I have the privilege of presenting the weekly Top 5 defensive plays list for the Rob Ryan Cowboys defense. I am also ecstatic that after a short offseason with little time to implement his new system and schemes, Rob Ryan had the defense playing well enough that it made the choosing of the Top 5 plays a difficult endeavor.
Even more surprising, several of those plays occurred in the 4th quarter when the Cowboys managed to lose a 14 point lead and the game. But unlike last year, it was not the defense that cost us this game even though they were playing that final quarter without their three starting corners. Even after the interception that seemed to seal the fate of the Cowboys, it seems forgotten that the depleted defensive unit stopped the Jets and forced a 50-yard field goal attempt. This is not the same defense of 2010 that couldn't stop teams even with all the starters on the field and often quit before the final whistle.
This new 2011 defense is relentless. It may not be one of the best in the league (yet) but they will not lose a game for lack of effort. Yes, there were a few blown assignments as the team struggled to defend a hurry-up offense with young backup corners and safety coming into the secondary. But they held one of the best running games in the league to under 50 yards and three yards per carry, managed to get four sacks against a stout Jets offensive line, and also forced two turnovers. There are reasons to be excited about this unit in 2011.
But without further ado, let's take a look at the best plays made by the defense in the Week 1 matchup versus the Jets.
As I mentioned earlier, it was actually difficult to cut down this list to just five plays. There are many factors that go into my evaluation of the best defensive plays, including game situation, momentum changes, surprising player performances, and clutch stops. As such, I feel compelled to also present some of the honorable mentions.
During the Jets second drive and Sean Lissemore's first play of the night, the young defensive lineman played his 2-gap assignment wonderfully and fought off a double team to stop the run for a gain of one yard. This may seem a minor play, but the Jets were building momentum with their second drive, having just gained nine yards off two rushes and another seven yards and a first down from a screen pass to Shonn Greene. Fears of the 2010 and 2011 preseason run defense began to mount and the Jets starting building confidence, but the play helped slow down that momentum, though not enough to earn a spot in the Top 5.
Another similar run stop should be mentioned that occurred on the Jets third drive. With a blitz forcing an incomplete pass on first down, Rob Ryan called a play with only two down-linemen. This is a formation that was routinely gashed by running attacks in the preseason and Rex Ryan decided to do the same, only this time, Jason Hatcher anchored the middle of the line and pushed the pile until he managed to make the tackle and stop the run after a gain of only two. Hatcher gets another honorable mention as he and Sean Lee managed to stop the Jets opening third quarter run for a loss of two, much like Kenyon Coleman and Lissemore did on the Jets first drive in the fourth quarter.
Some honorable mentions should also go to the young secondary. Forced to play without three starting corners, Alan Ball and Bryan McCann saw more time on the field than expected. Neither was spectacular, but neither became a huge liability, even though the defense clearly struggled without their best corners while trying to line up the young secondary against a no huddle offense. Alan Ball made a great open field tackle on a smoke route to stop a third and short for no gain and force a punt. He also made a play on a pass that was nearly a clutch interception in the fourth quarter. McCann didn't manage to recover well enough after Plaxico Burress pushed-off on his touchdown reception, but I was surprised he still managed to get there and get his hand on the ball. A receiver with less strength than Plaxico might have dropped that pass after McCann got his hand on it. It should also be noted on the play prior McCann made a great play to deflect a pass to Plaxico when Sanchez started picking on the inexperienced corner.
But now, on to the finalists (in no particular order)...
First Quarter: Cowboys 7 - Jets 0
The Jets are down by seven points before their offense has a chance to take the field. The Cowboys defense steps out for their first 2011 stand and Rob Ryan lines up in a base 3-4, but (never content with simplicity) has DeMarcus Ware line up as the left outside linebacker against the Jets new right tackle. Ware absolutely manhandles the tackle and gets around the corner in no time. Mismatch created, first Cowboys sack earned. It doesn't get much better than that for the first defensive play of the season. The pressure continued on second and third and long, forcing incomplete passes and a Jets three-and-out on their first drive.
Second Quarter: Cowboys 7 - Jets 0
On the Jets second drive they manage to gain two first downs and begin moving the ball downfield. On their third first down play a run gains four yards. As the second quarter begins, the Jets now looking to make it third and short and avoid the Cowboys pressure dial up a quick screen pass to Santonio Holmes. With three receivers on one side, the Jets try to fool Orlando Scandrick, but he reads the play immediately and manages to avoid the block and threaten Holmes from reaching the quick pass, not to mention getting a hit on him. It was a great effort that led to a third and six for the Jets who were then unable to convert and had to punt the ball away.
Third Quarter: Cowboys 17 - Jets 7
Almost Anthony Spencer was again inches away from a few sacks on Sunday night. However, this pressure can often be enough to ruin the offensive plans even without a sack. In the third quarter with the Cowboys leading 17-7, the Jets have driven downfield and are in the redzone. Third down and six yards to go with Scandrick out of the game, Ryan decides to send only three and keep more men in coverage. Of course, sending Ware, Jay Ratliff, and Spencer is a mighty 3-man rush, and Spencer makes a great inside move to instantly flush Sanchez out of the pocket. With Ratliff also bearing down, Sanchez throws the ball away and the Cowboys force a field goal. I would also be remiss if I did not mention Spencer's fourth quarter sack. With just over one minute left in the game, the score tied, Ryan again sends only a 3-man rush on third down (missing Scandrick and Mike Jenkins in the secondary). Spencer was playing coverage in the flat, but made a heads up play when he saw Sanchez forced to step up into the pocket. Spencer earns his first sack of 2011 on that third and 10, not to mention forcing the Jets to attempt a 50-yard field goal (instead of something shorter) to take the lead. The first pair of pics are his opening move on the 3rd quarter pressure and the start to the cover-then-sack play in the 4th quarter. The second pair is the read and react portion of the 4th quarter sack.
Third Quarter: Cowboys 17 - Jets 10
Sean Lee. Let me say that name again because we heard it many times Sunday night and will continue to hear it as the season goes on...Sean Lee. The starting ILB on the Cowboys defense, and from the looks of things than man with the helmet with a speaker so coaches can call out the plays, had a phenomenal night. I saw only two mistakes all game as he overran his coverage on Dustin Keller once, and couldn't stop a run for a short gain and instead relied on his teammates to drop the carrier after a gain of four yards. There may have been a third mistake on Dustin Keller's touchdown catch, though it is difficult to tell which of the three ILB (all of which were on the field for that play) blew the coverage. However, he made way more good plays than bad and was around the ball often, but none were greater than the final play in the third quarter. With the Jets driving and looking to reduce the Cowboys seven point lead, Sean Lee has middle zone coverage and though he cannot tell where the tight end has gone behind him, he reads the quarterbacks eyes and puts himself in a great position to make a play and intercept the pass. If that was not enough to display his football instincts, his ability to read angles on the field and create blocks helps him return the interception 37 yards and nearly score a touchdown. After reviewing the play, it looks like Keller had tons of room to run if Lee doesn't make that great play and catch in under-zone coverage.
Fourth Quarter: Cowboys 24 - Jets 17
The Cowboys lost the opportunity to go up by two scores again in the 4th quarter and the Jets recovered the fumble in the redzone. They then took advantage of Gerald Sensabaugh's blown coverage on a big play to Santonio Holmes, tested the young corners after Mike Jenkins' injury, and began driving down the field to tie the game. With six minutes left, the Jets having crossed the 50 yard-line, Ryan decides it is time to send more than just a 3-man rush even with a depleted secondary. He blitzes Sean Lee and both young safeties, Barry Church and Danny McCray, and the Jets offense simply can't cope. McCray blitzes off the right side of the offensive line and manages to chase Sanchez across the field and not only make the sack, but also successfully strips the ball to force a fumble. Great effort to create a turnover by the young special team's ace who also made two clutch tackles while on special teams. Was anyone surprised that Sean Lee was around the ball and managed to recover that fumble? At that point, I wasn't.
Rob Ryan's Cowboys defense is clearly in better shape than many expected this early in the season. The defense managed to cause pressure, to stop a formidable run game, and to force a couple of turnovers, all the while playing in this new scheme and down several starting corners. The defense will need to get better at lining up quickly and is still a work in progress, but Ryan seems to already know the best ways to utilize his players and maximize their performance, and most seem to be responding well to the challenge and opportunities. Now, if only our corners could stay healthy.