It won't go down in the annals of great statistical defensive performances. In some respects, it was kind of pedestrian. But given the circumstances surrounding the Dallas Cowboys defense on Sunday, their performance was as good as you'll see. They had every reason in the world to fall apart but they didn't, they persevered, and in the crucial moments made big plays. Tony Romo and his offensive cohorts rallied late and put on a brilliant show in erasing a nine point deficit in the fourth quarter, but they were only able to do that courtesy of a defense that didn't quit.
For a month now, the Dallas Cowboys defense has been in serious decline. A unit that had carried the Cowboys in the early part of the season was breaking down, they had become a liability that the offense had to cover. The injuries up the middle of this defense have been chronicled before, but a quick recount is instructive. Sean Lee and Bruce Carter will be an elite duo for years if they can avoid injury. Jay Ratliff is a disruptive force up the middle, Barry Church anchors the defense and allows them to be creative. Kenyon Coleman was a quality run-stuffer. They've also lost Orlando Scandrick, a pretty good slot guy. Along the way, other injuries have shifted the personnel from week to week.
Guys who were signed off the street are now playing a ton of minutes. Ernie Sims started the trend, Charlie Peprah was doing it until he got injured. Eric Frampton, Sterling Moore - the amount of time street free agents and practice squad players have played for Rob Ryan's defense is mind-boggling. There was no mystery as to why it was faltering.
Then came the tragedy of this weekend. Defensive players were probably closer to Jerry Brown and Josh Brent than anybody on the team. Emotionally, they were hardest hit. On the field, Brent's absence meant trying to plug another hole in the middle of the defense. Brent was playing well, now they'd be down to the third-string nose tackle. The Bengals had been running the ball with merciless efficiency over the past month, surely they would do the same against Dallas.
Then, once the game started, the Cowboys had even more injuries. Anthony Spencer was out briefly, DeMarcus Ware got banged-up and missed a little time. Ernie Sims went down, Morris Claiborne got a busted mouth and had to sit.
The Cowboys defense was up against it all day because of an inexplicably bad punting day from Brian Moorman. Cincy started drives at their own 47 (23 yard punt), their own 48 (27 yard punt), their own 34 (27 yard punt). Philip Tanner deserves some of the discredit as he allowed his man in twice to tip a kick and disrupt Moorman. The Cowboys defense never gave up more than a field goal on any of those occasions.
The deluge of negativity that was pouring down on this defense surely meant it would break. But it didn't.
Did they catch some breaks? Yes, mainly because the Bengals couldn't catch anything in crucial moments. The Cowboys secondary gave up some big plays but always stiffened near the endzone. They gave up one touchdown all day and that was in the middle of the first quarter. They didn't allow A.J. Green to beat them deep and that made all the difference. The Bengals moved the ball but they had to work to score. They couldn't do the work needed. Inexplicably, Cincy only ran the ball 20 times even though they were gouging the Cowboys to the tune of 7.3 yards per carry.
When the defense was called on they rallied to make plays. Brandon Carr's interception prevented the game from going south very early on. The Bengals were up 10-3 and were having little trouble moving the ball. They were charging for another score that would have put Dallas in a huge hole. Carr's interception and DeMarco Murray's touchdown on the ensuing drive kept Dallas in the game.
In the fourth quarter they shutdown the Bengals offense, something they had to do or the game would surely be lost. On the Bengals first dive of that period, the pass rush forced a holding penalty, then Ware stopped the drive with a sack. On the next Bengals drive, Anthony Spencer's sack gave Dallas the ball back. The offense took over and drove for the game-winning field goal, draining the clock as they went.
The Bengals second play on offense for the game was a 19-yard run up the middle from BenJarvus Green-Ellis. They eventually scored a very easy touchdown on the drive. At that point, doubting the Cowboys defense was a sane position to take. It looked like it was going to be a long day. And it was a long day. But the Cowboys defense never rested. Never gave up and said all the injuries, all the tragedy of the weekend, all the everything during the game was just too much.
Emotionally and physically battered, they held on. They honored a fallen teammate, and turned in a gutsy and courageous performance. Salute.