After a Week 1 statement-game against the New York Giants, the annual talk continued that maybe this was the year the Dallas Cowboys took the next step toward joining the upper echelon of teams in the NFC. Things haven’t gone as planned since that game as the Cowboys have been very much the same team marred by inconsistent play and untimely turnovers. The trend continued right from the start as they handed the ball to the Giants on three of their first four possessions, in addition to a fumbled punt. New York took advantage to the tune of a 23-0 lead, but the Cowboys battled back with 24 straight points of their own.
The fourth quarter wasn’t short on drama as Dallas nearly pulled off the miracle upset with wide receiver Dez Bryant just missing a miraculous game-winning touchdown catch. After leaping over two defenders to snag the ball, he landed with a finger out of bounds (literally) and the Cowboys comeback ultimately fell short.
New York survived the scare to further their stranglehold on the NFC East at 6-2, while Dallas continues its foray into mediocrity at 3-4 with a battle against the undefeated Atlanta Falcons looming next week.
Let’s take a look at the performances that shaped this back-and-forth NFC East battle.
Three Performances of Note—New York Giants
Another Pass Rusher Emerges
Perhaps lost amid the 6-2 record, the Giants pass rush has not been as dominant as their reputation suggests. The high-profile defensive ends have not provided consistent pressure, though New York has gotten surprising production from their defensive tackles and Chris Canty was the latest interior player to produce on Sunday. In only his second game of the season, Canty graded at +3.4, including +2.9 as a pass rusher. He hit quarterback Tony Romo four times while adding a sack on his 32 pass rushes. Left guard Nate Livings was Canty’s main victim as he surrendered three of the hits on Romo, before Canty beat him to the outside shoulder to finally notch a sack with 00:54 to go in the third quarter.
Tough Return to Dallas
It was not a memorable return to Dallas for former Cowboy tight end Martellus Bennett. After four years as TE Jason Witten’s backup, Bennett has enjoyed a strong first season as the top tight end in New York, and he’s already played more snaps (482) than he did all of last season (428). Usually known for his run blocking, Bennett was consistently beaten at the point of attack on Sunday (-3.9 run block). He had a particularly difficult time blocking outside linebacker Anthony Spencer who beat him on three different occasions to make tackles for short gains in the running game. In the passing game, Bennett caught four of the six balls thrown his way, but for only 29 yards with a long gain of only 12 yards. His drop on the goal line at the 14:33 mark of the second quarter cost the Giants potential points as they had to settle for a field goal.
Grabbing in the Slot
Playing 43 of his 50 snaps in coverage, nickel cornerback Jayron Hosley (-2.6) had a difficult time keeping up with Dallas wide receiver Miles Austin in the slot. In addition to the three catches on four targets for 50 yards, Hosley also held Austin two more times while picking up an illegal contact penalty as well. Both holding penalties came toward the end of the fourth quarter during the Cowboys’ comeback attempt. Though the first grab only negated a six-yard pass, it was the second holding call that was nearly a backbreaker for the Giants. On the first play after the two-minute warning, Hosley’s physical play went beyond the required five yards and his holding penalty negated a nine-yard sack by DE Justin Tuck, vaulting Dallas into New York territory.
Three Performances of Note—Dallas Cowboys
Uncoverable Tight End
The Giants had no answer for Jason Witten (+7.0), as the tight end picked up 18 catches on his 23 targets for 167 yards. It was a consistent formula for the Cowboys as Witten found the holes in the Giants’ zones with hitch routes and ran away from their man coverage with out routes. 15 of Witten’s 18 catches made significant gains, including seven going for first downs. He caught balls on eight different Giants defenders, though linebacker Michael Boley saw him most often. Witten caught 6-of-8 against Boley for 61 yards, with four of those catches coming on out routes. The Cowboys’ offense was able to move the chains Sunday because of Witten’s dominance in the short passing game.
Rookie’s Best Game
Already coming off the best game of his young career, rookie first round CB Morris Claiborne continues to improve as he posted a +2.4 coverage grade on Sunday. He was only targeted five times on the game, surrendering three catches and only 15 yards. In a “full-circle” moment, Claiborne made a beautiful pass deflection on a back shoulder fade to WR Hakeem Nicks, the same pass that Nicks and quarterback Eli Manning completed on Claiborne to kick off his NFL career back in Week 1. Claiborne’s only negative play was a well-thrown comeback route from Manning to Nicks for a 7-yard first down, but even on that play, the coverage was tight and a perfect throw was needed for the conversion. Claiborne looks poised to make a second half run similar to his former college teammate Patrick Peterson who emerged as one of the better man coverage cornerbacks late in his rookie year in 2011.
Step Back for Cook
Once again filling in for injured starter Phil Costa, center Ryan Cook did not have a good day in pass protection (-3.2 pass block). He surrendered two hits and a hurry on his 69 pass block attempts, though the previously mentioned Justin Tuck sack was partly his doing as he and right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau allowed the defensive end into the backfield in only 1.7 seconds. The negated sack wasn’t the worst of it as Cook also overshot Romo on a shotgun snap and he was the main culprit on running back Felix Jones’ fumble with 6:50 to go in the fourth quarter. LB Keith Rivers bull rushed Cook right back into Jones, knocking the ball loose to cause one of six Cowboys turnovers.
- Romo was 11/14 for 121 yards, grading at +1.3 against the blitz. He was 25/48 for 334 yards and all four interceptions while grading at -3.8 against a four-man rush
- The Cowboys only blitzed on two of Manning’s 31 dropbacks
- Only Boley played all 87 snaps for the Giants defense. DE Jason Pierre-Paul played 84.
PFF Game Ball
Despite the losing effort, Jason Witten’s dominance in the middle of the field helped fuel the Cowboys’ comeback attempt. Whether it was man or zone coverage, Witten found a way to get open as he hauled in 18 catches for 167 yards.