Despite the cliche, games are rarely decided in one play. However, turnovers and momentum have more than a fleeting acquaintance. Dave Archibald explores what happens when things go wrong for the Dallas Cowboys against the Atlanta Falcons.
After a game-changing play, announcers will often suggest that “momentum” has shifted and lady luck has cast her eye on another. The frequency of these momentum swings suggest that whatever benefit “Uncle Mo” confers is fleeting, and research has largely debunked the idea. In hindsight, it is easy to see a play acting as a pivot point on the contest, but events that appear momentous at the time often end up having little effect.
That said: Dallas Cowboys backup quarterback Brandon Weeden’s ill-advised interception, momentum-changer or not, was a Texas-sized kick in the gut for Cowboys fans, and had a big impact in Dallas’ 39-28 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
At the time, the Cowboys were rolling. Heading into the contest, Dallas hadn’t quite gotten the running game going, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry – a far cry from the 4.6 figure they posted in 2014. They had better luck early against the Falcons, posting 125 yards on 14 carries and three touchdowns over their first four drives.
Complementing the ground game was a surprisingly effective Weeden, a first-round bust in Cleveland but 9-of-9 for 105 yards as the Cowboys built a 21-7 lead. Dallas forced a punt midway through the second quarter, and things were looking promising for the Cowboys. On the first play of the drive, however, Weeden made a critical mistake:
Dallas runs two vertical routes on the left side against Atlanta’s Cover 3, forcing strong safety William Moore (#25) to sink deeper in his underneath zone. Tight end Jason Witten (#82) runs to the middle of the field and then briefly sits in the soft spot in the zone defense. Meanwhile, Weeden (#3) escapes to the left. Witten executes a scramble drill, continuing his route into the vacated area on the left side and presenting a target for his quarterback. Weeden spots him and throws, which is the right decision, but the execution is lacking, as he sails the throw well over Witten and right into the arms of Moore.
The end zone view makes clear why Weeden scrambled. Falcons nose tackle Paul Soliai (#96) attacks the A gap to the right of center Travis Frederick (#72), catching the young offensive lineman by surprise. Soliai gets immediate penetration and Weeden has to scramble to avoid being sacked.
As he breaks the pocket, Atlanta linebacker Nathan Stupar (#54) pursues and forces Weeden to throw before he can set his feet. The play was doomed as soon as Soliai won the battle with Frederick, and Weeden makes things worse by trying to make something out of nothing.
The Falcons had to go just 23 yards to make it a one-score game at 21-14, and they outscored the Cowboys 25-7 the rest of the way. Weeden didn’t turn the ball over again, but the Dallas offense sputtered out in the second half, not scoring in the final two quarters and gaining a mere 52 yards. Clearly, the interception looks like a momentum-changer.
If the pick did shift momentum, however, it had a funny way of showing it. After Atlanta scored to make the game 21-14, the Cowboys marched right back down the field. Weeden, hardly flustered by his mistake, rallied to go 4-for-4 for 59 yards on the drive. Joseph Randle capped things off with a one-yard touchdown plunge, and Dallas was back in control with a 28-14 lead. The Falcons kicked a field goal before halftime and got the ball to start the second half, but the Cowboys forced a punt to get the ball back. Nine minutes after Weeden’s turnover, there was no reason to think Atlanta had kept that momentum and the Cowboys still had a 28-17 edge. Only in hindsight – after the Dallas defense completely collapsed, allowing touchdowns on three straight drives – can we identify that particular play as the momentum-changer.
We shouldn’t let Weeden off the hook, however. His turnover took a possession away from the Cowboys, and Dallas finished the game with one fewer drive than Atlanta. It set the Falcons up for an easy score that made the game close. That close score affected the playcalling throughout the game, letting Atlanta stick with the run instead of becoming one-dimensional – and the Falcons ran 20 times for 106 yards in the second half. That run attack, in turn, meant that Atlanta dominated second-half time-of-possession, and Dallas only got four second-half possessions. Weeden’s error may not have changed momentum, but it might have cost the Cowboys the game.
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Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.