Not quite what the universe expected.
The New Orleans Saints were the fashionable pick by many scribes to be the NFC’s representative in this year’s Super Bowl. As such, they were seen to be the true litmus test for the Dallas Cowboys, who entered the contest on a modest two-game winning streak. Apparently, this team might just be properly pH balanced, as they boat-raced the Saints for three quarters on the way to a dominating 38 to 17 final score.
The Cowboys used a combination of a grinding run game, creative passing, mauling blocking, sure tackling and opportunistic play to completely dominate the Saints. After losing the last three matchups and trailing by double-digit scores in 5 of the last 6 meetings, Dallas figured it was their turn again to supply the whooping.
The team amassed 445 offensive yards for the game, won the turnover battle 3-0, all while owning the clock for almost 35 minutes. Save for a six-minute stretch at the start of the fourth quarter when New Orleans closed within two scores, Dallas controlled the contest from the opening kickoff.
The Cowboys used three turnovers to thwart Saints’ drives, but also employed a stiff, bend-but-don’t-break philosophy when New Orleans was able to manage limited success. Through three quarters, the Saints had three drives of 7 plays or more, two of them 10 plays, and were only able to put three points on the scoreboard. When Dallas took a commanding 31-3 lead, it was their largest lead since 2011.
On the game’s opening drive, Dallas made a definitive statement, using over seven minutes of game clock on the way to scoring a touchdown. Their third down efficiency was once again elite, as they went two for two, on the way to converting eight of their 14 chances.
Keeping the Saints offense off the field for so long (they had one first quarter possession) seemed to keep them out of rhythm all evening, as they fell to 1-8 in their last nine road games.
On defense, Dallas limited the Saints to 4 for 10 while also forcing three turnovers. For the second time in three weeks, Dallas was wrongly short-changed by the referees as a late fumble was scooped by Sterling Moore but whistled dead, negating a defensive score. There was a bit of a moment of trepidation when the Saints scored twice in the fourth. However a bad decision to try a fake punt that fooled nobody effectively ended any chance to enact another infamous Dallas Cowboys collapse.
Quarterback Tony Romo continued his upward trending in his return from offseason back surgery with a second consecutive vintage performance. After appearing rusty and inept the first two weeks of the season, Romo again looks magical. He finished the game completing 22 of 29 passes, for 262 yards and 3 touchdowns. He even added 23 yards on the ground, including a third down scramble for 21 yards, his career best.
Romo twice connected with second-year receiver Terrance Williams for scoring plays of six and 24 yards. For much of the game, the Saints attempted to double-tem Dez Bryant and that allowed Williams one-on-one coverage which he dominated.
Romo would seal the game with a back shoulder fade to the front pylon to Bryant, who finally got single-coverage when the Saints admitted to themselves they couldn’t stop the run game. It was the 32nd time Romo has thrown for three scores or more, and also the 32nd consecutive game for him with a touchdown pass.
Those numbers earned him a 137.4 passer rating for the game. With 10.5 Adjusted Net Yards per attempt, the Cowboys had their most efficient and productive game since last season’s shootout with the Denver Broncos. Those two stats are key indicators of team strength, and Dallas has increased their number in each category in each game of the season. For a review of our Advanced Stats Notebook entering the game, go here.
The passing game prowess was combined with a potent running attack that saw DeMarco Murray become just the fourth running back in league history with at least 100 yards and one touchdown in the first four games. The others on that list are Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson and the Cowboys Emmitt Smith.
After compiling 149 yards on 24 carries and adding two scores of his own, Murray now leads all other NFL rushers by over 150 yards on the season. The success enjoyed by Dallas in the run game is attributed both to the runner and the blocking, as run game coordinator and offensive line coach Bill Callahan seems to compliment passing game coordinator and play caller Scott Linehan very well. The play calling was once again phenomenal as the Cowboys took everything the Saints were giving them and continuously exploited the advantages.
DeMarco Murray and Travis Frederick celebrate the score, the game and the start to the season.
The Cowboys zone blocking scheme is creating huge lanes and alleys for Murray; whether the run is intended for the middle or the edges. He has seemingly mastered the one cut, downhill style the blocking scheme calls for, and ended his confounding streak of four straight games with a lost fumble (all first quarter turnovers).
All credit doesn’t necessarily go to the line, either. The wideouts and tight ends are doing masterful work sealing the edges on plays, near the line and downfield. Led by Jason Witten’s example, James Hanna, Terrance Williams, Dez Bryant and Dwayne Harris all contributed blocks that sprung Murray for five different runs of 10 yards or more.
When the hole is minimal, Murray simply breaks through the tackles and gets plus yardage on his own. The combination of the blunt object pounding of the run game and the precision surgery of the passing game left Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan hopeless in devising a defense to stop it.
More to the point, it appears that third and short is back to being a running down for the Cowboys. There probably isn't a metric to signify how important that is. On multiple occasions, when needing two or less yards to keep a drive going, Dallas simply lined up and beat the Saints for the necessary yardage. No foolishness, no shotgun... the Cowboys lined em all up and pushed forward successfully.
Quite possibly though, the efforts of the offense were overshadowed by the tremendous job the defense did in containing the New Orleans offense.
With a result few could have imagined, the Dallas Cowboys appeared to want to legitimize their owner’s words from earlier in the week. When asked about being a possible playoff team, Jerry Jones replied “Yeah, we need to be glanced at over here.”
With the entire nation watching, Dallas announced that, yes, they are indeed worth paying attention to. After a quarter of the season, no team has more victories than the Dallas Cowboys’ total of three.
The Cowboys defense saw the return of Anthony Spencer, after more than a year on the shelf due to microfracture surgery on his left knee. Also joining him in the walk from the training room was Rolando McClain, Justin Durant and Henry Melton. On the opposite side of the ledger, the club is waiting on MRI results on Bruce Carter’s quad strain and a possible ACL tear for embattled corner Mo Claiborne.
Spencer played 22 of the 61 defensive snaps, while Melton played 24. The injuries to Melton, Terrell McLain and Davon Coleman (the latter two missed the game) forced Dallas to move Tyrone Crawford into the three-technique role. As CowboysHQ discussed here, Crawford’s skillsets appear to be better suited for the interior pass rush as he was as disruptive as he has been on the edge, but with more impact due to the greater impact of up the middle pressure.
Crawford had a pass defensed to go along with a hit on Drew Brees. Before his injury, Bruce Carter looked to be the defensive star of the game. A week after scoring his first touchdown on a pick six, Carter got his hand on two passes Sunday night. The first, was a beautiful breakup that veered toward Justin Durant who corralled the interception. Durant, who led the team with eight combined tackles, added the game-ending forced fumble that Sterling Moore recovered.
Orlando Scandrick looks on with concern as Mo Claiborne’s injury looks to be serious.
Substituting for Claiborne, Moore continued to prove his believers correct, as he contributed two PBUs, as well as the pulling in the fumble recovery. The team is expected to activate rookie UDFA Tyler Patmon to fill Claiborne’s space on the depth chart.
Of course, no Dallas victory would be complete without the help of Dan "Split'Em" Bailey. Bailey nailed a 51-yard field goal, right down the middle, for his 29th consecutive successful kick.
Now Dallas will move forward to preparing for the also surprising Houston Texans, who at 3-1 lead the AFC South. The Cowboys will be at home for four of their next five contests, and will try and build momentum with their favorable schedule.