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Point-counterpoint: The improvement of the Dallas defense

Whether it was real or a mirage is crucial to the rest of the season.

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys
Jaylon Smith went from lost to a force against the Giants.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

While overshadowed by the tragic loss of Dak Prescott for the rest of the season, there were a lot of hopeful things about the 37-34 Dallas Cowboys victory over the New York Giants. One of the biggest, perhaps even more than the pleasantly surprising fourth quarter comeback led by Andy Dalton, was a much improved performance by a Mike Nolan defense that had been struggling the first four weeks. And “struggling” is putting it kindly. In the opening quarter of their season, the defense often looked lost and confused, unable to get off the field and yielding huge scores.

Surrendering 34 points to the inept Giants may seem pretty bad in itself, but once again turnovers were a major issue in the game. 14 of the New York points came directly off Dallas mistakes, a Prescott pick six and Dalton’s botched center exchange with Tyler Biadasz that set the guys from New Jersey up at the Dallas 17-yard line. Even the 20 remaining points may seem a bit much, but it’s not insignificant to note that four times the Cowboys limited the Giants to field goals.

Still, the question remains. Was this a true and major step forward for the beleaguered defense, or just a momentary reprieve against an inept, Jason Garrett-led offense that was missing one of their own main weapons, Saquon Barkley? Our David Howman and Tom Ryle have predictably differing views on that.

David: I’m still bullish on Mike Nolan so I’m saying it’s a legitimate step forward. We know the Giants have been bad on offense this year, and a big part of that is the loss of Saquon Barkley, but let’s not forget how creative the play-calling from Jason Garrett was on Sunday. I never thought I’d write that sentence, but it’s true: Flea flickers, well-timed end arounds, rushes for athletic tight end Evan Engram, and lots of pre-snap motion (for a Garrett offense) made the Giants offense look like it was being run by Kellen Moore. Garrett pulled out all the stops in his first visit back to Jerry World, and if it wasn’t for the severe lack of talent he’s working with, it may have paid off.

But the Giants don’t have much talent, while the Cowboys defense does. A crucial part of that was Jaylon Smith. After looking downright clueless for the first four games of the season, Smith was all over the field. He read the offense well and acted on his instincts to blow up several plays. It’s highly possible that having Nolan on the sideline helped Smith pick things apart, and Smith’s performance helped create more obvious passing downs, allowing all the talent on this pass rush to really come to life. If Nolan stays on the sideline and it keeps helping Smith play like this, then we may be seeing the real turning point for this defense.

Tom: I still keep coming back to a few things. First, it was the Giants. They are just the pits offensively. Yes, Garrett trotted out a lot of trickeration, but for the most part, this was still a patented Redball offense.

It’s a lot easier to stop an offense when they keep helping you with plays like that. Look, I appreciate that Jaylon Smith had a good game, and Aldon Smith and DeMarcus Lawrence did as well. But the G-men still produced 300 yards with a pretty underwhelming cast of players. I would really like this to have been the first step on an upward path, but it’s going to take more than one game against subpar competition to reassure me.

David: Jason Garrett will always be Jason Garrett, as we know well and good by now. But I think we’re still underestimating how much of a change this defense is trying to accomplish. They ran the most basic, vanilla defensive scheme last year, and have for a while now. Nolan brought a complex, hybrid scheme that would take several months to properly install in a normal year. He ended up having to try and install his scheme in the most abnormal year in NFL history.

This scheme change is the equivalent of hopping into a car with a stick shift after spending your whole life driving an automatic and expecting to nail it right away. You’re going to stall out a lot before you get the hang of it, but you will get the hang of it. And the best way to do that is to practice driving stick in an empty parking lot, not going on the highway right away. The Cowboys’ first four games, which featured three offenses in the top ten in DVOA, was the highway, but the Giants... well, they’re pretty much the epitome of an empty parking lot.

Tom: I guess they are ready to head out of the parking lot - which is an analogy that doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence. And while the front of the defense had some good performances, the secondary is still a big old question mark. Anthony Brown had a highlight moment on the fumble recovery for a touchdown, but the defense only was credited with two passes defended all game - and one of those was by linebacker Joe Thomas. I am very worried about how they are going to do against Kyler Murray this week.

If there is a glimmer of hope for me, it’s that Leighton Vander Esch seems very close to returning, with Chidobe Awuzie also progressing. And Randy Gregory will be officially able to play starting week 7. The problem with that is injuries just keep happening, as we saw in the case of Trysten Hill. Now the defensive tackle position is thin, when it was supposed to be a strength of the team. And safety has no help coming at all.

I will truly believe this is a much improved defense when I see it against a team that can actually win a game or two. Until that point, I just hope that Dalton is ready to do a really great Dak impression and put a whole bunch of points up, because that’s the only path to victory I see at the moment.

David: You highlight another point, which is the injuries. Gerald McCoy was a big loss, given the value he adds both as a player and as a leader, and losing LVE in the first game was a big blow just from a communication standpoint. Trysten Hill, against all odds, was showing improvement and now he’s out. And the injuries in the secondary have only added to the chaos of the changing scheme. To stick with my previous analogy, they’ve been learning to drive a stick while tires are falling off and being replaced. In other words, not ideal.

Of course, that’s not a good enough excuse, because scheme changes and injuries happen all the time. But with the unusual nature of the past year, it’s intensified the effects of these issues for Dallas. It may have been against the lowly Giants, but playing competent defense for the first time this year has to give them a shot of confidence. And that should come in handy when they face Kyler Murray and the Air Raid offense on Monday Night Football. Either way, though, the hope has to be that the Red Rifle is shooting more than blanks still. Defense may win championships, but offense wins games.