Marcus Mariota’s steadiest game in five weeks paced the Tennessee Titans (4-4) to a 28-14 victory over the Dallas Cowboys (3-5) on Monday night to conclude Week 9. Here’s what we learned:
1. The Titans didn’t win a single game in the month of October, but with the AFC South slipping away, they returned from a long trip to London and the longer bye week that followed with their most impressive performance since Week 4. Tennessee executed a patient balance game-plan on offense, one built on creating manageable third downs and extending drives. Mariota (21 of 29, 240 yards, 3 total TDs) was the perfect point man, making some of the boldest throws of his career and playing smart football. On the arm and legs of Mariota, Tennessee converted 11 of 14 third downs. The Titans held the ball for 34 minutes and punted just once all game. Mike Vrabel’s defense came to play, holding Dallas scoreless in the second half with the help of a healthy pass rush and well-timed blitzes. After shutting the Cowboys down on four straight plays in the red zone late in the fourth quarter, Tennessee fittingly sealed the deal with a final third-down conversion, a Mariota play-action sweep to the sticks. Just like that, the Titans are back in contention in the AFC South, just 1.5 games behind the Houston Texans with a game to go against the division leaders.
2. Amari Cooper’s debut in Dallas was a mixed bag. Acquired to "stretch the field," as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told ESPN’s Lisa Salters before the game, Cooper was actually more effective closer to the sticks. Cooper lined up in the early goings against Malcolm Butler and got continued separation from the former Patriots stud, starting with a first-quarter touchdown reception near the goal line. He led the teams with five catches for 58 receiving yards. But Cooper was also the intended target on a momentum-shifting red-zone pick in the first half and was targeted just twice on third down and thrice in the second half. The ex-Raider was third among Dallas receivers with just 2.08 yards of separation. It’s too early to tell if Cooper was worth a first-round pick, but there’s no doubt that these Cowboys were in dire need of his services.
3. Cooper can’t cure all of Dallas’ ills on offense. The causes of the Cowboys’ struggles can be traced back to — again — predictable and ineffective play-calling (stuff, pass, screen) from fourth-year offensive coordinator Scott Linehan; an inefficient run game from Ezekiel Elliot (61 yards on 17 carries) and a waning offensive line; and brain-dead pocket awareness from Dak Prescott (five sacks taken for the third time this season).
The Cowboys also can’t cash in on gifts. Dallas was handed three early opportunities to take control of this game early on, thanks to two Titans fumbles, but cashed in on only one. Instead of going up 14-0 early in the first, the Titans were up 14-7 midway through the second. When Tennessee, up seven, missed a gimme field goal early in the fourth quarter, Prescott responded by taking a sack on first down, dumping it off to Zeke for no gain and taking another sack. Dallas punted from its 10 and the Titans salted the game away with a long touchdown drive.
4. Are Sean Lee’s days in Dallas numbered? The veteran captain was helped to the locker room in the third quarter after aggravating a hamstring injury. Lee was sidelined by a hammy for three games earlier this season. Jason Garrett told reporters he expects Lee to be out "for a bit." With Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch (nine tackles each) competently calling the shots in the middle of Dallas’ front seven, Lee could be expendable, through no fault of his own. At this point in the ninth year of Lee’s career, the best ability is availability, and the captain lacks that in spades.
Around The NFL will have more on Tennessee’s victory shortly.
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