It's pretty amazing how things seem to go in the National Football League. One moment, you're going to be the worst defense the NFL has ever seen and the next, you are one of the better units around. That's definitely been the case for the 2016 Dallas Cowboys. Just about every indicator told you in the offseason that hoping for this defense to be any semblance of just average was going to be a hard prayer for anyone to answer. Yet, here were are, deep into December, and the Dallas Cowboys are the 13th-ranked defense in the NFL which includes the first-ranked run defense (80.9 YPG) and fourth in points allowed (18.4 PPG).
When you take into consideration all that they have faced from the offseason until now, that's pretty darn impressive with a group of mostly no-names in key positions. This is a Cowboys' team who started their season with their two best pass rushers in terms of pedigree suspended in Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence. The starting middle linebacker, Rolando McClain, was also suspended and looks to have played his last down in the NFL. Stuck between a rock and hard place looking to piece together a defensive line, they put their highly paid three-tech defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford out at left end. In his place was a third-round rookie out of Nebraska in Maliek Collins. They also put their trust in Terrell McClain, who spent his first two years with the Cowboys basically on injured reserve.
If that wasn't enough, their secondary consisted of Sean Lee and a hodgepodge of try-hard linebackers. After every free agent corner went elsewhere, they hoped that much-maligned starters Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr could elevate their play and "just hold their own" out there. Orlando Scandrick was back but he was coming off an ACL tear in 2015. All of these things put together was some place to start but as the NFL season has progressed, this Cowboys' defense has progressed and they are playing their best football right now gearing up for a hopefully long playoff run.
Nobody out in the NFL world wants to give credit to this defense but if they paid close attention, they would see what we all see. A team that is playing complementary football to each other and that is one dangerous combination in the playoffs. This defense has ramped up its efforts in the last three weeks in a huge way. Over the course of this season, they have given up on average 18 points per game. Over the course of the past three weeks, that number has dipped to just 15 points per game. This defense is one untimely tipped-pass from only allowing Tampa to score 13 points last week which would have dropped that average to 12.6 points per game. All I'm saying is that this defense is saving their best ball for when it counts most.
Just three weeks ago, the Cowboys only had 20 sacks on the season. They have now racked up 10 sacks in three weeks to make that 30 on the season. They've also managed to rack up eight turnovers over the past three games as well. They are finding their groove and that's exactly what the Cowboys will need for a deep playoff run.
It's been a magical year for the Dallas Cowboys after starting in such a negative space when the franchise quarterback went down. It's very easy to give credit to this offense that other than a few hiccups have been scoring points. However, we would be remiss to overlook what Rod Marinelli and his "orphans" have been doing. Whether it's a much-maligned player getting his due or a rookie sixth-round corner collecting an interception. Whether it's the second-half domination of a Kansas City castoff or just the steady play of their fearless leader Sean Lee, this defense doesn't need the Pro Bowl or anything else to tell them who they are.
They have fought harder than anyone to be 12-2. They have been through the ringer to secure the NFC's top seed and a first-round bye. To call them unsung heroes would be the understatement of the year. One thing is for certain, they are putting the 'D' back in defense for the Dallas Cowboys. It couldn't come at a better time either. Now, as they rest the guys that are ailing and gear up for a shot at winning the "whole damn thing", it's the perfect time to reflect on what a year it has been. One last nugget of positivity before we close this one out, the best gift the Cowboys defense could have wanted for Christmas? How about playing in front of your 90,000+ homefield crowd. How about that defense?!