The Dallas Cowboys entered the season with low expectations on defense, but this unit is playing surprisingly well, and gaining more confidence with each game.
Going into the 2016 season, the Dallas Cowboys defense was seen as average at best. With pass rushers Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory serving 4 and 10 game suspensions, the Cowboys faced a serious issue.
Fast forward six weeks into the season, and the Cowboys sit atop the NFC East with a 5-1 record, the league’s leading rusher (Ezekiel Elliott), and a sensational rookie quarterback who is shocking the world.
You have read all of the headlines about Elliott setting rookie rushing records, Dak Prescott remaining as the Cowboys quarterback, and how America’s Team is once again the real deal.
What is missing from that last paragraph is Dallas’ defense, which has been seen as the team’s weakest link.
The Cowboys defense is ranked 7th in the league, allowing only 17.8 points a game. This is the same defense that made mediocre quarterbacks like Brian Hoyer and Blaine Gabbert appear to be franchise signal callers.
Dallas’ defense played a good game on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. The stout defense created four turnovers and sacked quarterback Aaron Rodgers once. Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli did a fantastic job of disguising man and zone coverage.
The scheme led to a Barry Church interception. That was one of the many highlights from this defense. Although the Cowboys front four couldn’t pressure and sack Rodgers on a regular basis like they did Andy Dalton, it forced four turnovers instead.
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Dallas’ defense is not loaded with perennial Pro Bowlers and first-round picks, like its offense. This team is a combination of injury prone players, suspended players, undrafted players, and a former high draft pick finally playing to his potential.
Basically, the Cowboys defense is an overachieving unit that is getting the job done. The blue collar defense is making big time plays when it matters the most. The defense played its best defensive game yet against the Packers.
NFC Defensive Player of the Week David Irving forced three fumbles, a fumble recovery, four tackles and recorded a sack against the Packers. The defensive end set a Cowboys record with his three forced fumbles.
Irving created havoc while only playing 19 snaps. The play of the game came when Irving stripped Rodgers at the goal line and Dallas recovered the ball. That play kept the Packers from scoring.
Those fumble recoveries by the defense benefited the Cowboys dynamic offense. What is amazing is that Irving missed Week 5 with a concussion, but played like a Pro Bowler on Sunday. It’s hard work and effort from players like Irving that has opponents averaging a measly 17 points a game.
To put this in perspective, the Cowboys have faced high powered offensive juggernauts like the New York Giants, Cincinnati Bengals and the Packers. All of these teams have Pro Bowl receivers with talented signal callers known to light up the scoreboard.
The expectation was the defense would give 35 or 40 points to the Bengals and the Packers because of a mediocre pass rush. Critics thought Dalton would sling the ball all over the place and toss touchdown passes to All Pro receiver A. J. Green with ease.
Neither happened as Dalton was sacked four times, pressured constantly, and hit repeatedly by Dallas’ front four. Green was held to 4 catches and 50 receiving yards.
Rodgers’ fate was slightly different, but the defense caused him to fumble three times, throw an interception and overthrow receivers. Rodgers played a part in his awful performance on Sunday, but there is no doubt Dallas’ defense upped the ante and played outstanding.
The secondary is performing outstanding every week. Defensive back Morris Claiborne and Free Safety Byron Jones are playing at a particularly high level. One of the problems Rodgers faced was his receivers were constantly covered, which led to a sack and errant throws.
For the second straight game, Jones saved another touchdown when he knocked down a pass at the last second. Similar to the play he made on Green, Jones timed his jump perfectly and swatted down a pass intended for slot receiver Randall Cobb.
The secondary is playing well while corner Orlando Scandrick recovers from a hamstring injury. This unit will only get better as the season goes.
I expect the pass rush to get better as Marinelli tinkers with different defensive lineups and mix and match schemes in the secondary. If players like Irving, Terrell McClain, Ryan Davis, Cedric Thornton, Maliek Collins, Benson Mayowa, and Jack Crawford continue to play with a high motor, this defense will improve.
Although Dallas needs to record more sacks, the only equalizer is creating turnovers on a consistent basis. Winning the turnover battle gives the offense more opportunities to score points and control the time of possession.
In 2009, the New Orleans Saints defense ranked 20th in the league, giving up 21.3 points a game. However, the defense led the league in forcing turnovers. This gave Drew Brees and his high powered offense more opportunities to score points.
The Saints won the Super Bowl that year with its number one offense.
As long as this over achieving group plays hard and create turnovers, anything is possible, including a Super Bowl victory.