Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has toned down the big talk a lot this season, but when he first arrived in Dallas, he was not at all shy about making some bold statements. In his first interview after being hired by the Cowboys, he made a claim or two.
"We're going to be a great defense," Ryan said. "If I never said that, if I didn't believe that, then you've got the wrong guy. But the right guy is standing here in front of you. ... It's going to be great. The proof is in the pudding. Anybody can talk the talk, but I can walk it."
It didn't pan out all that well for the first year under his system. But early in 2012, he is getting that walk, or maybe it's more of a swagger, down. After three weeks, the Dallas Cowboys are the number one overall defense in the league, based on total yards given up per game.
Dallas has surrendered an average of 250 yards to each opponent. And one of the teams they have faced, the New York Giants, is currently ranked third overall in yards gained per game, so you cannot use the argument that the Cowboys have not faced any decent offenses this season.
The defense may need to carry the 2012 Cowboys, at least for part of the season. They already have in the Tampa Bay game. And they are doing so despite a litany of injuries. Jay Ratliff has yet to play a down this year. Rookie Kyle Wilber is just now working his way onto the field. rookie Matt Johnson hasn't made it their yet. Barry Church, one of the surprise stories out of training camp, is out for the season, so the safety position is depleted. Kenyon Coleman is also missing games. And yet the team is able to reshuffle the deck and get the job done.
For my money, the best thing about this bunch is that the contributions are coming up and down the roster. Going into the season, everyone knew that DeMarcus Ware and Sean Lee were the star players, and most expected that Brandon Carr would soon join them in that status. But consider the other players that have stepped up:
Anthony Spencer is second on the team in sacks, and is second in tackles. Spencer has been labeled a bust or not worth the franchise tag, but this year he's been a stud. He is earning every bit of his big paycheck, and if the team cannot afford to keep him (which seems likely), we are really going to miss him when he's gone.
Bruce Carter is turning into the bookend ILB we all dreamed about but were afraid to really hope for. He has relegated Dan Connor, one of the few disappointing stories this year, into mostly a special teams role, where he is specializing in not blocking rushers on punts. But Carter is tearing it up, showing the range and quickness the team lacked next to Lee last year.
The defensive line has weathered the injury situation. Jason Hatcher is off to a very good start, Josh Brent and Sean Lissemore are doing capably, Marcus Spears has been surprisingly impressive so far, and rookie Tyrone Crawford is starting to contribute in certain situations.
Speaking of rookies, Morris Claiborne is not playing like one. While he still clearly has a lot to learn, he is proving himself capable of holding down the job.
But the player that absolutely stunned me is Mike Jenkins. He has gotten himself back on the field, and is showing some of the fire that sent him to the Pro Bowl. Against the Buccaneers, with the shortages at safety, the Cowboys ran plays with Carr, Claiborne, Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick all on the field at the same time. When is the last time Dallas was able to put that kind of ability in the secondary?
For that matter, when was the last time you saw a Dallas defense that you felt good about from front to back? Where the team could lose multiple starters, and not only go next man up, but players could move into other, unfamiliar positions and still get the job done? And where everyone seems to be willing to do whatever it takes? The team no longer has two or three standout players at one level, and a bunch of other guys that were just not nearly as good. The standout players are still just as outstanding, but the rest are now elevating their games.
But not their egos. Jason Hatcher and Marcus Spears were asked about being at the top of the statistical ratings, and neither one was all that impressed with it.
"It's not a big deal at all," defensive end Marcus Spears said. "Each one of you guys know that this is a marathon, and you can go from the penthouse to the outhouse in this game within a matter of seven days. That's for our fans and you guys to talk about, but next week, it could all be different if we don't perform. So we don't really pay much attention to it."
It is a valid point about how quickly things can change in the NFL. And the season is still young. However, the signs for the defense are positive so far. While we as fans are feeling foreboding about the lack of offensive production, we can also take comfort from the fact that the Dallas defense is starting to look . . .
A little bit like Doomsday.