The Dallas Cowboys defense has been the talk of the town all offseason, unfortunately, that talk was usually accompanied by phrases such as "league's worst" or "historically bad." However, after the first two weeks of the season, and still down several players due to injuries or suspensions, the Cowboys defense seems to be responding well to the new leadership of defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. There are certainly still problems that need to be fixed and young players that must improve as the season progresses. But overall, the Cowboys defense has provided more cause for hope than most fans expected this early in the season.
With only two games worth of data it is too early to place too much emphasis on team stats and league rankings, but they are still telling. The Cowboys' bend but don't break defense is certainly on display. The Dallas defense ranks third in the league in first-downs allowed per game, tenth in points per game, but rank 27th in yards allowed per play due to their low rank in average yards per pass and run (23rd in both). These are issues that must be corrected moving forward, but must also be taken in context. The Cowboys might be allowing a lot of yards per play, but they aren't allowing many big plays. The defense ranks (tied) 17th in 20+ yard passes allowed (five) and 10th in 20+ yard runs allowed (one). Dallas also ranks average (or above) in opposing QB rating (15th), passing yards per game (13th), opposing QB completion % (11th), and third-down conversion % (14th). The caveat, of course, will be heard often in the weeks to come in that Dallas has yet to face an opponent with an elite offense.
But this defense is fighting hard and making plays when needed. In two games, they have held their opponents scoreless in two halves - the second half of the 49ers game when they were holding back the conservative offense playing with a big lead, and the first half of the Titans game when they forced their opponent to fall behind big before halftime and allowed the Cowboys' ground and pound offense to put away the game in a decisive manner. In fact, against the Titans, the Cowboys defense played extremely well for the majority of the game, allowing only two of ten third-down conversions and stopping the only fourth-down attempted (which was in the redzone and kept the Titans from scoring).
Three-and-Outs Despite a Turnover
It is tough to decide on specific plays that were game-changing moments versus the Titans, because frankly, there were many. The first honors must go to the Cowboys first half defense. The Titans had six drives before halftime and the Cowboys defense allowed only two first downs. Forcing a three-and-out on the Titans first possession is certainly a great way to start the game. But the biggest three-and-out of the game was when Dallas forced the Titans to punt on their second possession. This occurred after a DeMarco Murray fumble which gave Tennessee the ball near midfield. Keeping the Titans off the board after being put in a tough situation by their own offense was the Dallas defenses' first big game-changing moment.
Turnover to Build a Lead
By the start of the second quarter, the Cowboys offense had only managed to kick a field goal and the Titans now had a chance to answer. However, the Dallas defense was the one to make a statement. Facing a short third-and-three, Jake Locker had some time in the pocket, but the coverage was good enough to force him to wait to find somebody open. That is when George Selvie, playing defensive tackle next to Henry Melton, finally forced some pressure after completing a twist with Melton and collapsing the face of the pocket into Locker. Feeling the pressure, Locker sails his pass high and into the waiting arms of safety Barry Church.
This was a game-changing moment for several reasons. First, the defense showed that their coverage against the Titans receivers could hold and help force a coverage sack/pressure. Second, Marinelli's rushmen proved how they have no quit in them and are relentless in their efforts. Finally, the Cowboys defense forced another three-and-out, this time gifting the offense the ball past midfield. The ensuing Dallas drive and touchdown led to a ten-point margin that the Titans would be unable to overcome.
Building on Great Field Position
With less than seven minutes left in the first half, Cowboys special teams star Dwayne Harris managed to help down a punt on the two-yard line. The Titans managed to push themselves off their own goalline with a few successful runs, but then the Cowboys defense answered the call. On second-and-six, the Dallas secondary again force Locker to hold onto the ball for a few seconds, allowing Terrell McClain to create pressure and force Locker to scramble left. The Cowboys defense swarms and nearly sacks Locker near the sidelines, but it was eventually Selvie (pursuing from the opposite side of the field) who tackles Locker for a one-yard gain. On the third-and-five that followed, Nick Hayden and Jeremy Mincey create pressure that again forces Locker out of the pocket. Feeling the pressure, his pass is slightly behind his receiver (who is also hearing footsteps) and the Dallas defense forces an incompletion and another punt.
Once again, the Cowboys defense provides fantastic field position to the offense, which manages to capitalize with a field goal and increase the lead to 13-0 with a minute left until halftime. But then the defense does it again. On second down, Henry Melton and Kyle Wilber (playing defensive end) combine for a sack and the Cowboys take a timeout with 46 seconds left in the half. When was the last time Dallas seemed to trust their defense enough to call timeouts when their opponent has the ball and the Cowboys have the lead? In a smart game management decision that will certainly be ignored, Jason Garrett bet on his defense and was rewarded. On third down, the pressure forces Locker to make a quick throw and the defense swarms the receiver to stop any chance for a first down. The Cowboys take another timeout, and suddenly, their offense has a chance to put up more points before halftime (again thanks in part to the effort of special teams star Harris and his 15-yard punt return). The Cowboys kick another field goal to take a 16-0 lead.
Overcoming Third-Quarter Struggles
The Titans got the ball after halftime and came out guns blazing. Despite starting at their own eight yard-line (once again due to a great special teams play by Harris) the Titans manage to get near the Cowboys redzone after just five plays. However, the Dallas defense responded. On first down, they stuff a run for a loss of a yard. On second down, the Cowboys create pressure and Brandon Carr manages to break up a pass to set up the money down. On third-and-long, Dallas manages to get their second sack of the game. The rushmen create pressure and force Locker to try to scramble. Rolando McClain, playing short/middle zone coverage, does a phenomenal job reacting to the play and weaving through the trenches to pick up the sack and force the Titans to kick a field goal. It may seem odd that allowing a 70-yard scoring drive was a good game-changing moment for the Dallas defense, but surviving in this bend but don't break manner would prove vital in the long-term repercussions of the game. The Cowboys offense was forced into a three-and-out on their ensuing drive and then the Titans capitalized on the only blown coverage by the Cowboys on the day (and much discussed failed tackle by Morris Claiborne) for a quick score. Had the defense not held on that first drive, the score would have been 16-14 instead of 16-10, changing the momentum of the game and likely the Cowboys' willingness to rely so heavily on the running game to seal the victory.
The Final Nails in the Coffin
The Cowboys managed to score on their second drive after halftime, a long, time-consuming affair that ended in a touchdown and once again built up their lead to two scoring drives. The Titans again responded by sustaining a drive and crossing midfield. But at the start of the fourth quarter, the Cowboys defense helped put away the game. In a fantastic play by McClain, displaying his focus and athleticism, the defense came up with their second turnover of the game as McClain manages a diving, juggling interception after Melton tips a pass from Locker. While the refs robbed the Cowboys of a defensive touchdown, the turnover was instrumental in helping the Cowboys maintain their thirteen point lead to start the fourth quarter, in fact building on it as Dallas kicked a field goal off of the turnover.
With eight minutes left in the game and down 16 points, the Titans were struggling to get some quick scores to get back into the game. It seemed they would do exactly that as they drove down to the Cowboys six yard-line in just five plays. But once again, the Cowboys bend but don't break defense stepped up. On first down, the Cowboys front four create enough pressure to force Locker to shift in the pocket and throw a pass too high in the back of the endzone, the coverage by Brandon Carr making the play nearly impossible to complete. On second down, a beautifully timed delayed-blitz by Bruce Carter led to a QB hit and Locker throwing the ball away into double coverage to avoid the sack. On third down, Brandon Carr picks up another pass deflection on the day, this time stopping a touchdown with a great effort to fight the ball out of the receiver's hands. On fourth down, good coverage by JJ Wilcox forces a pass to Delanie Walker to be lofted too much, and the great catch ends up being out of bounds instead of a touchdown. While the Titans did not have much hope left at this point in the game, the Dallas defense sealed the victory with their fourth quarter interception and then this fourth-down redzone stop.
The Best is Yet to Come
While DeMarco Murray and the Cowboys' run-blocking made things very difficult for the Titans, and Dwayne Harris (not to mention Bruce Carter getting his hand on a punt) and the Cowboys special teams continued to create great field position for Dallas, it was actually the defense that helped set up and put away the game. Their incredible performance and first-half shutout allowed a sputtering Cowboys offense to build a 16-point lead, and their ability to respond and not break after bending in the second half is really what sealed the deal for the Cowboys. While Dallas managed to run the ball down the Titans throat to maintain the lead and victory, without these defensive efforts the game could have ended quite differently.
And it was really a good team effort with the linebackers and secondary helping in coverage when the Cowboys pass-rush was not getting home, and the rushmen creating pressure in situations that allowed the back-seven to make big plays and create turnovers. There are certainly issues this defense needs to correct, but there are already some good signs and things they can build on to continue to improve each week. There are also a lot of young guys that need to continue developing. The best is yet to come for this defense, especially since they are still waiting for the return of guys like Orlando Scandrick, Anthony Spencer, and eventually (possibly) DeMarcus Lawrence. However, the Dallas defense has already shown they have the ability to help the Cowboys win some games this year, and were responsible for some great game-changing moments in the week two victory over the Titans.