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Point/counterpoint: Is the Cowboys defense really a top 10 unit, or not?

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The numbers say so, but is that really a good indication? The answer is kinda important as they head to Houston.

Dallas Cowboys v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys have gotten off to a 2-2 start, partly due to inconsistent play from the offense. The defense has been much more reliable, keeping them in all of their games so far. But there may have been some signs of trouble against the Detroit Lions, even though that wound up in the win column. Now they are headed for a Sunday night game at the Houston Texans, with Deshaun Watson and another pretty high-flying offense. And like Detroit, Houston is a one-win team looking to keep its season from getting worse. So can the Cowboys rely on their defense, or is there trouble coming right there in the Bayou City? Our Tom Ryle and Michael Strawn debate.

Michael: I was quite interested in how the Cowboys’ defense would play because the Lions would, in my opinion, be the first time this Cowboys’ defense would go up against a top NFL passing unit. Over the past five years or so, the Dallas defense has been pretty stubborn against a majority of NFL offenses. However, they have consistently struggled against top-tier passing units. Aaron Rodgers in the 2014 and 2016 playoffs; Ben Roethlisberger, Kirk Cousins and Matt Stafford in 2016; Phillip Rivers last year. Teams with potent passing games have often been able to slice and dice the Cowboys’ pass defense.

So I was disappointed in what we saw Sunday. First, the play of Demarcus Lawrence was, again, at an All-Pro level. And that’s good because as outlined here had Lawrence not made those sacks each probably would have resulted in big plays for the Lions. The lack of pressure from the rest of the “hot boyz” (I truly hate that name) hasn’t been better than what we’ve seen in the past. Taco Charlton, Randy Gregory and Dorance Armstrong were touted as providing Dallas with the most talent and depth at the DE position we’ve seen in years. The production simply hasn’t been there.

Combine that with a secondary that looked shaky Sunday and we again saw an elite passer having his way. That makes me worried considering this team still have to face Carson Wentz (twice), Alex Smith (also twice), Matt Ryan and Drew Brees.

Tom: Yeah, but those sacks did happen, and as I mentioned earlier this week, there is a lot of teamwork involved in getting any sacks. Meanwhile, the Texans are the second worst team in the league at protecting the passer. I think the pass rush is going to harass Watson all game. He is a very good passer, but it is highly unlikely he is going to be able to deliver the pinpoint passes that Stafford kept dropping in. That should help Chidobe Awuzie have a much better game - and Byron Jones is emerging as one of the top shutdown corners in the league. Add in a linebacking corps that didn’t show any real problems in the absence of Sean Lee, and I think the defense is going to rebound.

And we may see the return of David Irving as well. He remains a bit of an unknown quantity after his long layoff, but he may be a bit of an X factor. Nonetheless, I have faith that this team can slow down the Texans. With the way the rules increasingly favor the offense, you can’t really stop a team like Houston completely. But this group is good enough to do their part in getting a win.

Michael: Again, color me skeptical. The defense has surrendered something like eight 20+ yard passes the last two weeks, including four long touchdowns. Two weeks ago we heard the defense was going to eat up a vulnerable Seahawks offensive line and Russell Wilson sat all comfy in the pocket most of the day. We haven’t even gotten to the fact this team is allergic to turnovers - currently on pace for eight for the entire season. Giving up big plays while failing to take the ball away doesn’t sound like a recipe for success. Realize, I’m not saying the Cowboys’ defense is terrible; I’m just saying it’s not the top-ten unit the point and yardage totals indicate.

Tom: The yardage is not as important as the points, and this D has been very stingy there, especially with how NFL teams are slinging the ball around and scoring TDs in the current environment. That is what they have to do, and even with Stafford throwing the ball all over the place, they were able to keep the total down. The Texans are averaging exactly what Detroit scored, 24 points a game. With the Dallas offense looking like it is on a bit of an upswing, I think this group is good enough to continue with keeping the score manageable, which would also keep them in that top 10 range. Part of my optimism is based on the obvious anger Kris Richard displayed in the Lions game. Expect him (and Rod Marinelli) to have this bunch ready to go.

Michael: I think if we ask this offense to average 24 points per game we’ll be disappointed with the answer. And that’s kind of my point here: this edition of the Dallas Cowboys will go as far as this defense takes them. The offense’s ceiling is middle-of-the-pack; they’re not going to average 375+ yards and 24+ points. That means the defense has to be a dominant unit in order for the team to succeed. They have the makings of a dominant unit. But until they start generating some turnovers and figuring out a way to stop high-powered passing attacks they’ll continue to be mediocre.

Tom: I think this will be the game they break through the turnover barrier. And as I said, I think the offense is coming around, and you can’t overlook what Ezekiel Elliott can do now that he seems to have found his groove. But mostly, I think the talent on this defense is going to prove out. There are going to be ups and downs, but I really believe they will get better going forward. I have a lot of faith in Richard.