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Cowboys Hot Topic: The defense that ate New York

It seemed to come from nowhere to throttle the Giants - but did it really?

New York Giants vs Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

One of the best things about the start of the NFL season is how so many preseason predictions and expectations get blown absolutely apart. Remember when the New England Patriots were going to go 19-0? And the Los Angeles Rams were going to struggle putting up points? Of course, we all knew that Alex Smith, Sam Bradford, and Jared Goff would have the three highest passer ratings after the first week’s games.

The Dallas Cowboys joined in the fun. Prior to the season, just about everyone anticipated that their offense would pick up right where it left off at the end of the 2016 season, with Dak Prescott lighting it up and Ezekiel Elliott running with a chip on his shoulder due to his suspension. But the defense was still facing a mix of old and new issues. No one could say where the pass rush was coming from, if at all. The secondary was full of new faces, some of whom had missed most of the preseason due to injury. And with Anthony Hitchens also hurt, the team was going to roll with Jaylon Smith and his still regenerating nerve as the starting MIKE linebacker. No one was sure how they would hold up in the season opener against the New York Giants, even with Odell Beckham, Jr. out of the lineup. They still had to stop or at least slow down Eli Manning, he of the two Super Bowl rings.

Well, things went far, far better than anyone expected as the Cowboys’ defense just flat abused the Giants’ offense - especially in the first half. Just look at these numbers from the first 30 minutes of the game.

The final numbers were still awfully lopsided for the Dallas, as they held New York to only 3 points and an absurdly impotent 35 yards rushing. They also racked up three sacks and an interception, and were basically robbed of a fourth sack and a forced fumble and recovery by the referees.

Of course, it is only one game (to coin a phrase). Still, this was a superb performance by the entire defense. Rod Marinelli has apparently worked a miracle.

Well, at least that is the meme. But if you look a little deeper, you realize this is more a case of a plan finally coming together.

Take a look at VAfan’s recent post on defensive snap counts. There are a group of established players (that have been on the field for three or more years) for the Cowboys that saw significant work: Sean Lee, Byron Jones, Jeff Heath, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Tyrone Crawford. (Orlando Scandrick would have been included if he had not gone out early with an injury.)

Then there are three other subsets:

The second-year (with the Cowboys) players that actually played in 2016: Maliek Collins, Benson Mayowa, Damien Wilson, Anthony Brown, and Kavon Frazier. (David Irving will be part of this group when he comes off suspension.)

The “redshirt rookies”: Jaylon Smith and Charles Tapper.

The real newbies (rookies and free agents): Stephen Paea, Taco Charlton, Brian Price, Nolan Carroll, and Chidobe Awuzie. (Jourdan Lewis will join this list when he gets on the field, presumably this Sunday, as will Damontre’ Moore the week after when his suspension is served).

Just to do the accounting, that’s seventeen players who had ten or more snaps on defense for Dallas. Of those seventeen, thirteen were not yet with the team in 2015, and seven did not play a down last year for the Cowboys. That is a lot of new blood on the defense. The second-year players look like they are going to have a very positive impact, and those two “redshirts” both came in and were significant. Smith played 36 downs, and looked fast and very competent, posting the second most tackles on the team after Lee. Tapper only saw twelve plays, but he got a sack, another tackle, and a QB hit in his limited work (which would be expected to increase on Sunday). Those two are part of why the emergence of the defense seems so sudden: They were two draft picks from last year that wound up on the shelf, but immediately demonstrated that the Cowboys made good investments in taking them.

Now add in the players who were just acquired this season, and over half of the defensive contributors are basically new faces for the Cowboys. And almost all of them helped carry the load last game. Veterans Paea and Carroll both look like they are paying off. Carroll had his doubters, but he played every defensive snap against the Giants, along with Lee, Jones, and Heath. The lack of big plays by the New York receivers would indicate that Carroll was hardly a failure at his job. And Paea was very near to getting a piece of the second sack attributed to Lawrence (some sites have him with a half sack on that play) as well as helping prevent any semblance of a ground game for the Giants.

The infusion of new talent plus better health for several other players is the real reason the Cowboys’ defense had its way with the Giants’ offense. Dallas has been trying to accumulate better talent on D for years (just not with many first round picks or high-cost free agent deals). Last season, things were slowed a bit by the situations with Smith and Tapper, but now they have become a bit of a delayed boost for things. Once Irving and Moore are back in place, this defense may just continue to be near the top of the NFL.

The near-total shutdown of the Giants wasn’t really a miracle. It was just things finally working the way they were supposed to after a year when, for various reasons, they didn’t always. It did catch many off guard, including the guys from New York. Hopefully this bunch can continue to thwart opponents even without the element of surprise.