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Dallas Cowboys Defense Responds To Adversity

In a game that got out of hand early, the Cowboys defense played better than many expected and many will report.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

There is no other way to put it; the Dallas Cowboys let themselves and their fans down in the season opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The game was pretty much decided by halftime thanks to the unexpected implosion of the Cowboys offense and four first-half turnovers. The fans will need time to grieve and the media will use the game as supporting evidence of their preseason predictions for a Cowboys losing season. It may be too early to start moving on, as fans will rightfully want to vent their frustration over the demoralizing defeat, but I will not be joining in on this overreaction Monday. Instead, I will deal with this situation like an NFL coach. Learn from your mistakes. Don't let this loss define your season. And build off of the positives that did occur on Sunday.

It was a tale of two halves. In the first, the Cowboys were beat down to the tune of 28-3. However, in the second half the Cowboys shutout the 49ers and scored two touchdowns for a scoring differential of 14-0. Yes, it doesn't change the fact that the Cowboys lost so big in the first half that the second was almost meaningless. Yes, the 49ers were playing conservatively in the second half in an attempt to maintain their lead. But clearly, Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers wanted to score more points and make the final score seem even more lopsided, but the Dallas defense responded. And once again, faced with a huge challenge and overwhelming adversity, Jason Garrett's Cowboys never quit. These are very positive things to take away from the game.

Many were, and still are, worried about the Dallas defense. And there are certainly causes for concern. However, this game was actually a good sign. I know, it sounds odd. But if heading into the game someone asked you how many points this defense would allow if the 49ers were gifted a touchdown off of a fumble and then Tony Romo threw three interceptions, would you think the defense would allow "only" 28 points? Would you ever imagine this defense could manage a second-half shutout?

I know, this perspective if far too optimistic so soon after a loss. But it is important to consider when as fans we gauge the team's potential moving forward. Colin Kaepernick finished the game with 201 passing yards. Did you know about a third of those yards came off of two plays where Brandon Carr failed in his coverage while Kaepernick was trying to avoid pressure? On their first offensive possession Anquan Boldin caught a 37-yard pass where Kaepernick did a great job stepping up into the pocket to avoid pressure from Jeremy Mincey and took a huge hit from Rolando McClain as he threw the pass. If Carr had not failed so miserably in his man coverage, this play should have been a sack.

On the ensuing play, Kaepernick again avoided a sack by keeping his balance after rolling out of the pocket with Mincey diving at his feet. Against the many less athletic quarterbacks in the league, this is a sack. Instead, Kaepernick manages to stay on his feet and hit Vernon Davis on a 29-yard touchdown. Again, Carr had failed in his coverage, this time abandoning his deep zone.  These were the longest plays of the night for the San Francisco offense. Carr settled in after this first drive and did not make any more errors that were so egregious, though most will claim he was awful all game because first impressions are so hard to shake off.

The 49ers next touchdown came after a Romo interception that was returned to the Cowboys two yard-line. With about four minutes left in the first quarter the 49ers have a 21-3 lead. Is this a sign of a terrible Cowboys defense? 21 points allowed and they can be directly attributed to a fumble returned for a touchdown, two failed plays by Carr that were "almost" sacks, and a terrible decision by Romo leading to an interception returned for an "almost" touchdown. If you rightly understand this was not a huge breakdown by the entire Dallas defense, it makes you realize that things were not as terrible as many will try to claim this week.

Following Romo's second interception, a killer turnover in the redzone, the Cowboys defense forced a punt. If you are keeping track at home, the Cowboys offense has basically given up 14 points off turnovers and they have come away with 3 points instead of 14 on two long drives into the redzone. If the offense was not making such terrible mistakes, this game could easily be 21-14 with the Cowboys starting a drive with four minutes left in the first half. Then, another poor decision by Romo as he forces a deep pass to Dez Bryant who has two defenders draped all over him. With great field position, the 49ers start their two-minute offense. This was the first 49ers drive that actually moved the ball well not just because Carr made two terrible plays. And it was the only touchdown of the night that I attribute to the Cowboys defense a whole, and still, it should have never have happened. Instead of the Cowboys using up the remaining time in the first half, they turned the ball over and gave the 49ers great field position.

In the second half, the 49ers did not mange to score any points. Yes, they were playing more conservatively and missed an easy field goal. But still, would allowing only three points in a half be considered a-better-than-expected performance by this Cowboys defense? Should we be impressed that facing a 28-3 first-half drubbing that the defense never gave up and came back with a valiant effort following halftime? I was also impressed that the Cowboys defense managed to corral the 49ers running game for the most part. One of the strongest rushing attacks in the league heading into the second half with a nearly insurmountable lead, and they only averaged 4.2 yards a carry to finish the game, basically the NFL average. Yes, 127 total rushing yards is not overly inspiring. But under the circumstances, a decent showing by a defense many feared had a front-seven that would be a turnstile to strong rushing attacks. And a closer look makes the outcome even more impressive.

While the 49ers managed 127 total rushing yards (less than their 2013 yards/game average), over a third of those yards came on three plays. On the 49ers third drive of the game, Frank Gore managed to gain 20 yards running up the middle when Justin Durant failed to plug his gap and Barry Church got blocked out of the play. On the 49ers second to last drive of the game, Bruce Carter is directly responsible for two big back-to-back gains, where Carlos Hyde gained 15 yards and Gore then picked up 12 yards. Obviously, these were three poor plays by the Dallas defense. However, it does show that despite allowing 127 yards and a 4.2 average the Cowboys run defense held up pretty well against the 49ers strong ground game. Without those three mistakes, the totals drop drastically to 80 yards and 2.96 average. By comparison, the 49ers strong run-defense allowed 127 yards and 5.5 yard average to Dallas. Even if you take away the Cowboys three biggest runs, those totals become 84 yards and 4.2 average. As you can see, the Cowboys defense was much better at stopping the run more consistently. This bodes well for the future.

Now, the Cowboys defense clearly needs to fix several deficiencies and mistakes, like Carr's bad coverage that led to a quick score and the three big run plays allowed. They also need to help out by creating a few turnovers and improving on the poor 58% third-down conversion rate they allowed. However, don't let the final score fool you.  The Cowboys defense actually played better than many expected and they held strong after halftime in a game that could have quickly gotten out of hand. I am not saying we should congratulate the defense for an average performance, but it is certainly better than many feared and many will report this week while discussing the Cowboys lopsided loss.

But the Cowboys held the 49ers to fewer rushing yards and a lower rushing average than their 2013 success. The Cowboys ranked with the above average defenses in the league by allowing only a few 20+ yard passing plays. They kept the 49ers off the score board in the second half. They managed one sack, a couple of QB hits, and several pressures against only 23 passing attempts. These are good signs from a young defense in their season opener. These are things the team can build upon. It seemed to me that the Dallas defense responded well to the challenges they faced - a good 49ers team and a terrible performance by the Cowboys offense. In the midst of all the defeatist noise that will follow a 28-17 loss, make sure you don't ignore the good things that did transpire.

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