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Cowboys get the win, but play on defense could cause some concern

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Not everything was going great for the Cowboys on Sunday.

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a very satisfying feeling to start the season 1-0 after a convincing win over the New York Giants. There are a lot of happy thoughts floating around Cowboys Nation, and most of them are centered around the new and improved offense. Yesterday, we talked about how spectacular they were, and how if this becomes the new normal, then big things are coming for this Cowboys football team.

As great as things were on offense, things weren’t so magical defensively. Granted, they only allowed 17 points, which is under their 20 point average (ranked sixth) from a year ago, but they also surrendered 474 yards to a middle-of-the-road offense. That’s not ideal. This game marks the largest amount of yards the defense has given up since the 28-6 Thanksgiving blowout at the hands of the Los Angeles Chargers in 2017, where Phillip Rivers went off for 434 yards passing. The Cowboys defense gave up a total of 515 yards that day.

What’s also concerning is that this is the second straight game the defense has given up over 450 yards, dating back to last year’s playoff loss to the other Los Angeles team, the Rams. Normally, it doesn’t make sense to compare a unit from the previous year to the next, but in this case it’s reasonable as the Cowboys have made no changes to their starting lineup from a year ago. So, it’s a little worrisome that a unit that should be cohesive has rolled out the red carpet in terms of yards allowed in their last two outings.

The Cowboys do have some defensive additions this season; however most of them weren’t available on Sunday. The team traded for edge rusher Robert Quinn, but he is currently serving a two-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. They also used their second-round draft pick to select Trysten Hill, but he was inactive on Sunday. They have a couple promising rookies in Donovan Wilson and Luke Gifford, who were both picking off passes in the preseason, but they were unavailable due to injury.

It’s a little disappointing that the team had two premium draft choices as healthy scratches on Sunday. Taco Charlton (First round, 2017) and Hill (Second round, 2019) weren’t seen as players who would help give them the best collective group against the Giants, but each week should provide a new opportunity for them to compete for one of the active roster spots. On one hand, it speaks to the strength of the team that these guys can’t get snaps, but on the other hand, you want those higher draft resources on the field. If Charlton can’t get on the field with Quinn unavailable, it’s hard imagining that his chances improve going forward. For Hill, he’s still raw enough to not be overly concerned about him just chilling as an inactive. You have to figure he’ll get his opportunities soon enough.

Regardless of whether these young guys are on the field, the Cowboys have a good cast of players on defense. And against the Giants, it was a mixed bag when it comes to their performance. Looking closely at the game, there were both positive and negative things about the defense worth noting.

The Good

The defense was hitting hard and forced three fumbles. The Giants averted disaster after Xavier Woods jarred the ball loose from Saquon Barkley on New York’s first play from scrimmage. Jeff Heath sniffed out a screen play and laid a hit so hard that the ball was sent flying. Luckily for the Giants, the play was ruled an incomplete pass.

While Eli Manning was only sacked once, he was hit six times, and was extremely fortunate that a deflected pass didn’t get picked off after floating into the air for what seemed like an eternity. And the Giants resorted to going for it on fourth down three times, only converting once. In all, the Cowboys recovered two fumbles, and forced a turnover on downs. So even though the Giants were moving the ball against them, the Cowboys defense buckled down when they had to and made some stops.

The Bad

The Cowboys defense never forced the Giants offense to go three-and-out the entire game. In seven of their 10 possessions, the Giants crossed into Cowboys territory. Manning had over 300 yards passing, Barkley averaged nearly 11 yards per carry, and Evan Engram hauled in 11 catches for 116 yards and a touchdown.

The defense had some communication issues where players were not sticking to their correct assignments. This allowed Barkley to get the most out of the limited touches he got. The Giants offensive line looked a lot better than what we’ve seen in recent years, but the Cowboys pass rush wasn’t their disruptive selves. And it’s never good when the safety is the one who leads the team in tackles (Woods had 11).

The Ugly

The Giants had two big plays in this game, and Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie was involved in both of them. On a Barkley carry early in the game, the Cowboys defenders got washed out of the play, allowing him to bust through the hole for a 59-yard run. If it wasn’t for Awuzie turning on the jets, Barkley would’ve taken it to the house.

And then on the Giants first play from scrimmage in the second half, Manning hit receiver Cody Latimer for a big 43-yard strike. Awuzie had great coverage on Latimer, but he just didn’t get his head turned around in time to make a play on the ball. Awuzie was frequently doing this type of stuff last year where he’d smother the guy, but he always had his back to the ball allowing teams to complete super-tight window throws. Credit the Giants receiver for making a great one-handed catch.

While these two plays were the biggest surrendered by the defense, their worst showing came late in the fourth quarter. The Giants marched 75 yards on six plays in just over two minutes to score their second and final touchdown of the game. They never reached second down on that drive. Sure, the Cowboys did have reserves playing along the defensive line, but the Giants moved the ball with ease against Dallas on that drive.

Here is a complete drive summary for the Giants on Sunday:

This is the most balanced team we’ve seen in a long time, and it’s great to see the offense off to a great start. But for this to be a special season, the Cowboys defense needs to be a force, and allowing the opposing offense to move the ball so easily against them isn’t going to cut it. There are several high-caliber offenses on the schedule this year, and they will need a stronger defensive performance if they are going to come away victorious.