Cowboys Comprehensive: A Nashville Thrashing

After almost nine months, Dallas was able to finally return to the win column. Here's how it all happened.

A season can’t be saved in Week Two, but it could easily slip through the fingers of a team that doesn’t grab hold of the golden opportunity in front of them. That was the fate handed the Dallas Cowboys, who grasped their first victory of the season by choking the life out of the Tennessee Titans 26-10 behind a pounding running attack led by DeMarco Murray and a surprisingly stingy defensive effort. The result squared the records of both teams at 1-1.

Dallas was able to succeed in all three phases of the game on Sunday. They ran for 220 yards. They dominated time of possession, 41:11 to 18:49. They got their star receiver 10 catches, 100 yards and a touchdown, despite him injuring his right shoulder on the game’s first drive.

They only allowed 10 points for the first time since shutting down the Eagles in October of last year. They only allowed the Titans two first downs for the entire first half of play.

They forced two turnovers, including a scintillating pick by Rolando McClain, which could have been a touchdown return if not incorrectly blown dead. On teams, they blocked a punt and had “Split’Em” Bailey come through with four booming kicks right down the middle of the uprights, all from distances over 40 yards.

The Cowboys needed a win on the road, collectively, as a franchise and a fan base. They got one in front of a decidedly pro-Cowboys crowd in Nashville, and in the process might have been forced into realizing offensive balance is key to this team accomplishing its goals.

Most are familiar with the statistic; only 14% of teams who start 0-2 qualify for the playoffs. This might have been more than ‘just’ that.

The air around the team was muggy, thick with despair after a third consecutive “Win and In’ loss to end 2013, seeing their franchise pass rusher cut and losing their premiere defensive talent to injury before training camp. The team suffered through the preseason without knowing the taste of victory and then looked inept on offense to open the season last week. Cowboys Nation needed the fog lifted. They found the necessary warm front in the friendly confines of Tennessee’s LP Field.

For the second straight game, Dallas leaned on the run game, but this time was able to power through a shaky performance by Tony Romo. This time, they were joined by an energetic defensive effort that, while it didn’t often pressure the Titans’ Jake Locker, they did befuddle him throughout the game.

The defense was very quick to close on the ball, shoring up the gaping holes seen in the 49ers game. Second-chancer Rolando McClain once again led the team in tackles, with seven as he added a sack and a pick, as the Cowboys continue to reap the benefits of a low asset chance taken with no other answers in sight. McClain played all but one defensive snap for Dallas, 48 of 49.

Last week, Dallas ran on the vaunted 49ers defense; with Murray becoming the first back in 18 games to surpass 100 yards on the ground. Sunday, Murray’s workload increased, as did his production. He toted the rock 29 times for 167 yards and a score before sitting out the game’s final drive in garbage time.

The runs happened early and often, as opposed to down the stretch after the game had been decided; a delineation often overlooked when some quote the Cowboys impressive record when Murray rushes more than 20 times a game. What is impressive is that pending the results of the weekend’s night games, Murray’s 285 yards on the ground currently leads the NFL.

Murray is the first back to rush for 100 yards in each of the Cowboys first two games since Emmitt Smith in 1999. 15 years. Things were eerily reminiscent of the way Dallas used to win games from the early 90s. A pounding running game, numerous catches from their top receiver, '88'. While the offensive line had issues with protection, which is to be expected, the run blocking appears to be ready to enforce it's will on the league.

A second back surgery led many to question whether or not quarterback Tony Romo would be fit to commandeer the Cowboys’ ship, and that question still has yet to be answered completely. Reports from Fox Sports during the game had Romo admitting that the back did bother him “quite a bit” during Week One. Being constantly assaulted by whomever lines up across from Doug Free probably isn’t going to make the situation any easier.

First Quarter

The Cowboys opened the game with two runs to Murray for a first down, then two completions to Dez Bryant. However Bryant landed on his right shoulder as he stretched to make the second catch and left the game, soon to leave the field. After Murray was stuffed on a first down run, Free’s man, Jurrell Casey was able to get penetration on two consecutive plays, sacking Romo on 3rd and 15.

Dallas’ defense, however, wasn’t interested in spending much time on a field. Sandwiched around Murray’s one faux pas, a fumble when backup receiver Devin Street collided with him after a gain of 10, the defense was fiery. They forced consecutive three and outs for the Titans with a multiple pass breakups.

When the Dallas offense returned to the field, Murray returned to work behind huge holes opened by the Cowboys offensive line. Murray exploded through a huge lane to the left in a zone block, cutting inside LG Ron Leary with the lane sealed by Tyron Smith who had moved to the second level. The play gained 22 yards. The momentum could have been stunted when Free allowed his second sack of the quarter.

Dallas converted the first of 9 third-down conversions on the game. Romo would find TE Jason Witten short of the marker, but the Senator Sidestep was put in effect as he maneuvered around the defender for the first down.

The Cowboys would get to the Titans’ 11, but the third sack of the quarter would push them back. Jerrell Casey put a swim move on that beat both LG Ron Leary and C Travis Frederick to get in on Romo. Consecutive penalties would end the drive, resulting in Bailey’s first field goal of the game and a 3-0 lead to effectively end the quarter.

Second Quarter

Oft-injured corner Morris Claiborne began the quarter by breaking up a pass to Justin Hunter. Hunter actually turned defender, as Claiborne was underneath the route and was in perfect position before the receiver knocked the ball away. On the very next play, Dallas earned their first turnover of the season.

Locker air-mailed an attempt to Delanie Walker, and tossed the ball right to FS Barry Church, who grabbed his second career pick.

Murray resumed his pounding of the Titans with 18 yards around the right edge on the first play of the next drive. He’d gain six yards on the next play and then another 13 on an inside zone run to take the ball down to the Titans 3.

Tony Romo drew the ire of many last week when at the goal line, he reportedly optioned out of a run and ended up taking a sack. There was no such problem here. Murray would be stood up at the goal line, but his second effort allowed him to stretch the ball across the chalk for his second score of the season and a 10-0 Cowboys lead.

Dallas’ defense continued to surprise on the following drive, thanks to the inaccuracy of Locker. After a first down run of 10, the Cowboys were quickly off the field without allowing the chains to move again. Sterling Moore broke up a pass, and then Locker overthrew TE Taylor Thompson who had cleared rookie LB Anthony Hitchens by a good seven yards. Hitchens filled in for Justin Durant, but played sparingly as Dallas chose to play nickel defense the majority of the game.

The Tennessee punt pinned Dallas at their own six, where the Cowboys were able to escape the shadow of their end zone and not much else.. The Cowboys subbed in third running back Joseph Randle, who did his best Murray impression with a quick 10 yard gain, followed by another gain of four. Demarco Murray returned two plays later and caught a pitch to the left side for the first down. However the drive soon stalled and Dallas punted away.

Special teams ace Dwayne Harris was able to keep the punt from reaching the end zone, as Dallas returned the favor and pinned Tennesee at their two.

Dallas’ D again had the answers, only allowing the Titans one first down on the drive before forcing a punt. Rolando McClain almost had a sack but just missed Locker who was able to cross the line of scrimmage, barely. His third down pass was behind the receiver who dropped it despite getting both hands on it, and Dallas took over at their 40 with just under four minutes remaining.

The Cowboys crossed midfield when Romo found Bryant on a third and three quick post, and then had Murray get another gain of 11 to move them into field goal range. Romo would take a shot from the blindside when Jason Witten was unable to stop Wimbley from the pressure, but the QB got the ball away to avoid the sack. A high pass to Bryant led to Bailey’s second field goal of the game, from 44 yards.

Dallas finally registered their first sack of the season on the subsequent drive. Kyle Wilber, rushing from the RDE position, combined with free agent acquisition and three-tech Henry Melton to bring Locker down on second down with under a minute remaining in the half.

Dwayne Harris was able to return the punt across midfield, and a beautiful zip of a pass from Romo to Witten over the middle got the team in long range field goal range. Split’Em nailed a 51 yarder with only four seconds remaining for a 16-0 halftime lead. Bailey has now connected on 26 straight field goals; he hasn’t missed since September 29th of last year against the Chargers.

Third Quarter

The special teams dominance continued on the opening kickoff of the third quarter, as Dallas swarmed after Leon Washinton bobbled the return, sticking Tennessee deep. Finally, though, the Titans were able to get some things working on offense. Consecutive gains of 12, 11, 9, 16 and 16 got them inside Dallas’ 30 yard line in the blink of an eye, but a PBU by Brandon Carr would be followed by a seven-inch coverage sack by Rolando McClain on third down. A field goal would end the shutout, but the two-possession lead remained.

Dallas’ offense sputtered at the half, going three and out. Romo was sacked for the fourth time on the game, a coverage sack where the safety was able to come up and bring down 9.

Tennessee made a game of it on their next possession. On third and three, delanie Walker found a soft spot in the Dallas zone. He withstood a shoulder shiver by Morris Claiborne, who had no interest in trying to wrap him up, and then outraced Barry Church and Brandon Carr to the end zone for a 63 yard score.

Now only leading 16-10, the Cowboys got very fortunate. The Titans brought a blitz, and Romo tried to lollipop a pass to Jason Witten over the oncoming rusher. Witten tipped it up, and the Titans’ Bernard Pollard was on a B-line for a pick six and the lead when Witten knocked the ball out of his hands. It might have been the most important incompletion of the game.

Dallas was able to regroup, and despite facing a first and 20 later in the drive, worked the Romo-Bryant connection. The pair connected for six receptions on the drive, on eight targets, and finally cemented with a quick pass in the front of the end zone for a three-yard score.

Tony Romo has now thrown for a touchdown in his last 30 starts. He’d finish the game with no picks, but only 176 passing yards on 19 of 29 attempts.

Fourth Quarter

The Titans crossed midfield quickly, but were soon thwarted. Henry Melton got his hand on a Locker pass, and Rolando McClain made the type of play that shows why the Cowboys had him ranked higher than both Dez Bryant and Sean Lee prior to the 2010 draft. McClain batted the ball up before it hit the turf, with one hand, and was able to corral the pigskin while getting up from the ground.

The play was ruled incomplete erroneously, negating the chance for a return. Only an offensive lineman was on the side of the field with McClain, who jogged down the field into the end zone to no avail.

Dallas would end the scoring on the day with a six minute drive that ended with Bailey’s fourth successful field goal attempt and a 26-10 lead.

Tennessee would attempt to close to within one score, but the Cowboys made a four-down goal line stand to end all discussion. The Cowboys returned to the run game with 12 straight carries to run almost all of the remaining six minutes off the clock.

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