One month into the season the shift from the Cowboys traditional 4-3 to Bill Parcells traditional 3-4 was not going well. The pass defense was hemmorhaging touchdown passes, giving up seven in the first three games. On the day the Cowboys tightened up the pass defense, Oakland's Lamont Jordan slashed through them. At that point Dallas could depend on neither its pass nor its run defense. Offensive powerhouses Philadelphia, New York and Seattle were next on the schedule. If the rookie-larded defense could not adapt quickly the season was doomed.
The defense did not simply adapt, but thrived under the pressure. Dallas has allowed only three touchdowns the past month, compiling a 3-1 record. Its points-allowed average dropped from 22 in the first quarter of the season to 12 in the second. It's ranking has rocketed from the bottom half to number five. As with many transformations, there is no single, major change to point to. Rather, the defense has benefitted from several small improvements.
Up front, nose tackle Jason Ferguson finally overcame his preseason hamstring problems and joined the rotation with LaRoi Glover. Ferguson has been the active, run stuffing anchor promised when he was lured from the Jets. His play has had a ripple effect on the front seven's performance. First, he allowed Glover some needed rest. He had gone most of September without rest and was wearing down. Next, he has teamed with Glover in the Cowboys four lineman packages to deliver an effective inside push, which has improved the ends' sack totals.
Behind Ferguson, inside linebacker Bradie James finally made his reads second nature. The knock on James coming out of LSU was that he "lacked instinct," which is draftese shorthand for being dumb. Nobody doubted his athletic ability and now that his mind has caught up to his body, he's flying around the field. His cognitive graduation came at the perfect time, as fellow inside backer Dat Nguyen was out with an injury.
Next to Ferguson, rookie DE Marcus Spears overcame the severe ankle sprain suffered in camp and took his spot in the starting rotation. He's big, strong and agile for a man his size. Kenyon Coleman had been a surprise in camp at LE, but he can forget winning the starting role back. Spears is as good as advertised.
At the same time that Ferguson and Spears returned, RE Greg Ellis finally got the hang of playing end in a 3-4 front. Ellis had been pushed around by Flozell Adams in practice and by opposing tackles in the early games. He's gained in confidence and now plays the run as well as he did in the 4-3.
The push supplied by Ferguson and Spears has benefitted Ellis the most. He has five sacks, tops on the team. What's more, he's fifth on the team with four passes defensed. Shake your head, rub your eyes and read that again: Greg Ellis has four passes defensed. Only the three cornerbacks and Roy Williams have more. No linebacker has stopped as many passes as Ellis. You can imagine the locker room insults that fly over that stat.
Outside Ellis, rookie OLB Demarcus Ware continues his steady, linear development. He's second on to Ellis with four sacks and has shown a flair for getting them at key times. He still tried to bull rush 330 lb. tackles, which is not his game. His play against the run is what's really helped the defense improve. Ware was a liability on outside runs in the early games. Now, teams are running away from him.
All these stories are great, but they can't match the early games of the Cowboys starting cornerbacks Anthony Henry and Terence Newman. Henry was the eye-opening signing of the offseason. The corner from Cleveland lacked the Q- ratings of corners like Fred Smoot and Ken Lucas. Consequently, Dallas took some shots in the press when it gave Henry a $10 million signing bonus.
Henry paid off immediately, defensing five passes and intercepting a pass in the win over the Chargers. He leads the team by a wide margin in passes defensed and is tops in interceptions. He has a surprising number of tackles for a cornerback. He's taken big time receivers like Plaxico Burress out of games and his pick of Eli Manning was a big part of the Cowboys win over the Giants. He's brought stability to the secondary. He has to be the defensive MVP, right?
Not so fast. Fellow CB Terence Newman has rebounded from his disappointing sophomore season and is probably an even better cover man than Henry. He plays in the more difficult slot position, which requires coverage over a larger area of the field. Henry makes ink by outplaying receivers but Newman beats them the old Deion Sanders way, by making them disappear. He's taken Terrell Owens and made him look pedestrian. He covered Jeremy Shockey for the first 40 minutes of the Giants game and took him out of New York's game plan. (Here's some free advice Mike Zimmer: put him on Shockey for 60 minutes next time.) He caught Randy Moss from behind in Oakland to prevent a Raiders touchdown.
Newman will give up outs, curls and crossing routes in the short and intermediate range, but nobody has beaten him deep this year. That's in contrast to Henry, who for all his great play has been burned by Brandon Lloyd for an 89 yard TD and by Anquan Boldin this past week for a 44 yard score. Henry also gave up two crucial passes on Seattle's late touchdown drive.
So steadiness wins over flash, right? Maybe, but how can you ignore the huge games that Henry had against San Diego and New York? Rather than split hairs, I'll simply split the award and give Henry and Newman the co-defensive MVP awards for the first half. There have only been a few years when Dallas has had two good corners. The most recent were from '92 through '95 when Dallas put Larry Brown, Kevin Smith and Deion Sanders on the field. You probably have to go back to the '70 and '71 seasons, when Dallas had Hall of Famers Mel Renfro and Herb Adderly on the edges to find a pair of Dallas corners better than this one.
Roy Williams has made some terrible gaffes in coverage, most notably in the Washington and Giants games. He's also made far more plays in coverage than mistakes. He's back in his confort zone as strong safety. His big hits and big blitzes are again changing games, as Josh McCown found out last week. He never seemed to recover physically from the bruising Williams gave him on the game's opening drive.
Aaron Glenn was considered a washout by the Texans, who cut him for the overrated and overpriced Philip Buchanon. Glenn has made some crucial mistakes. He was as responsible as Roy Williams for Santana Moss' late scores in the Redskins loss and committed a dumb interference penalty on the Seahawks TD drive. For the most part, however, he's been solid. His steadiness has allowed Newman to move inside when Dallas goes to its nickel package.
Willie Pile He's a steady Eddie and nothing more. Still, he's teamed with Keith Davis to settle the free safety position, which was the open wound in the Cowboys passing packages.