This Cowboys defense certainly got plenty of abuse during the last week - giving up over 300 rushing yards in one game will do that - and they were looking to change things against a dreadful Giants offense. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan even made a change, moving from the coach’s box to the sideline to call plays.
Cowboys def coordinator Mike Nolan will be moving from booth to sideline to coach this week to be more interactive with players on that side of the ball.— Jay Glazer (@JayGlazer) October 11, 2020
It’s easy to look at the scoreboard and say “The team was dead last in the NFL in scoring just dropped 34 on us. Defense still sucks!” But the reality is that scoreboards rarely tell the full story, and the full story is that this defense was actually much improved. Granted, after last week’s loss to the Browns, there really wasn’t much else to go but up, but this defense showed signs of life.
First and foremost, let’s address the score. One of the Giants’ touchdowns came on a pick six by Kyler Fackrell. That’s not attributable to the defense at all. An additional field goal came by way of a special teams error. The Dallas defense had gotten a stop and forced the Giants to punt the ball away, but the special teams group was called for a boneheaded 12 men on the field penalty, moving New York into field goal range. That’s also not attributable to the defense, which right away should remove ten points from the “points allowed by the defense” category.
But there was also that final touchdown the Giants scored to take the lead in the fourth quarter. It came by way of a poor snap exchange between rookie center Tyler Biadasz and Andy Dalton on his second series of the game. The result was a fumble recovery by the Giants that set them up already in the red zone. Now, you can argue that the defense should have still limited the Giants to just a field goal, but the fact of the matter is the defense was put in a very difficult position on that drive. So if we’re being generous (which I doubt too many of us are with this defense) that’s a total of 17 points out of the Giants’ 34 total that can’t be put squarely on this defense.
But the defense’s improvements went beyond just not giving up a lot of points. After getting bulldozed by running back Devonta Freeman early on - he had 44 rushing yards at halftime - the defense turned it around and limited him to just 16 rushing yards in the second half. Additionally, New York’s 89 total rushing yards in the game was the lowest single-game total allowed by the defense this year. Again, it’s not saying a whole lot, but it is the best we’ve seen from this group so far.
Speaking of the best we’ve seen, let’s talk about Jaylon Smith. He’s had a really rough go of things lately, putting up his worst football ever in these first four games. He’s looked lost and out of position at times, been easily fooled by offenses at other times, and just plain poor on other plays. But Smith was all over the field on Sunday, looking like the Jaylon Smith we saw in 2018. His 14 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss both led the team, and Smith had more than one occasion where he read the offense like a pro to snuff out screen plays for a loss.
Maybe there was something to Nolan being on the sideline after all. Perhaps having Nolan on the sideline to be directly in Smith’s ear helped the linebacker improve. After all, Nolan’s experience is as a linebackers coach. Smith even got in on a half sack in the game, which brings me to my next point.
The pass rush looked great. Daniel Jones was running around in the backfield all day, and the pressure forced several bad throws from the young quarterback. DeMarcus Lawrence had the strip sack that Anthony Brown returned for a touchdown (apparently defenses are allowed to do that?) and Smith teamed up with Everson Griffen for another sack. Aldon Smith was everywhere again, and rookie Bradlee Anae got in Jones’ face on one play as well; all told, the Cowboys saw eight different players combine for ten total hits on the quarterback. Not too shabby.
A big part of that was the down and distance game. Whereas their previous four opponents have moved the ball at will, the Giants found themselves in several second/third and long situations. These obvious passing downs made it easier for the pass rush to pin their ears back and focus on getting after the quarterback. That’s a luxury this defense has rarely enjoyed so far this season, but they had a good time with it on Sunday.
Of course, the one big caveat in all of this is that it was the Giants. There are no illusions that this defense is suddenly good or even average, but after a week of having their effort questioned, we saw that these defenders are not short on effort at all. They’ll face a much tougher opponent next week in Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals, but for right now we can at least say that this defense showed improvement against the Giants.