Just three games into the 2013 NFL regular season, the biggest question surrounding the Dallas Cowboys is not the job security of head coach Jason Garrett. It is not whether or not new offensive coordinator Bill Callahan can run an offense any better than Garrett could in previous years.
No, the question is exactly how good the Dallas defense really is.
This question was simply unheard of over the last couple of seasons under former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, whose 3-4 scheme resulted in historically bad performances in a few categories. Even former head coaches Wade Phillips and Bill Parcells, both 3-4 guys, couldn't field any defensive numbers that rival what new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has done in less than one-quarter of a season.
In other words, the Dallas 3-4 defenses from 2005-2012 never approached the legendary status or shutdown reputation that teams like Super Bowl XXXV champion Baltimore Ravens did. The Cowboys rarely forced the pressure or turnovers that the Pittsburgh Steelers were able to under 76-year old coordinator Dick LeBeau while the ''Steel City'' was claiming its fifth and sixth championships in winning Super Bowls XL and XLIII within the last decade.
No, the 3-4 defense was never a great fit for the Cowboys—not the same story for the 4-3 scheme that has been employed during Dallas' eight Super Bowl appearances and five championship seasons.
Yes, the 4-3 scheme is back, and it really looks like it's in full force for the Cowboys—a telling sign indeed, at least if you look at the history of this franchise.
Now, schemes don't win games or championships all by themselves any more than coordinators do. A dominant defense is always led by talent, period.
The reality is the Cowboys were already loaded with defensive players that were well versed in the 4-3 scheme coming out of college. Names like DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, Anthony Spencer, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and Morris Claiborne were all part of 4-3 schemes at the college level—there's others as well.
But who would have thought that a defensive unit minus Ratliff, a key defensive linemen, this far into the season would be playing this well against opposing rushing attacks? Would you have bet that the Dallas pass rush would look like it has given that Spencer, a defensive end playing under the franchise tag for the second straight year, would have only played sparingly in one contest?
If you answered yes to those last two questions, my hat's off to you.
Let's consider just how good the Cowboys defense really is.
Despite giving up 450 yards passing to New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning in Week 1, a horrible allowance to a team that's still winless for the season, the Dallas defense has already reduced its average passing yards per game to just 274.7—the Cowboys pass defense now ranks 22nd in the NFL heading into Week 4. Dallas gave up under 200 total passing yards to Kansas City and St. Louis the last couple of weeks, a clear indicator that the ''Tampa 2'' version of the 4-3 scheme is beginning to work.
Where will the Dallas Cowboys finish in the NFC East standings?
A close look at the Dallas run-defense, at least so far, offers even more hope for a unit that was never very good at stopping opposing rushing attacks in the 3-4. The Cowboys have the look of a couple of the 1990s defenses that opposing offenses simply couldn't push around.
The Chiefs are the only team to rush for 100-yards or more against the Dallas defense—they only accomplished this because Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith was able to pop the defense early for most of his 57 yards scrambling. Elsewhere, Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles was only able to muster 55 yards on 16 carries—all of that came late in the fourth quarter, literally. The Giants totaled just 50 yards on 14 carries (3.6 avg.), and the Rams rushing ''attack'' was useless in gaining just 35 yards on 12 carries (2.9 avg.).
Currently ranking second in the NFL in run defense, one has to consider where Dallas would rank if you takeaway the yards gained by Smith—again, a quarterback, at Arrowhead. For comparison, the Denver Broncos rank first in giving up an average of just 43.3 yards per game. The Cowboys average 66.3 yards allowed, and in total rushing yards, Dallas trails Denver 130-199 yards. Without Smith's rushing performance, that margin would be 142-130 yards.
In other words, the Cowboys are very close to being the top rushing defense in the NFL, period. Further, Denver currently occupies that spot because it has the top offense in the league in most categories, including points per game at 42.3. Simply put, this Broncos defense is largely untested in close games like Dallas was against Kansas City, for example. The Cowboys, on the other hand, are quite tested so far and have little to prove since they haven't come close to giving up a 100-plus yard game to any ball-carrier.
Teams are simply not able to run on Dallas—this was true during the preseason, when the Cowboys starters were on the field, and it remains true during the regular season. We'll soon see exactly what's up with the Broncos defense when they meet Dallas at the giant venue formerly known as Cowboys Stadium in a little more than three weeks—expect that Manning-led offense to get a workout as well.
How about sacks?
The Dallas defense has 13 sacks thus far, a pace that would post a championship-caliber 69 sacks for the season. By comparison, the 1985 Chicago Bears, who won Super Bowl XX, amassed only 64 sacks—just food for thought and not a prediction of things to come. Ware's four sacks put him on pace to challenge the NFL single-season record for sacks with 21, and he also has an interception.
Speaking of interceptions, we knew that the Cowboys wanted to force more turnovers in Kiffin's scheme, and evidence of this showed up as the preseason began with the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game. The Miami Dolphins fumbled the ball away on the very first play from scrimmage. The regular season offered the same early omen for Manning, as he tossed the ball directly to Ware on the first play of the Cowboys regular season opener.
Beyond Ware, only veteran free safety Will Allen, recently benched in favor of rookie J.J. Wilcox, who had a pick called back against the Rams, and cornerback Brandon Carr have interceptions thus far. Carr returned his for a game-clinching touchdown against New York.
As the Dallas offense improves and points scored goes up, the defense will only get better in the takeaway department, but it's nice to know that this defense can force game-changing mistakes right away with nothing but goose-eggs on the scoreboard for either team. The current plus-3 turnover differential could be even higher as well.
It's beyond encouraging, if not unpredictable, to see this unit playing the way it is without Ratliff and Spencer healthy. Previous 4-3 question marks like defensive ends Kyle Wilber and George Selvie, defensive tackle Jason Hatcher and weakside linebacker Bruce Carter have already combined for eight sacks in 2013, and they don't look to be the least bit content—this is a good thing since this unit could very well be without Spencer for the remainder of the season.
In a division that includes 0-3 teams in New York and Washington, along with a rebuilding team in Philadelphia, that's just 1-2. The time is now for the Cowboys to take an NFC East championship that could have been theirs in each of the last two seasons. Expect this defense to increase those chances significantly if it stays healthy. Let's not completely forget the epidemic of injuries that sacked most of the starting lineup in 2012.
All stats courtesy of NFL.com