By most NFL standards and measures, the Dallas Cowboys fielded a mediocre defense last season.
The 2014 Cowboys allowed 22 points per game, ranking 15th out of the league’s 32 teams. They allowed 251.9 passing yards per game (26th), 103.1 rushing yards per game (8th), and 355.1 total yards per game (19th).
Dallas’ defense was not very good. But because the Cowboys’ offense was very good — ranking fifth in the NFL in scoring and seventh in total yards — the defense held up well enough for the team to go 12-4 and make the playoffs.
That offense was led by QB Tony Romo, WR Dez Bryant, TE Jason Witten and RB DeMarco Murray, who led the league in rushing while playing behind arguably the NFL’s best offensive line.
Four games into the 2015 season, the Cowboys are 2-2 and trending downward, having lost two in a row after winning its first two. Dallas is in a three-way tie atop the NFC East with Washington and the New York Giants.
This year’s Cowboys’ defense appears pretty much the same statistically as last year’s version: ranking 14th in total yards allowed, 19th in passing yards, 8th in rushing yards, and 18th in points allowed at 25.3 per game.
But over in the offensive huddle, things look very different. Murray is gone, having signed with the Eagles as a free agent. Bryant broke his foot in Week 1 and should be out for another three weeks at least. Romo broke his clavicle in Week 2 and is expected to miss another 7-8 weeks. Witten, still an iron man who never misses a game, has been playing through knee and ankle injuries. Dallas’ O-line has remained intact, but the group of playmakers surrounding it have not.
Without that offensive firepower, the Cowboys’ D hasn’t answered the call to be better than mediocre. This was evidenced in Sunday’s 26-20 overtime loss to QB Drew Brees and the Saints. From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:
It’s another frustrating outing for a defense that opened the season strong.
The unit didn’t have a takeaway for the second consecutive game. Takeaways is what this defense thrived on a season ago, ranking second in the NFL with 31.
They had a chance early in the game, too, but cornerback Tyler Patmon dropped a sure interception by Brees on the second series.
Brees bounced back on the next series, dissecting the Cowboys’ defense with an 11-play, 80-yard scoring drive capped with a 3-yard TD pass to Josh Hill.
That was the only scoring drive the Cowboys gave up in the first half. The Saints had a drive in which they converted on third-and-11 and third-and-13, but the Cowboys came through with a key third down stop when DeMarcus Lawrence sacked Brees to force a punt.
Another young player, rookie Byron Jones, had a standout series when the Saints took over with 1:50 left in the first half. Jones made a couple of nice open-field tackles to force another three-and-out.
Dallas held New Orleans to a couple of field goal drives to open the second half, but couldn’t get the stops when it mattered most.
Brees led the Saints on an 11-play, 67-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter as they took a 20-13 lead on a 1-yard TD run by Khiry Robinson.
The defense did make a stand to give the offense another chance with 4:05 left, and they did capitalize with a TD.
But the last two series decided the game and the defense simply didn’t make enough plays.
The secondary unit of Dallas’ defense is something of a rag-tag bunch for a franchise that can and will usually pay top dollar for the cream of the crop. Not one of the DBs has been voted to a Pro Bowl or an All-Pro team.
Starting strong safety J.J. Wilcox is a converted wide receiver who didn’t start playing defense until his senior year at Georgia Southern. Free safety Barry Church was an all-conference DB at Toledo, but he wasn’t drafted mostly because scouts didn’t believe he was fast enough to play in the NFL.
Cornerback Morris Claiborne, on the other hand, was taken with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 draft coming out of LSU. But he hasn’t lived up to the hype and was benched early last season before suffering a knee injury that sidelined him for the rest of the year. Claiborne is only starting now because Orlando Scandrick, the Cowboys’ defensive co-MVP in 2014, tore his ACL in training camp and will miss this season. The other starting corner, Brandon Carr, is an established veteran who has 14 career interceptions.
Jones, the rookie backup, was the breakout star of the 2015 pre-draft combine. He posted a 44.5-inch vertical leap, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.36 seconds, and his 12-foot, 3-inch broad jump set a new world record. That performance elevated his stock from mid-round prospect to the Cowboys choosing him with the 27th pick in the first round. Patmon is another undrafted pro who is in his second season.
Of that group, only Wilcox has recorded a takeaway this season. He intercepted a pass in the fourth quarter of Dallas’ 20-10 win over the Eagles in Week 2.
The secondary was solid in the Cowboys’ first two games, limiting Giants star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to five catches and 44 yards in Week 1, then neutralizing the Eagles’ passing game in Week 2.
The wheels didn’t come off until Week 3, when Falcons receiver Julio Jones went off on Dallas for 12 catches, 164 yards and two scores. And then Brees threw for 359 yards on Sunday, although a lot of his damage was done on throws to running backs Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller. Standout receivers Brandin Cooks (4 rec, 25 yds) and Marques Colston (4 rec, 19 yds) were mostly ineffective for New Orleans.
This week will represent the toughest test of the season for the Cowboys’ defense on paper, as Tom Brady and the Patriots travel to Texas toting the NFL’s top-ranked scoring and passing offense. New England is putting up 39.7 points and 359.3 passing yards per game.
Without Romo and Bryant, no one expects Dallas to hang in a shootout with New England. And so once again, the Cowboys’ defense — and its defensive backfield especially — will be looked upon to pick up some of the slack for its short-handed offense.