The Dallas Cowboys narrowly defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime to move into a three-way tie for the lead in the NFC East; it also gave the Cowboys their first 3 game winning streak since November of the 2011 season. The game against the Steelers was similar to many of the Cowboys recent games this season: it was a close game that wasn’t decided until one of the final possessions of the final quarter; both teams had opportunities to win the game but made game-changing mistakes; the Dallas defense continues to play reasonable well even though it staffed with a bunch of guys ‘off the street'; and QB Tony Romo again showed that he can keep his team in almost any game and put them in a position to win.
1. A lot of people owe Dallas Cowboys owner/General Manager Jerry Jones and OLB Anthony Spencer a huge apology.
When the Cowboys decided to use the franchise tag on Anthony Spencer this off-season rather than let him test the free agent market, many condemned Jerry Jones’ decision to pay over $8 million dollars for a single season to an “average” player. Anthony Spencer is one of many players who I have always thought is under-appreciated in Dallas. Most people also severely under-estimate his pass-rushing ability. Way back in June and July, when everyone was lambasting Jones for franchising Spencer, I wrote a three part series that concluded that he was much closer to being an elite OLB (even as a pass-rusher) than average.
Anthony Spencer is having a fantastic year. He has made big stops for the Dallas Cowboys at critical points in almost every game this season. He had 1.5 sacks against the Steelers, which gives him 8.5 on the season (perennial Pro Bowler OLB DeMarcus Ware has 11 sacks). Spencer continues to be a stalwart against the run, he makes big stops when the Cowboys need it, and he is getting pressure on opposing quarter-backs. The Cowboys lost both games that Spencer was sidelined by injury (Chicago and Baltimore).
Many have suggested that Anthony Spencer is the MVP of the Dallas Cowboys defense so far in 2012, while I am not sure that I agree 100%, it is not an unreasonable premise. The point is that he is having a very good year, and when you look at the injury problems the Cowboys have suffered, they are lucky to have the Anthony Spencer.
2. Many people also owe Dallas Cowboys CB Mike Jenkins and Jerry Jones an apology.
Once free agent Brandon Carr was signed, and then even more so after the Dallas Cowboys moved up in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft to select CB Morris Claiborne, many fans and writers wanted to see Mike Jenkins leave Dallas. The biggest criticisms on Jenkins are that he has been injury prone, he lacks confidence, and he isn’t anxious to tackle.
A few people reiterated the maxim, “You can never have too many corner-backs”, especially in today’s NFL when so many offenses regularly utilize 4 and 5 wide-receiver sets, and that there was a the history of injury problems with corners in Dallas, but the vast majority of people felt that Jenkins was expendable or worse.
The Cowboys lost slot CB Orlando Scandrick for the year; Jenkins can play in the slot. Then they lost Claiborne, if only for a few games, so Jenkins was forced to start last week for the Dallas Cowboys. He stepped in and played well enough against the talented and dangerous duo of QB Ben Roethlisberger and WR Mike Wallace to help the Cowboys win. If the Cowboys did not have Jenkins, they would have been forced to start Michael Coe (a 6-year vet claimed of of waivers from Miami less than a week ago) or Sterling Moore (signed off New England’s practice squad abut two weeks ago).
Jenkins may not have played a spectacular game against the Steelers, but he didn’t get repeatedly beat bad either (it looked like the 4th quarter TD by Steelers WR Antonio Brown was his responsibility). The Dallas Cowboys defense would have much more vulnerable if they didn’t have a player like Jenkins who is familiar with Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan’s defense and has starting experience.
The decision to hold on to CB Mike Jenkins, rather than cut or trade him, certainly seems like a shrewd one now.
3. Dallas Cowboys Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan is doing an amazing job at running a defense that is staffed with a bunch of players ‘off-the-street’ who have no history with his system.
It is no secret that the Cowboys defense has suffered an inordinate number of season-ending injures to important players. On Sunday against the Steelers, it seemed like on every second play, I was seeing some player on the Cowboys’ defense that I had never heard of before.
The Cowboys have lost many starters, but they lost their best player, ILB Sean Lee (58 tackles, one forced fumble, and one interception in six games), after the week 7 contest against the Panthers. Lee is not only a great player, he was also the ‘QB of the defense’. He was replaced by second year player ILB Bruce Carter, who was doing an admirable job of trying to replace Lee, but he was inured five games later against the Redskins. Free agent ILB Dan Connor, the logical choice to replace Lee and Carter as the play-caller on defense because of his experience in the NFL and having a full off-season with Rob Ryan, has also struggled with injuries; he has missed two complete games due to injury and been limited in others. At the ILB position, the Cowboys also lost Orie Lemon for the season in week 9. Rookie ILB Caleb McSurdy was lost for the season before he even played in a game.
Against the Steelers, the Cowboys started Connor and Ernie Sims (who was unemployed until Dallas was desperate for a ILB at the end of November), but Sims suffered a concussion, so he had to be replaced by Alex Albright (an undrafted free agent rookie in 2011).
Despite being so depleted in the center of their defense, Rob Ryan’s Dallas Cowboys were able to hold the Steelers, in a close game, to just 69 yards rushing. Although Alex Albright played surprisingly well, the Cowboys success stopping the Steelers rushing attack was largely a result of Rob Ryan’s scheming and play-calling. As well as they played against the run, the Cowboys are still desperate for an ILB that can play decent pass-coverage. The don’t have an ILB that can cover a good TE like the Steelers Heath Miller, so (as I predicted last week) the Steelers were able to hit Miller over the middle frequently; he had 7 catches for 90 yards and a TD.
In relation to trying to stop the run, the Dallas Cowboys have also lost several important pieces of their defensive line rotation. Starting DE Kenyon Coleman was lost for the year in week 10 against the Eagles. Undrafted free agent rookie Ben Bass was then brought up from the practice squad; he suffered a season ending injury in his second game. The Cowboys recently lost back-up Josh Brent for the season due to legal issues. Brent was an important part of the rotation at DT which necessary because the Cowboys utilize two defensive tackles fairly often, and he helped keep NT Jay Ratliff fresh for late in games (and helped to replace Ratliff when he was suffering from an injury).
In the secondary, Rob Ryan’s defense lost starting safety Barry Church for the year in week 3 against Tampa Bay and slot-corner Orlando Scandrick in week 12 against the Redskins.
The Dallas Cowboys defense is not going to lead the NFL, or even be close to the top, in a defensive category, but since week 5, Rob Ryan has kept his team within a touchdown of winning every game. Given the inconsistency of the offense, coupled with the number of injuries to key players, that fact that Rob Ryan’s defense is not getting blown out of games and is actually keeping the Cowboys competitive is a remarkable achievement. It seems almost impossible that Rob Ryan could have kept his defense this competitive without Anthony Spencer and Mike Jenkins.