Plenty of time and ink has been spent discussing the Cowboys offense after Sunday’s loss to the Giants. There is a lot of fascination with rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, and the offense was supposed to be the strength of the team. As has been noted a few times, they struggled. What has been overlooked is the play of the defense. How did they do on Sunday? After watching the game tape, let’s look at that unit by position group.
Sunday’s performance is about what fans should expect to see until Demarcus Lawrence and perhaps Randy Gregory are able to return. There is an obvious lack of talent, especially on the edge, and while the line will make plays from time to time, usually it will leave fans wanting more. The strength of the unit is clearly on the interior as Terrell McClain and Cedric Thornton were both fantastic on Sunday. Both players flashed athleticism and power on several occasions, bursting into the backfield for tackles for loss against the run and getting pressure on the quarterback. McClain was especially impressive and seemed to take his game to a level not seen since joining the team a few years ago. McClain, Thornton, and Benson Mayowa looked to be the most impressive defensive linemen on the field for the Cowboys on Sunday.
Rookie Maliek Collins was mostly quiet and struggled against the run but he did flash impressive pass rush ability on a few occasions, particularly on a second and 5 from midfield in the 4th quarter when he beat Justin Pugh with a beautiful swim move. Tyrone Crawford’s play ranged from poor to average against the run and as a pass-rusher, although to be fair he was often facing double-teams. With that said, it is perfectly reasonable to expect more out of a player you are paying $8+ million a year, double-team or not.
While the Cowboys employed a healthy four man rotation at tackle, it was a different story at end. Benson Mayowa played more snaps than any other lineman while Jack Crawford tied for second most with Tyrone Crawford. David Irving and Kyle Wilber rotated in here and there but it was primarily Mayowa and Crawford for the entire game. Mayowa managed a sack, although it was mostly a coverage sack, while J. Crawford was strong against the run and played with his usual hustle and intensity. Overall the ends played the run well enough but at the end of the day there just wasn’t enough rush off the edge. Mayowa did as well as anybody could expect but there’s only so much he can do as the only true defensive end on the roster. It’s obvious that the coaching staff loves Wilber’s versatility but he is not someone who should ever be playing defensive end except for emergency situations. Thankfully the team made an attempt to rectify this situation yesterday with the signing of Ryan Davis.
Outside of Tyrone Crawford you can’t complain about the play of the unit as a whole when you already knew what they were going into it. Except for the inexplicable draw plays in the fourth quarter they played the run well enough, and played with energy and got pressure on occasion, it’s just a bit depressing to witness the severe lack of talent. You can’t blame the players on the field for the front office’s inability to add more talent to the unit.
This was the best defensive unit on the field Sunday. Sure, they gave up a few plays, but when you’re playing Odell Beckham Jr. you expect to give up a few here and there. Beckham had one explosive play, a 45-yard catch down the sideline against Orlando Scandrick, but aside from that he was held to less than 30 yards the rest of the day. Sterling Shephard’s touchdown catch came against rookie Anthony Brown while Scandrick was out with a sore hamstring, and Victor Cruz’s touchdown reception was mostly the fault of Justin Durant drifting too far out of his zone in the middle of the field.
You have to be satisfied with the play of Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Scandrick who did a good job of limiting the Giants receivers, and even managed an interception from Carr that set up the Cowboys only touchdown of the day.
Byron Jones and Barry Church did not make any explosive plays but the Giants were not able to convert any deep shots over the top, nor were there any explosive runs after the catch following missed and/or broken tackles over the middle of the field.
Nobody will ever confuse this unit with a dominating unit like the Seahawks or Cardinals secondary but they did a very respectable job against a team with dangerous weapons in the passing game and an accomplished veteran quarterback.
This is arguably where the wheels fell off the defense. Sean Lee was on the field for every defensive snap, and while he was clearly the best linebacker on the field, even he missed tackles and failed to get off blocks at times, especially against the draw plays late in the game. Anthony Hitchens had an absolutely abysmal performance, doing a terrible job in his run fits and taking poor pursuit angles, while he also allowed a touchdown to Larry Donnell when he failed to get a deep enough drop in coverage. Hitchens was so bad that it looked like he was benched in favor of Justin Durant in the second half.
While Durant was better than Hitchens, especially against the run, he did play a key role in allowing the aforementioned Cruz touchdown that gave the Giants the lead for good. To be fair Larry Donnell should have been called for a blatant offensive pass interference on the play, but Durant still got lost drifting too hard towards the sideline in his zone, allowing Cruz to get open behind him. Durant had Carr trailing Cruz to the outside with absolutely nobody else in the middle of the field so there is no real explanation for why he started to drift so hard in that direction, but he did.
If any unit is to be blamed for Sunday’s defensive performance, it’s this one.