Despite Key Injuries, Dallas Cowboys Defense Is Turning It Around

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Despite Key Injuries, Dallas Cowboys Defense Is Turning It Around
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Less than two weeks ago, we asked if the Dallas Cowboys should be concerned about Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 defense after it surrendered 51 points to the Denver Broncos. Then top pass-rusher and franchise sack leader DeMarcus Ware went down, Jay Ratliff was released and George Selvie got hurt, and it looked like things were really going to hit the fan.

But instead, the Dallas defense has fed off of adversity, putting together back-to-back stellar performances against division rivals with high-powered offenses. 

They've surrendered only 19 points in the last two weeks, which ranks second in the NFL during that span. In Week 6, they gave up only 16 to a Washington Redskins team that scored 38 a week later. And in Week 7, they gave up only a single field goal to a Philadelphia Eagles team that had scored at least 31 in each of their last two games.

Roller-coaster ride for Cowboys defense
First 14 quarters Next 6 quarters Next 8 quarters
Points/game allowed 19.4 45.3 9.5
Yards/play allowed 5.6 7.2 4.7
Sacks/game 4.0 0.0 3.0

Pro-Football-Reference.com

What exactly has spurred this unexpected turnaround? Allow us to break it down.

 

The secondary has manned up

Literally. For the most part, they've ditched the zone-heavy concepts that seemed to be causing problems early in the season and have been spending a lot more time in press-man coverage in the last two weeks. Expect coverages to be fluid throughout the year, depending on opposing offenses, but the corners clearly excel in man-to-man scenarios, so it's been beneficial. 

Second-year corner Morris Claiborne was abysmal earlier this year, so much so that Orlando Scandrick essentially stole his starting role. But he was lights-out in coverage against the Redskins, giving up only two catches for 32 yards on six targets, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He had a little more trouble with Riley Cooper on Sunday in Philadelphia but still didn't give up anything deep. 

Here, you see a great pass breakup on blanket coverage to prevent a first down in the fourth quarter against Washington:

Carr has been targeted 21 times in the last two weeks but has surrendered only seven catches, according to PFF. He held DeSean Jackson to only a single 16-yard reception on four targets on Sunday and held Pierre Garcon to only two grabs on 10 targets one week before that. The veteran is playing his best football since he came to Dallas a year-and-a-half ago, finally living up to that $50 million contract.

An example of the type of coverage he had on Garcon all night in Week 6:

Even in the linebacking corps, Sean Lee and Bruce Carter have gotten better. Carter was a mess in coverage earlier this season, which we highlighted here, but he's given up only 12 yards on six targets in the last two weeks, per PFF. Against nifty offensive players like Jordan Reed, Roy Helu and LeSean McCoy, that's impressive. 

And he didn't get credit for it due to an offside penalty, but Carter also made a great play intercepting Matt Barkley in the fourth quarter on Sunday:

Meanwhile, PFF graded Lee as the top linebacker in the league in Week 7. He had a pick, a pass breakup, a team-high nine tackles and a grade of plus-4.8. And while LeSean McCoy entered the week as the league's leading rusher, he was held to just 55 yards on 18 carries against a front seven led by Lee on Sunday. 

“I’m glad he’s on our side and we’re counting on him,” owner Jerry Jones said, according to ESPN.com. “You could argue there’s nobody that’s more important to the success of our team than Sean Lee.” 

 

No-names are getting the job done up front

ESPN.com's Todd Archer points out that five of the eight defensive linemen the Cowboys used in Philly weren't on the roster when training camp began. Jarius Wynn was in on a sack and played 25 snaps, despite the fact that he was signed just a week ago. Caesar Rayford, who was signed in September, had three hurries on 25 snaps. Journeyman George Selvie, who has been a pleasant surprise after signing in late July, had his first multi-sack game. 

In fact, it was Selvie and Wynn who combined on the most important sack of the game, taking Nick Foles down (and out, actually) on a third down inside the red zone on the final play of the third quarter:

And on what was pretty much a game-clinching pick in the fourth, we saw Rayford dominate No. 4 overall pick Lane Johnson off the snap to create the hurry:

We're talking about a guy who last year was a member of the Utah Blaze of the Arena Football League.

"Our defensive line, with all due respect, a lot of no-name guys up there," Kiffin said, per the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "That all goes back to Coach [Rod] Marinelli. We talk about it all of the time. But they got good pressure."

I don't know if it'll last, but it might not have to. Ware is a fast healer, and he's getting closer to returning. Selvie and Jason Hatcher have been good, too, and they're starters for the remainder of the year, so long as they remain healthy. 

Play from some of those so-called no-names has been a bonus, though, and it could come in handy later this year. After all, injuries happen. 

 

Bending but not breaking

The D was pretty good regardless of field position against the Eagles, but they still gave up 433 yards of total offense to the Redskins and rank closer to the middle of the pack in terms of yards allowed during that stretch. 

However, both the 'Skins and Eagles have been completely ineffective once they've breached scoring range. After giving up 17 touchdowns on 24 red-zone possessions (an average of 71 percent, which would have ranked dead last in the NFL in 2012) during the first five weeks of the season, the 'Boys have held their opponents to just four field goals and zero touchdowns on five red-zone possessions in the last two weeks. 

In fact, on each of the three other occasions in which the Redskins or Eagles reached the Cowboys' 40-yard line but failed to hit the 20, they were kept off of the scoreboard completely. That's eight possessions inside the 40, zero touchdowns, four field goals and three interceptions.  

Drives inside the Dallas 40-yard line, last two weeks
Opposing offense Yard line reached Result
1. Redskins 2-yard line Field goal
2. Redskins 14-yard line Field goal
3. Redskins 15-yard line Field goal
4. Redskins 30-yard line Missed field goal
5. Redskins 23-yard line Interception
6. Eagles 9-yard line Field goal
7. Eagles 37-yard line Interception
8. Eagles 12-yard line Interception

NFL.com

They've rarely been cutting it close in those situations. The pressure's been turned up, and the coverage has been tight. And when it looked like Robert Griffin III was going to make a play with his legs to score a red-zone touchdown two weeks ago, Lee made a remarkable play, shedding a block and taking him down just shy of the end zone:

They'd settle for a field goal, of course.

 

They're greater than the sum of their parts

At least, right now they are. They weren't supposed to fare this well against two good offenses with Ratliff gone, Spencer out and Ware sidelined. They've performed extremely well as a unit, though, which is all that matters. That's a testament to the job Kiffin is doing, which means quite a lot considering how bleak things looked only two weeks ago. 

Of course, one of those parts has probably stood out more than the rest of 'em, and that's defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who deserves a ton of the credit for this turnaround. The 31-year-old is playing the best ball of his career, and he seems as though he's just gained steam, despite all of those injuries to his peers. 

PFF has Hatcher graded as the best defensive tackle in the NFL. He's already hit a career high with six sacks, three of which have come during this recent two-game hot streak. So with him, Lee, Carr and some of their cohorts stepping up in a big way, and with some schematic adjustments paying off, it's easier to understand why they've been able to get back on track.

The question now is whether they can keep it going. With Ware likely to be back soon, it's suddenly pretty easy to be optimistic about that. 

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