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Offensive Moves Are Big News For Cowboys, But Don't Overlook Defensive Improvement

The changes at quarterback, left guard and possibly at running back have gotten most of the attention, but the way the defense may have taken a leap forward might be just as important, if not more so, coming out of the bye.

More sacks, please.
More sacks, please.
Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Can the Dallas Cowboys reverse the losing streak and win enough games to have the team in decent shape for a playoff run when Tony Romo is back from IR? That, of course, is the million dollar question. Clearly, the team is doing everything it can to revive the moribund offense. But the team has already seen some major improvements on defense, and they are not done there. That should not be overlooked.

The big news was the addition of Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain for the New England Patriots game. That gave an immediately apparent lift to the defense. While the final outcome was bitterly disappointing, the five sacks, five tackles for loss, and eight quarterback hits have to be seen as very encouraging. Additionally, Byron Jones had a very good day defending Rob Gronkowski. Eventually, the inability of the Cowboys' offense to move the ball and score left the Patriots with too many opportunities, and no one can stop Tom Brady for an entire game under those circumstances.

Now, Randy Gregory has also returned to practice and it looks like he might be able to play against the New York Giants. It could be the game we see the much anticipated Dallas version of the NASCAR package, with Hardy, Gregory, Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence lining up in passing situations and coming full speed after Eli Manning. With McClain and Sean Lee as linebackers, the Cowboys can do this with confidence they will not be burned by a draw play, either. But the Cowboys also rolled out a formation that could create real headaches for the Giants and other teams in the 3-2-6 alignment. They were still able to get some pressure on the quarterback while putting an extra defensive back on the field.

That could pay some dividends as the season progresses, but it may not be much of a factor against the Giants. Although it is still over a week until their game against the Cowboys, the New York receiver corps is having real injury issues. In the first practice of the week for the Monday night game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Odell Beckham did not practice with a hamstring issue and Victor Cruz was still out with his calf injury, while Rueben Randle was limited, also due to a hamstring. And the Giants will be coming off a shortened week because of the Monday game while the Cowboys of course have the bye. With back-to-back division games in six days, it puts the Giants in a dilemma. Do they hold one or more of the receivers out against Chip Kelly's genius coaching to get them ready for Dallas, or do they risk further damage to try and stay on top of the division? It seems unlikely that they can lean on the running game, where they are doing even worse than the Cowboys, ranking 26th in yards per game (Dallas is 19th). If Manning has limited targets to throw to, the rushmen may be in for a feast, or perhaps we will finally see some of the elusive takeaways that Dallas needs.

A win over the Giants would be a major step forward for the Cowboys. A strong defense will mean that the revamped offensive lineup will not need to be great, just a lot closer to adequate than it has been the past three games. The two can feed off of one another, and Manning has a history of performing poorly under heavy pressure. He has been the best Manning in the league so far this season, but it will be hard to maintain that if he is missing one or more of his best targets, or if they are less than 100% for the game.

It is one time when the vagaries of the NFL schedule may work strongly in the Cowboys' favor. Dallas is getting stronger while the Giants have less time to rest and recuperate than normal. While the Cowboys have to work on getting the new pieces fitted in offensively, the defense looks a lot like it is just going to be putting the pedal down. Cassel has something of a history of throwing interceptions when he is pressing, but a strong defense may keep some of that off him. It looks like there is an excellent chance of the Cowboys having that kind of a defense on the field. This could allow the offense to develop more for the stretch of games before Romo is healthy. While the odds say that the Cowboys should not expect another five sack game, it is not completely outside the realm of possibility with the players they have to send after the quarterback. And a secondary that has shown some real improvement in places may have less of a challenge facing it as well.

The hope is certainly that the offense can step up with the changes installed this week. But that step may not need to be nearly as large with the revived pass rush and the issues facing the Giants.

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