Dallas Cowboys fans remember the deterioration of the Cowboys defense last year. After opening the season strong, injuries started to form cracks and bad play and mis-communication allowed the dam to burst. When it was over, Rob Ryan was out and Monte Kiffin was in. The 3-4 out, the 4-3 in. So far, it looks pretty good. After watching the Bengals game again, let's take a look at the first-half defense.
Defensive line - This is tough to evaluate as the line is missing Jay Ratliff and Anthony Spencer. But we may have to get used to missing Ratliff, word is he could miss some of the beginning of the regular season, possibly up to six weeks if they put him on the PUP list. While a healthy Ratliff would be nice, the play of Nick Hayden makes playing without the Rat a tolerable option. Hayden is not the playmaker Rat is, but he is solid in the middle. The Cowboys interior with Hayden and Jason Hatcher has been stout. Hayden is definitely a good option if we don't see the Rat. The Cowboys defensive line against the Bengals was tough against the run, sometimes making the tackle, sometimes disrupting the play and allowing the linebackers to flow to the tackle. Replacement George Selvie has shown good stoutness against the run.
The one thing missing is the pass rush. Granted, the Bengals used a lot of 3- and 5-step drops in the game, limiting pass rush opportunities, but without Anthony Spencer, DeMarcus Ware and company have yet to get going. It's a small sample size to be sure, but that is the one element missing from the starting defensive line.
Linebackers - Sean Lee and Bruce Carter are learning the art of diagnosing the play and either attacking the ball or getting back in coverage. On play-action they have to be quick about it and they have been so far. Lee was running nicely with tight ends and receivers up the seams, and Carter is quick to close out short catches in the flats. They both are very good in flowing to the ball on runs. The Bengals are a good running team but the Cowboys limited that aspect of their game in the first half.
One thing the Bengals did do is take advantage of mismatches. Because Dallas leaves Lee and Carter on the field in just about every formation, the Bengals managed to get Carter matched up with wide receivers in the slot a few times. They had two catches for first downs on slants from this alignment, even though Carter did a credible job in coverage. I foresee more teams trying to create this mismatch during the regular season.
Safeties - Barry Church and Will Allen don't get involved too much, teams are definitely content to take the underneath stuff against Dallas. Church does get involved in the running game in support and generally can be found closer to the line on a lot of plays. Where he did come through in this game is creating the hugely important first turnover. Jeff Heath is the hot player in the safety group, his big hit in the second half caused another turnover.
Turnovers - The Cowboys defense got four turnovers in the game, and it's obvious that the teachings of Kiffin on this subject are taking hold. They are playing smart about it, too. They aren't stripping the ball until someone first gets a secure hold on the ball-carrier. They also also swarming to the ball in anticipation of fumbles. One of the times the Bengals did decide to challenge Dallas deep, B.W. Webb stepped in for the interception.