You wouldn't know it if you merely looked at the final score, but Monte Kiffin's new-look/old-school defense carried the Dallas Cowboys in their season-opening victory over the division rival New York Giants Sunday night.
All offseason, the majority of the optimism that surrounded the Cowboys dealt with the offense.
Sunday night at AT&T Stadium, Romo lacked consistency and couldn't quite get on track, Bryant was almost a no-show and Murray never got into much of a rhythm. However, the 'Boys were victorious because they finally found a groove on defense.
Considering that the offense should eventually come around, that's an extremely good sign.
With the 73-year-old Kiffin steering the defensive ship, the Cowboys had five takeaways on defense and six in total against New York. That tally is 38 percent of their total from the entire 2012 season under Rob Ryan.
In two years under Ryan, the Cowboys recorded just 41 takeaways, which ranked 26th in the NFL.
In fact, that six-takeaway figure was the Cowboys' highest since 1985 and a mark they hadn't reached in nearly a decade.
There were signs that this was a feistier, savvier defense throughout the preseason. The first-team D was ferocious and the unit had nine takeaways in its first four preseason games.
That appears to be carrying over to games that matter, and it could be the strongest indication yet that the Cowboys are ready to reclaim the NFC East throne that they surrendered in 2010.
To win in this league, and especially against a team like the Giants, the key is to keep the ball out of your opponent's hands. The Cowboys defense did exactly that Sunday night. Dallas possessed the ball for more than 37 minutes, leaving less than 23 minutes for the G-Men.
Entering this season, the Cowboys were 1-12 all-time in games in which Romo was held to fewer than 6.1 yards per attempt. He was shaky early Sunday night and averaged only 5.4 yards per attempt, but the 'Boys still won.
Regardless of what lazy media types and cliche-endorsing haters will tell you, Romo has saved this team a lot more often than the team has saved him.
And, no, with only one interception, he wasn't the problem on Sunday night. He also wasn't the solution.
Kiffin's defense was.
Of course, the Giants did make things easier on the Cowboys. One of the six takeaways came on a somewhat fluky special teams play. DeMarcus Ware's interception on the first play from scrimmage had nothing to do with Kiffin's Tampa 2 scheme, but it sure helped to set the tone.
It was also one hell of an athletic, reactionary play from Ware.
Tiki Barber noted on Twitter that left tackle Will Beatty released Ware to the wrong side, but kudos to Ware for taking full advantage and establishing that momentum on defense.
On the very next drive, it was all about that new defensive mentality. Barry Church's first thought when meeting David Wilson was to rip the ball away and he caused a fumble.
On the very next drive, we finally got to see the scheme pay direct dividends on Manning's second interception. Will Allen was watching the play as it transpired and was there to secure an off-target third-down throw from Manning.
In the second half, we once again saw that aggressiveness on Wilson's second fumble. Look at Nick Hayden's right hand as he flips Wilson over on the tackle.
Finally, the game-clinching play came on a classic Tampa 2 turnover. And it came in a situation in which Manning and the Giants are usually Cowboy-killers—with the game on the line in the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
With the Cowboys playing zone defense, cornerback Brandon Carr had one eye on Manning from the snap and was able to break off of his man the moment this pass was in the air, placing him in the perfect spot to intercept it after the deflection.
This is a defense that didn't have Anthony Spencer, who was the unit's unofficial MVP last season. Veteran defensive tackle Jay Ratliff was also inactive and starting corner Morris Claiborne was rusty to say the least.
The defense still made big play after big play. It was unfamiliar and refreshing.
Get used to it. Between 2000 and 2008, Kiffin-coordinated Tampa Bay Buccaneers defenses were ranked in the top five in takeaways five times out of nine. Meanwhile, Manning has a career touchdown-to-interception ratio of 13-to-17 against Tampa 2 defenses.
These teams will meet again in late November. By then, a defense that is clearly making serious progress could have a chance to drop the hammer on a rival that has been a pain in its ass for half a decade.
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