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Hard to believe, but Cowboys might have a playoff-caliber defense

Okay, so they took a week off against Denver, but the defense returned to making plays on Monday night.

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

I wasn’t sure how I felt about the game against the Arizona Cardinals on Monday night as it was scattered with both good plays and bad plays from both sides of the ball. For some reason I expected the true Cowboys to reveal themselves after showing two sides of the coin the first two games of the season. While it was good to get the win, I left the game still a little confused about how good this team is, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. After taking the time to re-watch the tape - I feel a lot better.

And here’s why...

Defense played better than they looked

It was very satisfying to watch the Cowboys defense play much better than the horrific performance against the Broncos. They were putting pressure on the quarterback, making nice open field tackles, and knocking down some passes that would have been big plays for the Cardinals offense.

But despite all that, they were still giving up some big plays and that was frustrating.

When you examine these plays closer, there are a couple things that stand out to me that make me feel better. First, some of these plays were well contested. You have to tip your cap to some of the great catches Larry Fitzgerald made in this game. When the Cowboys surrendered a conversion on 3rd and 18, it was disappointing, but Orlando Scandrick defended that play about as well as one could. Sometimes the opposition is just better and that was one of those cases.

Another thing that stood out was how close the defense was on making plays even when they didn’t. The difference between Carson Palmer having enough time to step in the pocket and deliver a great pass and being stuffed was minuscule and I lost count how many times they almost had him. Some of those plays resulted in hurried throws and incompletions that got the defense off the field, but some also resulted in a huge play for the Cardinals.

DeMarcus Lawrence and Maliek Collins are just tearing it up. I can’t overstate just how well these two guys are playing. If they keep playing like this, they will both make the Pro Bowl this year. Tank is already being recognized.

And Maliek just quietly goes about his business, pushing aside anyone that stands in his way.

This is the first time that I have really started to believe that the organization might actually be on the right track when it comes to building a formidable defensive line.

How about the rookie defensive backs?

Speaking of being happy about what the organization is doing - the front office took a big leap of faith when they let four largely contributing defensive backs walk in free agency. They defended their decision by explaining that they liked what they saw in the draft and felt they could replenish this group with some fresh, young talent.

While it is disappointing to see that Chidobe Awuzie is dealing with a hamstring injury, the other two rookie DBs have stepped up nicely. Once the corners started falling last week, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods have been thrown right into the fire and they have played well. Both these players have been outstanding tackling in the open field. This is such a breath of fresh air after last weeks atrocious display of tackling. Despite being undersized for their position, both exhibit great strength and technique when bringing players down.

Not only can they tackle, but both had some nice deflected passes as well. Woods knocked a ball down when he came off the edge on a blitz and Lewis made a great last-second play to knock the ball away after it looked like Palmer dropped a perfect pass to his receiver. That was a huge play.

Both these guys are playing well and look for them to continue to get snaps even when some of these other guys return healthy. The future looks promising for the Cowboys secondary.

Run defense has returned

The Cowboys allowed the fewest rushing yards on defense last year thanks to a strong interior line, great instinctive tackling, and an offense that put them in good situations. And after a 35-yard performance against the New York Giants, it looked like they were bound to challenge for the top spot against this season.

Then the Denver game happen. The Cowboys allowed 178 yards on the ground and resembled the 2013 defense that couldn’t stop anyone. Sean Lee was missing tackles, Byron Jones was taking bad angles, and the group collectively couldn’t wrap up C.J. Anderson to save their life. It was dreadful.

But the Cowboys got themselves back on track against the Cardinals, only allowing 49 yards. They essentially tuned the Arizona offense into a one-dimensional team, which allowed them to tee off on Palmer over and over again.

The Cowboys are getting great penetration at the line. Both their edge guys, Lawrence and Benson Mayowa have done a great job off the point of attack and came away with stops behind the line of scrimmage. Lee continues to missile himself into the backfield. Jaylon Smith has been quiet, but can always be seen around the ball. He is second on the team in tackles with 24, trailing Lee by only one. Many have wondered just how much of a workload he can handle, but after three games he’s playing in 74% of the snaps. He’s a player that’s going to get better with each rep.

Help is on the way

Speaking of getting better, the Cowboys will gradually be getting some additional resources soon. I’m still very excited about what Awuzie can bring once he reaches full health. Adding him only strengthens the secondary. This time next week David Irving will be practicing with the team. A player of his ability will bolster an already up-and-coming defensive line. And let’s not forget that Anthony Hitchens will return midway through the season.

All of these things will add a stronger piece to each position group that will make the Cowboys defense even better.

What do you think about this defense so far? Are you worried or do you think this group can be good enough to help the Cowboys make a deep playoff run?

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