When talk turns to the surprising success the Dallas Cowboys have had this season, it often surrounds the offense and its breakout rookie stars quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott.
But this has been far from a one-sided affair for the NFC-leading Cowboys, who are riding a six-game winning streak into Sunday’s game against the winless Cleveland Browns (0-8)
The team’s oft-maligned defense has gone from an expected weak link to equal partner in the Cowboys’ sudden rise to the top, ranking a respectable 12th in the league in total yards (348.7), ninth against the run (92.9) and seventh in points (18.6).
The defense is on pace for its best showing since finishing ninth in 2009, a vast improvement over recent embarrassing performances. The Cowboys finished 17th in total yards last season then 19th, 32nd, 19th, 14th and 23rd in the years previous.
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The Cowboys’ defense has certainly pulled its weight during the team’s 6-1 start. The defense ranks 12th in total yards (348.7), ninth in rushing yards (92.9) and seventh in points allowed (18.6).
Cornerback Brandon Carr said the individual players know what’s been said about them in the past and came into the season with a chip on their shoulder.
“There a lot individuals that take pride in their craft and their job,” Carr said. “It’s a new season, a clean slate for us to come out here and rewrite history for ourselves. Enough is enough.”
A team that was supposed to win in spite of the problems and questions surrounding a defense that not only had problems getting to the quarterback and creating turnovers last year but began the season without three suspended starters, has won because the defense has made plays.
Prescott gets credit for rallying the Cowboys from a 10-point deficit with touchdown passes in the fourth quarter and overtime in Sunday’s 29-23 victory against Philadelphia.
It wouldn’t have been possible if the defense hadn’t held the Eagles scoreless the last four times they had the ball, including a fumble to set up a field goal and a forced punt that preceded Prescott’s 22-yard game-tying touchdown pass to receiver Dez Bryant in the fourth quarter. They also stopped the Eagles twice in the final 3 minutes.
Training camp got me. I knew for a fact it was different. Their whole mindset was different. It’s like when a kid gets bullied. He gets tired and next thing you know he is hitting back.
Receiver Dez Bryant about the change he sees in the Cowboys’ defense
“It’s not surprising to me,” Bryant said. “The defense and offense had our share of battles in practice. Training camp got me. I knew for a fact it was different. Their whole mindset was different. It’s like when a kid gets bullied. He gets tired and next thing you know he is hitting back.”
The defense is helped by the offense’s ability to run the ball and control the lock, which keeps it fresh and off the field for long stretches. The Cowboys lead the league in time of possession (33:16).
But there are two sides to that pancake, as former coach Bill Parcells used to say.
The defense has to do its job and get the opponent off the field. That starts with stopping the run and preventing big plays.
The Cowboys are the only team in the NFL to not allow a 100-yard rusher or a 100-yard receiver this season.
They are one of three teams to allow no more than 23 points in any game, joining the more heralded defensive units of the Denver Broncos and Minnesota Vikings.
The defense has allowed only 24 plays of 20 or more yards, tying for fifth-fewest in the league, and given up one touchdown of 20 or more yards, ranking second in the league.
The Cowboys are the only NFL team this season that hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher or a 100-yard receiver.
“I think the common denominator for our defense is they have done a better and better job each week of minimizing the big plays and keeping the score down, which is really, really critical to playing good defense,” coach Jason Garrett said. “I think we’re doing a better job defending the run. I think we’re doing a better job getting closer to the quarterback and defending on the back end. I think in general we’re tackling better.”
Another key has been linebacker Sean Lee, who is playing at All-Pro level while leading, directing and cajoling a group of unknowns to play better collectively than their individual abilities might suggest.
Lee leads the Cowboys with 71 tackles, including at least 10 tackles in each of the past five games, and four tackles for losses.
“I don’t know how you play better,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “He is off the charts. He’s an All-Pro. Who is playing better? It’s everything. The hitting, the hustling, the leading – all those things. For him it’s still not good enough. That is what makes him special.”
What has made this unit most successful is the chemistry and continuity they have developed playing in Marinelli’s system for a second full season.
“I believe in football,” Marinelli said. “I believe it’s still a blue-collar game where if you go to work and you work at what you have and you play team football, you have a chance to develop into something special. But it’s hard to do. You have to work at everyday. They have done a terrific job of that. Still not good enough.”