Your number for the day: 9
No, not Tony Romo's number, though it is. It's the number of tackles the defensive line generated Sunday night, a record in recent games.
Maybe getting kicked in the head so many times finally got on their nerves? Maybe it took ten weeks for Todd Grantham's coaching to finally take? Whatever the case, the defensive linemen as a group had their best game of the year. Jay Ratliff was his menacing self, notching five solo tackles and two sacks. You wonder what his numbers would be if he could play DE in this scheme all the time and get away from the interior line congestion?
Both starting DEs showed up. Marcus Spears held his point of attack against John Jansen, and blew up two plays run right at him. He also showed good pursuit, shedding Jansen, slipping inside and cutting Clinton Portis low for a one yard gain early in the 3rd quarter.
He and fellow '05er Chris Canty have been two of the biggest disappointments this year. Their sack totals are again abysmal, though sack totals don't distinguish 3-4 DEs. Their ability to control their gaps and make plays against the run does. Right now, Spears and Canty are in a six week sprint to see who will be re-upped, since I don't think the Cowboys will pay big or even decent money to both of them. Going solely off performance, I think Spears has the edge right now. He's had his moments early on, but has been hot and cold. A few more games like this one could keep him in a Dallas uniform.
Which brings us to Canty. He's probably been the biggest let down this year. He appeared ready for a breakout last season but has been shockingly bad against the run in some of the Cowboys' losses. LT Chris Samuels and LG Pete Kendall rolled him in October; there are some plays where Samuels would tee him up and Kendall would shove him and spin him upfield. Canty would be five yards off the line of scrimmage, with his back turned to the play, when Clinton Portis roared by.
He was much, much better Sunday night, but he's not quite on. He's overpursuing some times. He's leaving his gap open to cutbacks, something Portis did on Washington's opening TD drive. He's a better rusher than Spears, and gets a good push when Dallas goes to a four-man line in nickel, but he needs better consistency, or Ratliff will be eyeing his role.
The backups also made their share of plays. Tank Johnson made his reps count, getting down the line in pursuit. Stephen Bowen showed toughness against the run. Jason Hatcher made a key 3rd quarter play, sniffing out a reverse option-pass by Antwaan Randle-El. Hatcher kept his contain, got in Randle-El's face and forced him to throw the ball away.
Terence Newman's return improved the coverage, and gave Dallas the first opportunity in weeks to play lots of eight and nine-man fronts. This change alone probably raised the defense from inconsistent to good.
To take the next step, to great, Dallas will need the five linemen who are not Jay Ratliff to raise their games. To be a great defense, they'll need a run of games like this last one.
Cross your fingers. Spears, Canty and Co. showed they have the ability. Do they have the consistency?