The Cowboys sort of pride themselves on having a bend-but-don’t-break defense. They’re 8-1 and charging toward the NFC’s top playoff seed, though, because they also have a much rarer, much coveted bend-but-don’t-break offense.
It was the offense that saved the day Sunday, driving for a game-winning score in the closing seconds to stun Pittsburgh, 35-30.
Just look around the league at the quarterbacks and offenses crumpling on a weekly basis. Good offenses. At times, great quarterbacks. Then adversity hits and—bam!—it all falls apart. It happened to Philip Rivers in the fourth quarter this week, when he threw a pick-six to Miami’s Kiko Alonso. It happened to Jay Cutler, as it does a little too often, during a disastrous outing at Tampa Bay. Carson Palmer, too. His playoff failings are well-known, but he at times seemed to be trying to lose to San Francisco (an impossible task, as it turns out).
Yet, here stand the Cowboys, with their rookie running back and rookie quarterback, laying waste to the league.
Third-and-short? Great. Third-and-long? No problem? Down in the dying seconds? Well, why start panicking now? The Cowboys actually found themselves down twice in the fourth quarter Sunday: 24-23, following a Le’Veon Bell touchdown run; 30-29, after Pittsburgh answered a Dallas drive with a brilliant possession of its own, capped by Ben Roethlisberger’s fake-spike touchdown to Antonio Brown.
Dallas got the ball back down a point, on the road with 42 seconds left. After an incompletion, Dak Prescott found Cole Beasley for 10 yards and then Jason Witten for 13. The latter came with a face mask penalty on Pittsburgh’s Sean Davis, which moved the Cowboys into field-goal range.
They seemed content on attempting a kick for the win, but their offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott had other ideas. On a simple handoff up the gut, Elliott sprung free as his blockers up front demolished Pittsburgh’s defense. Thirty-nine yards later, he was celebrating in the end zone.
There are the occasional big plays like that from the Dallas offense—Dez Bryant hauled in a 50-yard TD dime from Prescott earlier in the game (as Tony Romo smiled in appreciation), and Elliott scored on an 83-yard screen pass.
But for the most part, Dallas is content to wear the opposition down. The ’Boys entered the week leading the NFL in time of possession on the season, at a little more than 33 minutes. They narrowly topped Pittsburgh in that category (30:24 to 29:36), but also managed to get themselves into myriad second- and third-and-short situations. If the home run is there, the Cowboys take it. They’re just as content to live by ripping off six yards on first down, three on second and then moving the chains on third.
This is such a difficult thing to do. Among the most difficult for an NFL offense. During the course of a game, especially one in which your defense is struggling and you’ve trailed several times, the natural inclination can be to crank everything up a notch.
That’s not how this Dallas team lives. A bend-but-don’t-break defense surrenders short yardage in hopes that the opposing offense, at some point, will make a mistake. This is exactly how the Cowboys’ own offense operates, in the inverse. They poke and prod with Elliott and Witten and Beasley and eventually ... well, you saw how Sunday’s game ended.
The comfort level comes from their offensive line, for starters. As was the expectation headed into the year, this is an absolutely dominant unit. On that long Elliott screen pass, guard Zack Martin bounced a defender out of Elliott’s way at the line, while center Travis Frederick and guard Ronald Leary set a wall 15 yards downfield. WR Terrance Williams helped take it home, blocking alongside Elliott for a good 40-plus yards.
The run at the end was supposed to be no more than a time-sapping attempt to get the ball where kicker Dan Bailey wanted it. By the time Elliott made his first step, though, the line had wiped out any defender in the vicinity. He was untouched until his teammates mobbed him.
When you know you’re better up front than any team you face, there is bound to be confidence derived from it. Not that Elliott or Prescott are lacking in that department. Both were cocksure players in college and remain that way, deservedly, in the NFL.
Put it all together and the Cowboys’ offense is where it is. No panic. No angst.
Just a consistent, punishing unit that bides its time, waiting for the defense to blink.