The most telling sign for the state of the Dallas Cowboys defense happened shortly after the team’s locker room opened when Sean Lee exited looking sharp in a tailored suit with a slick tie. He had not showered.
He is but one player on a field with 10 others, but without their Pro Bowl middle linebacker his defense was nothing.
Lee missed Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury against the LA Rams, and it was quite apparent in the Cowboys’ 35-30 loss.
“That’s an easy excuse, but that’s not it,” safety Byron Jones said.
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Then what is it? Because 30 points should be enough for a win at home.
It’s Oct. 1 and the Cowboys are one loss away from matching their season total of defeats from last season, in part because the offensive line is not as good as it was from a year ago, and the defense remains in need of plays more than just players.
Sean Lee is a player who makes plays, and the idea that second-year linebacker Jaylon Smith is ready to complement, forget replace, a guy such as Lee at this juncture is drunken stupidity.
Considering the injury Smith sustained before his rookie year, it’s hard to be upset with Smith. He’s young and his leg is still recovering. Smith gets a pass.
But much like defensive end Tank Lawrence has developed into a legit player, the young man who also needs to emerge right now and make some plays is Byron Jones.
If the Cowboys are going to be better defensively, they have to be better up the middle, which is where they were exploited by the Rams without Lee and with no plays from Jones, or safety Jeff Heath.
The difference between Heath and Jones is that the latter is a first-round pick whereas the former is an ex-rookie free agent.
The Cowboys sold Jones on his versatility and he has settled in as a free safety. It’s on him to join Lee and Lawrence as players this defense can count on to make a play.
In a recent conversation I had with Cowboys’ Ring of Honor member Darren Woodson, he specifically said that the Cowboys are asking too much of Jones; that the team should drop the special teams responsibilities from Jones, and let him concentrate on safety.
Of course, Jones disagrees.
“That’s what football is. That’s what you have to do — play special teams. That’s what I do,” Jones told me after the game. “That’s what the Cowboys ask of me.”
In Woodson’s eyes, he sees a younger version himself in Jones. A young player who is thinking it all, being too careful, and not just playing.
The particulars can be argued but what is conclusive is this defense needs plays that end drives, or change games.
The particulars against the Rams were disgusting. The defense forced zero turnovers, the Rams had five drives of at least eight plays. In their 11 real offensive drives, nine of them ended with points. The only reason they didn’t score any points on their 12th and final drive is because the game ended.
The Cowboys’ defense was handed a 17-6 lead in the second quarter, and then it could not protect it because they executed bend-but-don’t break to perfection. Seldom will you see seven field goals beat you but that’s what the Rams did because seldom did the Cowboys’ defense make plays to stop them before they got close.
It’s one thing to keep a guy in front of you, and it’s quite another to make a play.
“We just didn’t make stops. They kept getting to the red zone and scoring a lot of field goals, which is good, but when they score seven field goals that’s a lot of points,” Jones said.
I’ve run the numbers five times and I think it’s 21 points.
The Cowboys sacked Rams quarterback Jared Goff once, did not force a turnover, dropped interceptions, missed several tackles, and allowed running back Todd Gurley to make a case for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame by Wednesday, at the latest.
Gurley ran for 121 yards, caught seven passes for 94 yards, and scored a touchdown.
After all of this horrible, the Cowboys cut the deficit to 32-30 midway through the fourth quarter; it was the ideal time for the defense to requite itself with a quick stop. Maybe even a real play.
At their own 22-yard line, Goff lofted a deep pass down the right sideline that cornerback Anthony Brown simply misread. While he got his hands on the ball, he mistimed his jump to turn a game-changing interception into a pass breakup.
“Just misjudged it and I jumped too early, that’s all it was. I wasn’t even supposed to be there,” Brown said.
The Rams then proceeded to chew up 5:16 off the clock, forced the Cowboys to use all of their remaining timeouts, and ended the drive with yet another field goal. When the Cowboys needed one stop, they allowed a 12-play drive.
When it had to, the defense could not get off the field without allowing some damage.
By the end of the game, the damage was done.
The Cowboys are 2-2, and Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers come here next week.
It’s not an excuse but Sean Lee has to play, or guys like Byron Jones have to start making plays when Lee is dressed in a suit and tie for the game.
Mac Engel: @macengelprof