I’m going to write about the Dallas Cowboys defense today. So do me a favor — don’t look at the Redskins-Cowboys box score that shows just "31-26, Dallas.'' (Do, however, read our game coverage, which includes looks at Zeke, Dak and a battlin' Dez). Seriously, don’t. Because based on that alone you would assume this was Dallas’ worst defensive game of the season.
You would be wrong. But I get it. When you see 505 total yards allowed, including 449 passing yards by Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, plus no sacks on the part of the Cowboys’ defense one might assume they didn’t play well. Plus, the Redskins’ 26 points was the second-most the Cowboys have allowed this season.
But making assumptions based on stats is an easy way to get fooled by a team’s quality of play. This Cowboys defense did exactly what it was designed to do by its coordinator, Rod Marinelli. Give up as many yards as you wish, as long as they don’t give up too many points. And in this game I would contend it was the Cowboys’ defense, for much of the game, that dictated what the Redskins did offensively.
“It wasn’t a really good game for the defense,'' Tyrone Crawford told our Mike Fisher. "We gave up too many points, period. We’ve got to limit that. We can’t let that happen.”
OK, you'd like to give up fewer than 26, sure. But ...
While Cousins had a huge game, the Cowboys completely shut down Washington’s running game, turning them into a one-dimensional outfit, as evidenced by Cousins’ 53 pass attempts. Plus, at key times in the game, the Cowboys either stiffened in the red zone or forced the Redskins to expend so much energy to score that it made a comeback difficult.
Take Washington’s first possession of the game. The Redskins moved the ball impressively to the Cowboys’ 19 yard-line. And then the Cowboys’ defense dictated the next few plays. Tyrone Crawford and Sean Lee combined to tackle Chris Thompson for a loss. Then the Redskins committed a penalty, pushing them back 10 more yards. Then Cousins completed two short passes, including a third-down bubble screen to Jamison Crowder that only managed a yard because of Justin Durant’s sure-handed tackling. The Redskins’ Dustin Hopkins missed a field goal to end the drive.
That trend continued throughout the day. The Cowboys were remarkably good when it came to tackling. For the most part the unit kept plays in front of them. And that seemed to amplify in the red zone.
Think about this. The Redskins took five of their eight drives Thursday into the red zone. On three of them the Cowboys forced the Redskins to attempt a field goal, with Washington making two of them. Given the final score, 31-26, that ability to hold the Redskins to six points on those three first-half drives proved critical.
Bend but don't break? Orlando Scandrick, involved in two big-time pass break-ups, hates that phrase.
“No, that is not our philosophy,'' argued the feisty Scandrick. "That has never been talked about in one meeting. We’ve just got to play better. There’s no damn bend but don’t break. We want to dominate. Get turnovers. We want to take the ball away from teams. We just have to get better. We have to do things better. We have to cover better. We have to rush better. We’ve got to tackle better. I gotta tackle better. We’ve got to cash in on our opportunities. I had two opportunities to get a turnover. We’ve got to cash in. That’s what this defense is all about. We’re getting there. We’re going to continue to get better every week.”
Well, Scandrick will surely agree with the "don't break'' part.
In the second half the Cowboys gave up two red-zone touchdowns, but think about that second one for a minute. On their previous drive the Redskins had scored in three plays, with DeSean Jackson beating rookie Anthony Brown for a 67-yard touchdown pass. Even though the Cowboys scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive, the Redskins still had a chance to make a game of this, down 12. They had to score two touchdowns in less than seven minutes to win. We’ve seen the Cowboys in this role before, a defense trying to hold a lead late in the game. In the past few years we’re seen the Cowboys, more often than not, fail to hold that lead. And while Washington got that first needed touchdown, it’s interesting to understand what it took for the Redskins to score.
Fifteen plays, 75 yards, 4:36. Time was at a premium. But consistently the Cowboys’ defense forced Cousins to settle. Cousins was 12-of-14 on the drive, which sounds great. But he completed just two passes of 10 yards or more. His other 10 completions were less than 10 yards. Those completions were Dump-offs, short passes and screens, with Cowboys umbrella coverage forcing him to settle for less when he really wanted to air it out.
He kept moving the Redskins, but the Cowboys made him work for it. Every last inch of it. By the time Jordan Reed caught his second touchdown pass of the game, there was 1:53 left in the game, the Redskins had two timeouts and had only one recourse to get the ball back, an onside kick. It didn’t work.
The Redskins managed to do something that few teams have done this season against Dallas — win the time of possession game. In fact, the Redskins owned that category by about five minutes on Thursday. In fact, Washington had 17 more plays offensively than Dallas. Yet Dallas won.
But I would contend that Washington didn’t dominate the game offensively. Dallas forced an offense that wanted to go vertically down the field — and attempted several times to do so in the first half without connecting — to settle for less desirable routes due to consistent quarterback pressure, well-executed one-on-one pass coverage and solid Cover 2 zone that dictated what Cousins could do. Cousins’ numbers look gaudy. But much of that came on plays that forced Cousins to take what the defense gave him. That is why Washington’s time of possession numbers were so good. The Cowboys defense forced them to be that type of team.
Oh, and why the lack of sacks? Tyrone Crawford talked about that with Fish, too.
“We’re out there and we fight,'' he said. "Three, four, whatever we’ve got, we’re going to fight to get to the quarterback and we’re not going to stop rushing. I feel like a lot of us got a lot good rushes today. Some unfortunate things happened, we got held and things didn’t get held ... I mean, it’s football. We can do a lot better.
"But (regarding the strategy of the three-man rush), It just gives us more help on the cover side of the defense. We’re rushing three, we’re hoping we can get good pressure and get the ball out quick so our linebackers and our secondary can jump the routes quicker. Just because of that, we need a little help back there.”
Is is OK to not get sacks? Yeah, kinda.
“No matter how selfish you want to be, you can’t be selfish when you’re defense is doing as good as it usually is,'' Tyrone told Fish. "We’re only rushing three. I feel like Coach Marinelli does a great job with the defense and it’s what we need to do right now as a defense. You can’t complain because our record shows good things. I want to get W's more than I want to get sacks.”
When was the last time you saw the Dallas defense dictate what a team could do rather than the other way around? Yeah it’s been a while, and it’s another reason why this unit is starting to look like one that can carry this Cowboys team into a deep playoff run.