For all the talk of no-names on the defensive line, the Dallas Cowboys tout plenty of familiar names on the defensive side.
Sean Lee, Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Barry Church are fast making names for themselves, and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli already rank among the who’s who of coaching.
That explains why the Cowboys are showing improvement on defense despite their injuries up front.
“You just go out there and play,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said Monday. “That’s what we have done from game to game. We preach that to our players all the time as a coaching staff, individually and collectively. You’ve got to get better from game to game and week to week, so hopefully you can improve over the course of the first seven games of the season. That’s a big part of it. Part of that is learning the system. Part of it is new guys stepping in and understanding what their role is, the techniques we want them to play, and what their job is on each and every down.
“ It’s important for us to recognize who we are playing, come up with a play that is good for our players and for us to be successful when we go out and execute.”
The Cowboys blamed part of their poor defensive numbers through five games on two quarterbacks they faced, Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning. They should at least partly credit their rising defensive numbers the past two games on the quarterbacks they faced — Robert Griffin III still trying to find this groove after off-season reconstructive knee surgery and Philadelphia Eagles backup Nick Foles.
The Cowboys improved their defensive ranking again this week, rising to 28th overall. They lowered their passing yards per game but still rank 29th and are on pace to allow 4,670, which would rank among the worst pass defenses in NFL history.
But with the scoreboard as the ultimate indicator, the Cowboys’ defense deserves applause. They allowed only one touchdown the past two games combined, giving up 19 total points. The Washington Redskins and Eagles combined for five red-zone trips against the Cowboys but scored only 12 points in those trips.
The Cowboys allowed an average of 27.2 points the first five games.
“Across the board, we knew we had to get better after the way we played a couple of games,” Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee said after Sunday’s 17-3 victory over the Eagles. “And we still have room to improve. But we take a lot of pride in playing this defense, and we’ve got to find a way to get better. But we have taken a step forward the last two weeks.”
Kiffin never lost faith in his unit, even after back-to-back poor outings against San Diego and Denver. Two weeks ago, he reminded a reporter of the Bucs’ improvement in his and Tony Dungy’s first season in Tampa Bay.
The 1996 Bucs started 1-7. They allowed an average of 326.9 yards and 20.6 points in those first eight games while learning a defense that eventually came to be called the Tampa 2.
In the final eight games of that season, Tampa Bay went 5-3, allowed 274.9 yards and 16.0 points. It was the start of big things for the Bucs, who won the 2002 Super Bowl title.
“I’ve said all along I think it takes a little bit,” Kiffin said Sunday. “I think guys are learning our system better right now. They kind of know, ‘I’m here and I’ve got this, and I’ve got the weak, stronger when they motion’ When you become a good defense, you play fast, and you know what you are doing. Like I say, you see a little, you see a lot. You see a lot, you see nothing. Well, we were seeing a lot earlier in the year. We were seeing a lot, but we weren’t seeing anything. Just see a little bit, read your keys, and you have a chance to see better.”
And play better.