We all know the narrative of these Dallas Cowboys.
The offense has to carry the load. Defense has long been considered the weak spot in Dallas. Many around the NFL were stunned the offense-heavy Cowboys opted to take running back Ezekiel Elliott with the No. 4 overall draft pick in April. Many thought the Cowboys, who may have taken Ohio State teammate Joey Bosa over Elliott had the San Diego Chargers not taken the defensive end with the No. 3 pick, would take Florida State defensive back Jalen Ramsey or Oregon defensive end DeForest Buckner instead of Elliott. Even this week, Dallas head coach Jason Garrett felt compelled to defend the decision to draft Elliott instead of defense even though Elliott has been excellent in the early going.
But thus far, almost one-third of the way through the season, the truth is the Dallas defense has not been as troubling or as costly as many thought. Certainly, the Dallas offense is the engine of this team, but the Cowboys are 4-1 and their defense is doing enough to help the team win.
Dallas is allowing an average of 355.6 yards a game, which is 16th in the NFL. The Cowboys will take average for now. The best truth of Rod Marinelli’s young defense is it is stingy when it comes to the most important statistic – points allowed. The most points Dallas has allowed in a game was 23 and that was in a Week 2 win against Washington. Dallas has allowed 17 or fewer points in three of their five games. The Cowboys, who have allowed 31 points total in the past two games, held a potent Cincinnati offense to 14 points Sunday in a game that never was close.
Dallas will need its defense to play well as it enters a critical stretch of the season. The Cowboys are going to see some pretty nice offenses coming up.
The challenge begins Sunday at Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers. Then, after a bye, the Cowboys will host Philadelphia in a much anticipated NFC East showdown on Sunday Night Football. Containing Carson Wentz will be the Cowboys’ defensive priority for years and it starts in that game. After a game against the weak Cleveland offense, the Cowboys go to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers and their dynamic offense.
So, crunch time is coming in Dallas. It seems, after their recent success, the Cowboys feel much more at peace with this unit than would be expected.
The Cowboys are particularly happy about the way the secondary played against the Bengals. Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton threw for just 269 yards and Bengals star A.J. Green was held in check with 4 catches for 50 yards. Dallas cornerback Morris Claiborne, a former No. 6 overall pick who is coming into his own, led a strong effort by the secondary even with Orlando Scandrick still out with an injury.
“The secondary played incredible,” Dallas defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford told reporters Sunday. “That’s a big part of the reason that we were able to get the pressure that we got. (Dalton) had no looks half the time.”
With games against Rodgers, Wentz and Ben Roethlisberger on the horizon, that type of play will be paramount for Dallas to continue. It will also be important for Dallas to come up with a pass rush.
Dallas had just 6 sacks in its first four games but added 4 sacks against the Bengals. Many Cowboys believe their energy in the pass-rush game is because defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence is back from a suspension. Dallas owner Jerry Jones acknowledged Lawrence was a factor, but he thinks the entire unit is getting better.
“He did make a difference,” Jerry Jones told reporters after the Cincinnati win. “But I don’t want to take anything away from the line across the board. The happiest guy in that locker room is Rod Marinelli. What he preaches came to bear out there.”
League observers think the Cowboys can continue to get enough out of this defense and it will complement the offense. Ironically, scouts do think the selection of Elliott, who is averaging 5 yards a carry on 109 rush attempts, is helping the Dallas defense anyway. Dallas is controlling the ball on offense and it is keeping its defense off the field. It is a similar approach to 2014 when DeMarco Murray had 1,845 yards on 392 carries. Dallas’ defense did enough that season to help the team go 12-4.
Many scouts think the Cowboys’ approach on offense with a decent dose of defense will go a long way.
“The secondary is far exceeding expectations,” longtime NFL scout Matt Williamson said. “They are well coached and should be good enough on defense and they run the ball as well as they have been on offense. They should be fine.”
The key, of course, will be continuing to get better through the tough upcoming stretch, beginning Sunday in Green Bay.