The Dallas Cowboys dominated the New Orleans Saints on both sides of the ball when it counted on Sunday night football. The 38-17 drubbing of the Saints did not just avenge the Cowboys’ embarrassing 49-17 record-breaking loss last season, but it also solidified the highly criticized franchise as legitimate threat to win the NFC East. The performance came from a team that even Dallas’ diehard fans would agree displayed the very definition of mediocrity over the past three seasons. Finishing at 8-8 three years in a row and failing to make the playoffs after losing another win or go home game yet again last year. However, after last night, the Dallas Cowboys clearly have turned a corner, and here is a look at the top take aways from their win over the New Orleans Saints.
There is no stopping DeMarco Murray – Coming into Week 4, the Saints boasted the NFL’s 10th ranked rushing defense, giving up just around 100 yard per game. Murray was not phased, as he racked up 149 yards rushing on 24 carries with 2 touchdowns. The running back boosted his big lead in total rushing yards, which has now ballooned to a ridiculous 534 yards for the season. He has now ran for at least 100 yards and a touchdown in four consecutive games to start the season. Murray tied Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith as just the fourth player to accomplish such a feat. The two players ahead on that list, O.J. Simpson (5) and Jim Brown (6) are probably running backs most people may have heard of as well. The most important stat for Murray was 0, which is the number of fumbles he had Sunday night. Going into the game, Murray had lost a fumble in each the team’s first three games.
The offensive line is the key – There may be a reason Murray is in such great company so far this season. Big D’s revamped offensive line includes Pro Bowler Tyron Smith at offensive tackle, 2013 NFL all-rookie team selection Travis Frederick at center, and rookie Zach Martin, who has had held his own in a conversion to right guard. Murray has seen holes opening up for him all season and he has not wasted the opportunities. The dynamic back has taken advantage of having one of the youngest and most productive offensive lines in football to the tune of 5.3 yards per carry. In both of Murray’s long touchdown runs of 15 and 28 yards vs the Saints, he went virtually untouched. This is as much a testament to his offensive line as it is to his incredible individual talent. The OL also gave Romo the time to deliver his passes on target and make some trademark scramble throws outside of the pocket.
Tony Romo looks like Tony Romo again – The emergence of Murray and the clear shift from a pass dominant team to a rush heavy offense over the past few weeks has left many questioning Romo’s abilities. Since recovering from a herniated disk in his back, Romo’s progression has been slow. After a disastrous Week 1 performance against the San Francisco 49ers in which he threw three interceptions, Romo has been marginally involved in Dallas offensive game plan. The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback has relied heavily on Murray to move the chains for much of the past month. However, in his Week 3 21-point comeback against the Saint Louis Rams, Romo started to show signs that he was returning to form.
Unlike the previous three games, Romo was lights out from start to finish against the Saints. Although Murray got 24 carries, Romo was incredibly efficient, making all the easy throws, as well as his typical trademark extended plays under duress. He completed 22 of 29 passing attempts for 262 yards, threw three touchdowns with no interceptions. The controversial quarterback’s back look fine as he ran for a career long 21 yards on a scramble late in the second half. Romo showed agility to make defensive lineman miss, and his mechanics were back to normal as he easily hit Terrance Williams and Dez Bryant on back shoulder throws.
This defense is much improved from last season – Last season, the Cowboys defense was dreadful, clearly the worst in the NFL. The team’s defense struggled to stop the run, with constant shuffling to their linebackers and the injury of middle linebacker Sean Lee. They were also killed in the passing game, where former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffen’s Tampa 2 scheme looked like an all access granted pass to the end zone for the opposition. The New Orleans Saints put up 625 total yards last season in their win against the Cowboys and an NFL record 40 first downs.
This season, Rod Marinelli is calling the shots on defense and Kiffen is assisting his colleague as a defensive specialist. On Sunday night, the Cowboys shut down quarterback Drew Brees and Sean Payton’s Saints in the first half. The 24-0 halftime deficit was the worst the Saints had suffered in the Payton era. One of the NFL’s most dynamic offenses over the last decade could not run the football and were marginalized in the passing game until late in the fourth quarter. The Saints did not score their first touchdown until 13:35 remained in the final period.
Although Brees wound up throwing for 340 yards, much of that came in desperation, when the game was essentially of reach. He eventually threw for two touchdowns in a fourth quarter rally attempt. However, the first half interception he threw that was tipped by linebacker Bruce Carter and secured by Rolando McClain helped to bury his team. The Cowboy’s defense was not quite dominant but they got 3 and outs when necessary and the secondary forced Brees to throw underneath for much of the game and rallied to the ball. More often than not, when Brees did attempt to throw deep, the Cowboys secondary had deflections or were in position to make plays on the ball. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick nearly picked off two of Brees’ passes, but receiver Marques Colston swatted the balls out of his reach. The Cowboys forced two fumbles, including one by McClain after Saints’ tight end Jimmy Graham was hit on a red zone catch over the middle. Other than a meaningless 62 yard run from Khiry Robinson in garbage time, New Orleans had to abandon their running game. With the Dallas offense playing at such a high level, the defense only needs to be decent for them to win a lot of games.
Don’t forget about Mr. Williams – Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan knows all about Dez Bryant’s playmaking abilities from his time with the Cowboys. He was not about to let one of the league’s best receivers beat him one on one. Instead, Bryant was double covered for much of the game. This left more opportunities for Terrance Williams to make plays in single coverage and zone gaps, and he responded with 6 receptions on 77 yards with two first half touchdowns. Williams took a huge hit on a 6 yard touchdown reception, but held on. With Murray a constant threat to breakout of the backfield, the Saints had eight men in the box late in the second half on a few plays. This allowed for Williams to make easy catches and led to Bryant’s 18 yard TD sealing the game. The Saints eventually let cornerback Keenan Lewis cover Bryant in the second half one on one, but there is only so long that you can allow for a receiver of his caliber to be defended by one player. Williams showed that he is still the Cowboys’ number two wide receiver for a reason, despite having a limited number of targets for much of the season.
America’s team is beginning to look like the 90’s Cowboys – Romo, Bryant, and Murray do not have the Super Bowl rings of their former Cowboy Hall of Fame predecessors Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, and Emmitt Smith. However, they do have comparable numbers and talent. Romo’s resume is far inferior to Aikman’s playoff success, as he only has one post season win compared to three Super Bowls. However, if one looks at the Dallas Cowboys franchise leading records for passing statistics, Romo has the single season and career records for nearly every major statistical category. Make no mistakes, as much as he has been known for his poor decision-making late in games, this is more of stigma that has been attached to Romo. Make no mistake, the veteran has been one of the most productive quarterbacks in the NFL since he was named a starter in 2006.
Murray has, in no way shape or form, produced the amount of longevity to be compared with the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, but he is a dominant back in today’s league. The problem with Murray has always been durability, and he seems to be over his injury bug. If he can stay healthy there is no doubt with his ability to be a prolific running back in the league for years to come.
Bryant has already been compared to Irvin for his tenacity and fiery leadership and snug playmaking ability. He wears the number 88 in honor of Irvin and Cowboys great Drew Pearson. This idea for the number came from owner Jerry Jones, who drafted the former troubled wideout despite questions over his character, when his draft stock plunged in 2010. Although, he is still maturing and has ruffled feathers with his antics in the past, the pro bowl receiver is viewed by many as very similar in his competitive nature to Irvin. Bryant’s athleticism and speed is just as good if not better than that of Irvin. He is a special talent and his productivity over the last two seasons has seen him emerge into arguably the biggest threat at the position next to Calvin Johnson. With Witten and Williams still in the fold the Cowboys definitely have the necessary talent to contend, but only time will tell if the defense can continue hold up its end of the bargain.
Commentary by Brandon Wright