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The Cowboys defense is ranked number one in the NFC in both yards and points allowed

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While the offense put up 40 points on Sunday, there’s something special brewing on the other side of the ball.

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NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys put up 40 points on Sunday against one of the best defenses in the league. While it was great to see the offense clicking, they didn’t end up needing all those points because the defense was dominant, only giving up one score to the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Cowboys defense has been quite stingy with their points this season. In fact, they’ve been stingy with their yards as well.

As noted, the Cowboys 315.2 yards per game is best in the NFC and fourth overall in the NFL. The 17.2 points tops the NFC and is second overall in the NFL only behind Baltimore.

How far this team goes will still largely depend on how this team performs on offense, but it’s refreshing to see this team playing so well on defense.

It all starts up front

Whether you like the nickname “Hot Boyz” or not, the defensive line of the Cowboys is something to be excited about. Led by DeMarcus Lawrence, the trenches are loaded with talent. David Irving made his season debut on Sunday and should be a problem for opposing offenses from this point on. Maliek Collins also returned to action after a sprained MCL caused him to miss the last three games. He only played in 13 snaps, but it was enough time for him to sack Blake Bortles. In fact, Collins has two sacks in three games this season. A healthy Collins is a big boost to this defensive line.

Sunday’s game marked the first time the entire band was back together.

The Cowboys continue to get strong play from reliable veteran Tyrone Crawford, whose performance doesn’t always show up in the stat book. Speaking of unsung players, how about Antwaun Woods? He’s been a great fixture at the 1-tech position for the squad.

The Cowboys are still looking for one of their young edge rushers to break out. Taco Charlton, Randy Gregory, and rookie Dorance Armstrong are all getting reps on the outside. They have made plays here and there, but there’s some really good raw talent with this group.

Speaking of raw talent...

The Rookie

Ten defensive players were off the board when the Cowboys were on the clock in April’s draft. If you were like me, you were desperately hoping that safety Derwin James would slide to 19. It would be the perfect combination of talent + need. Of course, we don’t even know how much the Cowboys war room liked James and whether or not he would be the pick had he been there.

What we do know, however, is they loved Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. And guess what - so do we now. Through the first six weeks of the season, both James and Vander Esch look like the top two defense rookies in the league. Pro Football Focus has these two players as the current front-runners duking it out for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.

The Dallas Cowboys’ first-round pick (19th overall) played only 44 defensive snaps through Week 2, but an(other) injury to nine-year veteran off-ball linebacker Sean Lee cast Vander Esch into a lead role starting in Week 3. In four of the five games in which he’s played at least 20 defensive snaps (Weeks 2-6), the former Boise State standout has earned 74.0-plus overall grades.

Among the 72 off-ball linebackers with at least 150 defensive snaps this season, Vander Esch ranks third in overall grade (86.4), sixth in run-defense grade (82.6) and fourth in coverage grade (81.1). Diving into the PFF history books, Vander Esch ranks second among the 70 rookie off-ball linebackers with 150-plus defensive snaps in the first six weeks of the season in the PFF era (2006-Present) in overall grade, behind Seattle Seahawks All-Pro Bobby Wagner.

And let’s not forget how well Jaylon Smith is playing this season. He and LVE are a dynamic duo and they’re not going anywhere any time soon.

Remember way back when this defense was completely inept without Sean Lee being on the field? Oh wait, that was last year. Well, those days appear to be over. Lee will get himself healthy and he’ll definitely make the defense better. He’ll be able to go full throttle until his body doesn’t allow him, but the defense no longer lives and dies by whether or not no. 50 is out on the field.

Better late than never

Well, the jury is in and Byron Jones is a good cornerback. The fourth-year “defensive back” was graded out as the top corner in the league after the first four games. He had a tough challenge last week against DeAndre Hopkins, but was back at it again knocking down passes. He had two straight pass breakups against he Jaguars that put the nail in the coffin on Sunday. He now has six pass breakups on the season, which is one more than he had the entire year last season.

Not only does it look like the Cowboys have a possible shutdown corner, but the entire secondary is starting to pick things up in the takeaway department. Dallas only had two takeaways through the first four games and both of those came from strip/fumble recoveries from the defensive line. But things have changed recently.

First four games, Cowboys secondary = 0 turnovers.

Last two games, Cowboys secondary = 4 turnovers.

Jourdan Lewis has been the lucky recipient of two fumble recoveries by the sideline as he’s had one in each of the last two games. And both starting safeties, Xavier Woods and Jeff Heath, have had an interception over the last two games. The Cowboys are one of the best in not turning it over, so if they are finally able to combine that with some takeaways on defense, it’s going to make them hard to beat.

While the offense took a nice step on Sunday, things are really starting to come together for this defense.