IRVING -- When the Dallas Cowboys lost linebacker and leading tackler Sean Lee to a season-ending toe injury in October, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan reportedly cried when telling his brother, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan.
Ryan denied literally crying but admitted bemoaning the loss of Lee and the litany of injuries that have hit the defense.
Of course, that was when only Lee and safety Barry Church were lost for the season with injuries, to go along with a prolonged absence of nose tackle Jay Ratliff.
Since then, the Cowboys have lost defensive end Kenyon Coleman, nickel cornerback Orlando Scandrick and linebacker Bruce Carter to season-ending injuries. Ratliff is out for the remainder of the regular season, and nose tackle Josh Brent was placed on the reserve/non-football illness list after being charged in the car crash that killed linebacker Jerry Brown.
But instead of crying and moaning, Ryan has fashioned arguably his best work since becoming the team's defensive chief last year. His ability to meld a patchwork lineup of unknowns and newbies has played a huge role in helping the Cowboys win five of their past six games, including three straight, to move into a first-place tie in the NFC East with the New York Giants and Washington Redskins.
"Our defensive staff has done an outstanding job, finding the right pieces and putting them in the right place to execute as well as they have to stop some of these offenses that we have played," coach Jason Garrett said. "It goes to our coaches, it goes to our personnel department, finding some of these guys midway through the season."
The Cowboys have 11 players on injured reserve, including eight defenders. Ratliff has a chance to return for the postseason.
It got so bad against the Steelers on Sunday -- with cornerback Morris Claiborne held out because of a concussion and safety Gerald Sensabaugh briefly sidelined -- that the Cowboys played at times with only four starters from the season opener.
Linebacker Brady Poppinga, cornerback Sterling Moore, cornerback Michael Coe, nose tackle Robert Callaway and defensive tackle Brian Schaefering, all who signed with the team since Nov. 26, played and made key contributions -- even though their teammates still don't know all of their names.
"I don't know half of them, but they're playing their butt off right now," defensive end Jason Hatcher said. "I'm learning their names, but they are doing a great job coming off the street doing what they do. I learned, I think, Coe's name today. That's probably one. Sterling No. 30, I learned his name today. There's a few more I've got to learn, but they've been balling."
That Moore has been with the team since Dec. 1 caught the seven-year veteran off guard.
"Really?" Hatcher said. "Shoot, I didn't know that one. I feel bad. My bad, Sterling."
Defensive back Eric Frampton and linebacker Ernie Sims are two of the veteran, off-the-street newbies, considering they joined the team Sept. 25 and Oct. 24, respectively.
Both say the Cowboys players and coaches do a good job welcoming the new guys and helping them adjust. They also have done their part in doing the same to players signing off the street after them.
"There is a lot of confidence instilled right away. Guys were so willing to help me learn the playbook and be in the right spot," Frampton said. "If one of the guys came in after me, I'm going to help them out, too."
Sims, a seven-year veteran who has played with Detroit and Philadelphia, was sitting at home when the Cowboys called. He said he has never been on a team that had so many new guys fill in.
"When I first got here, they just gave me one sub package on third down," Sims said. "Over time, they gave me more and more. Then I fell into the role of starting on everything the last couple of weeks."
Much of the credit goes to Ryan and his defensive staff for being able to adjust on the fly. But give the scouting department credit for finding the right guys and the newcomers for being up to the task.
"This is the great thing about Rob Ryan, more than anything, is that he believes in the guys that come into that room," defensive tackle Marcus Spears said. "He trusts the people around here. He has a good feel that they can help.
"He puts them in position that they can play without thinking about 'Oh, my God, I have been here since Wednesday and I'm playing Sunday.' That's a real testament to him and those guys. We make guys feel right at home on defense. We accept them in and go and ball."
Whether they know their names or not.
Clarence E. Hill Jr.