When your defense is challenged to get to the quarterback, one way to equalize the situation is to create turnovers.
The Dallas Cowboys managed just one sack on Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers on Sunday, coming from David Irving who, of course, played a pivotal role in the Cowboys creating four takeaways in their 30-16 win. (See our game story here).
Sure, the Cowboys did several things well on Sunday. But the takeaways were pivotal against a Green Bay offense that is normally potent but was never able to get on track. Part of that was due to the Packers’ own issues, along with Rodgers’ inexplicable swoon this season.
But some of it was due to the four turnovers the Cowboys created, and the timing of two of those miscues were critical to the Cowboys’ victory.
The Packers were down 17-6 at the start of the third quarter and the Packers started the second half with the football. This was a great opportunity for Green Bay to get back into the game. After all, a touchdown would have cut Dallas’ lead to four points. Green Bay had converted two straight third downs before facing 2nd-and-8 at the Dallas 46. Here, Rodgers threw one of his worst passes of the game, intended for Ty Montgomery. But Cowboys safety Barry Church so easily read the play that he had no problem picking off the pass and returning it to midfield. The turnover led to a Dan Bailey field goal.
The next Packers turnover signaled that this was the Cowboys’ day.
Once again the Packers were rolling on offense, only this time the Cowboys weren’t able to derail the drive near midfield. This time Rodgers piloted the Packers to the Cowboys’ 1.
So here is where the Packers’ injury issues probably influenced the next play call. Eddie Lady ran hard all day for the Packers, despite an injury that limited him in practice. The Packers used Lacy just twice on the drive and he ended up with zero net yards on those two plays. Plus, the Packers used Montgomery as a back on the drive, a nice change of pace but certainly not who you want to hand the ball to on a critical play.
On this play, Lacy wasn’t on the field and Montgomery wasn’t being used as a back. Instead, Green Bay chose to run a quarterback draw.
Now Rodgers is usually pretty good on the run. But in this case he wasn’t, plus his offensive line couldn’t handle Irving, who was rushing from the right side. The play was already kind of breaking down as Rodgers looked for running room when Irving came from behind and punched the ball out of his hand. Irving was able to recover his own forced fumble after Packers offensive lineman Bryan Bulaga whiffed on his chance to fall on the football.
And maybe the Cowboys knew something going in ...
And so the Packers’ best chance to score a touchdown to that point was gone. And so were their chances to win the game. Think about it — if the Packers score there it’s a 20-13 Cowboys lead. The Cowboys’ next drive ended with their own miscue and the Packers turned that into a field goal. That would have made it 20-16 Cowboys. At that point it’s a completely different football game. So Irving’s timing couldn’t have been better.
Sunday’s win represented progress on a couple of different fronts. First the Cowboys formed more than two turnovers in a game for the first time this season. In fact, it was just the second time in six games the unit had forced more than one turnover in a game. But it also represented the fifth of the season’s six games with a takeaway for the Dallas defense. The last time the Cowboys defense forced a takeaway in five of six games to start a season was in 2014. (And Tank Lawrence is still on the come here, having undergone an MRI on his shoulder that limited him in Green Bay ... but should be fine after the bye when the Eagles visit AT&T Stadium on Oct. 30.)
The second was that the Cowboys’ offense had at least two turnovers for the first time this season. QB Dak Prescott was responsible for both — one was a fumble and one was an interception. This isn’t to take a dig at Prescott, it’s only to underscore the fact that the additional takeaways by the Cowboys defense provided some neutralization of those miscues, both of which led to Packers field goals.
Green Bay turned those turnovers into points, but the Packers buried themselves with their own mistakes.
So the Cowboys go into their bye week with a 5-1 record, the league’s best rushing offense and a defense that has forced nine turnovers in six games. (Oh, and a supposed "controversy'' at QB that the Cowboys still view as a Romo AND Dak positive, as we note here.) The Cowboys enter the bye with a plus-4 turnover ratio. They also go into the bye with some defensive injuries, including Morris Claiborne’s concussion, which caused him to miss the second half. But at least they have time to rest a little bit.
Some things are "planned.'' (Hop aboard the Cowboys bus in Green Bay with Fish and you can review the gameplan, listen to the hip-hop and taste the victory cigars.) But this defense — the one most of us, myself included, had so little faith in going into the season — has been nearly as responsible for this 5-1 start as the offense, thanks to forcing timely turnovers, as they did on Sunday.