In Monte Kiffin's debut as the Cowboys' defensive coordinator, things couldn't have gone better. A team that ranked 29th in 2012 with only 16 takeaways on defense under Rob Ryan took the ball away from Miami twice, looking aggressive but also under control (there's a fine line).
We already knew that this D had the key pieces in place.
DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer are established pass-rushers, Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher, Bruce Carter and Sean Lee are established front-seven defenders and Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne make up one hell of a young coverage duo.
But what about the depth? Lee, Carter and Ratliff missed plenty of time due to injuries last year and the Cowboys weren't able to do much to replace them.
According to Football Outsiders, only two defensive units were hit harder by injuries than Dallas' last year and that showed up on paper as the season wore on.
With Lee, the Cowboys surrendered only 22.2 points and 292.3 yards per game. Without him, they gave up 26.7 points and 393.3 yards per game. Without both Lee and Carter during the final five weeks, they gave up 27.6 points and 414.0 yards per game.
On Sunday, however, four young Cowboys defenders stepped it up.
We're being cautious, since it's only one of five preseason games, but Dallas fans had to enjoy seeing Kyle Wilber deliver as a pass-rusher (he had at least three pressures, by my count), while journeyman George Selvie chipped in with a pair of sacks, rookie sixth-round pick DeVonte Holloman had the play of the game on a pick-six and second-year safety Matt Johnson was all over the field.
Holloman took a penalty for a late hit later in the game and Johnson was injured, but it doesn't look serious.
It's all extremely promising because second-year defensive end Tyrone Crawford is already out with a torn left Achilles tendon and the 'Boys need to have better insurance in case guys start dropping like flies again in 2013.
Injuries were a good excuse last year, but if that happens and they struggle again this season, it's on them for not covering their tracks.
At the very least, we now have four players on the radar to watch Friday when the Cowboys face the Oakland Raiders—and for the three weeks beyond that. Wilber and Johnson could make runs at starting spots, especially in a fresh defense like this one, while Selvie and Holloman are probably on track to earn key backup roles.
Can they keep it up? Can the Dallas defense continue down this positive path? That'll be the big question entering Friday's game in the Bay Area.
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