Ezekiel Elliott gets the ink, and it is deserved. Dak Prescott receives the pub, and it is justified. Dez Bryant draws the headlines – and double-coverages – and it’s understandable.
But don’t look now, Dallas Cowboy critics: The big D in Dallas may just stand for defense.
Despite the well-earned recognition that the Cowboys offense has garnered, it’s an overlooked defense that deserves the kudos.
Heading into a Week 17 matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles to close out the regular season, the Dallas defense ranks fourth in the NFL in points allowed, at 18.6 per game. While rarely dominant, and often employing a bend-but-don’t-break strategy, the Cowboys defense has persisted in a 13-2 season.
And that vaunted Dallas offense? The one with all the stars and swag, the one that’s being talked about with not just one MVP candidate but two?
Also fourth in scoring.
How’s that for balance, even if the adulation has been one-sided?
“It really goes to the guys buying into Coach [Jason] Garrett’s message in terms of the standards that we play,” Cowboys linebackers coach Matt Eberflus told reporters. “We talk about our effort and hitting and everyone doing their job and playing solid team defense and focusing on fundamentals. It’s really a collective effort.”
No is one comparing these Cowboys to the ’86 Chicago Bears or anything. In fact, Dallas’ performance in the first 20 minutes of an eventual 42-21 win over Detroit on Dec. 26 was dreadful, surrendering 21 points on the first three drives in an effort that left linebacker Sean Lee disgusted.
“We’ve played with passion and we’ve played the right way throughout the entire year,” Lee told reporters. “We’ve gotten better every game. That first half wasn’t us. We didn’t play with the right intensity. We weren’t playing assignment football. We weren’t playing the way that has made us successful. That’s what I was kind of saying, ‘Hey, this is unacceptable for us to play like this. We have to find a way to get better fast.’”
And they did, limiting to Detroit to 127 second-half yards in yet another did-enough-to-get-by offering, while turning to a pass rush that brought heat – and not the good kind – during the offseason.
That’s when pundits teed off on Dallas’ inability to tee off, focusing on what Dallas was missing, over what it had.
What does it have? How about 12 sacks the last four weeks, vaulting up to 12th in the league with 34 for the season.
“The biggest thing is, if you can get those tackles for loss,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said on Thursday. “That up-field pressure, if you get one, usually they’re out of it. We have to do our part, and our offense has been terrific.”
One major reason for the Dallas defense’s recent upturn in production and pressure has been the return of starting safety Barry Church from a broken forearm. Church has 38 tackles and 2 pass deflections in his four games since returning, and the Cowboys have 10 forced turnovers in that time.
“He’s always had a knack for being around the ball and has made a lot of plays on the ball throughout his career,” coach Jason Garrett t0ld reporters. “I do think he’s the kind of player that positively impacts his teammates. He’s got great energy. He’s a really good communicator. I think guys respond well to him.”
And clearly, the whole Dallas defense is responding to the criticism they faced earlier this season.