10 minutes into a game was the time for desperation because he anticipated the avalanche that was about to collapse on top of his team, maybe that would explain going for it from that distance on a fourth down.
Because the problem with going all-in on a hand where you don’t have the cards is that sometimes you leave the casino without your money. We assume giving the ball back to Dallas with the score, 7-6, would probably still have turned out poorly, but this one seemed to set things in motion that were impossible to recover.
From the moment that Jourdan Lewis defended two consecutive passes on third-and-7 and fourth-and-7, through halftime, Dallas obliterated Atlanta.
The Cowboys scored 29 points on four touchdowns on three incredibly strong offensive drives and even blocked a punt for a touchdown. Atlanta would have four drives and the best of the four would be for five yards and a punt. The Falcons also had drives of minus-10, minus-8, and minus-4 yards with a cumulative total of four drives for negative 17 yards of offense.
We certainly don’t know how important this game was to Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn in the buildup, because surely the friendships he made and experiences he had in Atlanta will be treasured and last a lifetime, but nobody likes to get fired. He was and he has recovered, because the show of strength on his old guys and old QB Matt Ryan was one they won’t soon forget. His guys, even with many key pieces missing, fought their best to make this an enjoyable reunion for Quinn, and by all accounts that was well done.
As for Prescott — who took it upon himself to right the wrongs of one of his worst performances of his career vs. Denver — he seemed to want to put on a show of his own to put things back correctly as they were with him having a claim as the league’s most valuable player in 2021.
The drives all ended in the end zone and all included big-time moments from Prescott. In fact, fourth downs were again used as a weapon to quickly demonstrate that Dallas is going to push the issue. The Cowboys refused to kick field goals and refused to take small nibbles because of risk aversion. They have started this journey by forcing everyone to get accustomed to them using all four downs to attack.
Fourth-and-5 from the Atlanta 33 is in field-goal range, but Prescott hits Lamb for 21 yards and that field goal attempt is converted to a touchdown — 14-3.
Then, fourth-and-3 from the Atlanta 25 is in even easier field-goal range. Instead, Prescott stays alive to hit Gallup for 23 yards down to the 2-yard line and again quickly converted on the next play to another touchdown.
Careful and cautious coaching might have been up 13-3 here if the new kicker hit them both, but the Cowboys were up, 21-3. They weren’t here to leave any doubt.
CeeDee Lamb (Tim Heitman / USA Today)
A few minutes later it is third-and-7 at the Atlanta 9. Again, we have seen what “good enough” looks like and a third-and-7 draw might concede to another field goal because 24-3 would be fine, right? Instead, the Cowboys attack is still being aggressive. They want to send a clear message. Atlanta sends a Cover 0 blitz and Prescott probably tries to disguise his smile. A free runner will get to him, but he back pedals to buy another split-second before lofting a pass to where his slot (Lamb again) will come out of his break near the corner of the end zone. The ball lands in his hands and it is 28-3. Just a beautiful piece of execution from both sides of that pass.
The blocked punt for the second consecutive week completed a full-team demonstration of lethal force. Rookie Nahshon Wright fell on the ball in the end zone to make right his errant touch from last week in a much more pleasant experience in the end zone. Now, it’s 34-3. A penalty means the Cowboys are going for 2. Odd? Yes, but it continues the onslaught.
At the half, it’s 36-3. Nothing that happened in the second half was terribly worthy of note, because Atlanta had boarded the plane home wondering what it did to offend Dallas.
Probably nothing. The Falcons were just in the wrong place in front of the wrong angry football train.
One that now speeds to Kansas City eager to show up for its next test with great confidence and enthusiasm.
The Cowboys responded as a true contender would.
New management — coaching staff and QB1 — are here to let you know that it is a different approach these days than it used to be.