The Dallas Cowboys didn’t waste much time getting defensive end Randy Gregory involved in the action.
Gregory found himself in Monday night’s game against Detroit on the defense’s seventh play, and the second-year pro made the tackle on that play by bringing down Lions running back Zach Zenner.
Gregory played three snaps on the opening series, and was a fixture in the Cowboys’ D-line rotation the rest of the way. He didn’t record a sack but made a couple of key plays in the fourth quarter.
He stuffed Detroit running back Dwayne Washington for no gain, and also had a quarterback hit on Matthew Stafford a couple plays later.
Gregory, though, failed to record his first career sack. But his return could pay dividends during the Cowboys’ stretch run.
“It was great to see Gregory,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “He had a little discomfort, had a little pull there, but played through it and shows what he has. He has tremendous quickness, athletic ability and he can make a difference out there, and he did.”
This is a team that has seen its depth along the defensive line depleted by injuries. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence missed his second straight game with a back injury, and is not expected to play again until the playoffs.
Defensive end Tyrone Crawford, who has 4.5 sacks this season, was sidelined for the first time with shoulder and hamstring injuries. Also gone was defensive tackle Cedric Thornton (ankle).
The game proved to be more costly to the unit. Terrell McClain (knee) and Ryan Davis (ankle) each left in the first half with injuries.
But that didn’t stop the Cowboys from producing four sacks. David Irving and Benson Mayowa combined for a sack in the first half, Maliek Collins got a solo sack and then Mayowa and Irving each wrapped up Stafford late in the game. Irving pried the ball loose, too, and linebacker Kyle Wilber recovered for the defense’s second takeaway.
Mayowa now leads the team with six sacks.
But the biggest storyline was Gregory’s return. He is considered the most talented pass rusher on the roster and could give the defense a nice boost for what they hope is an extended playoff run.
Gregory hadn’t played since the regular-season finale last season, and practiced for the first time this week as his 14-game suspension for violating the league’ substance-abuse policy ended.
Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith exited in the second half after aggravating his right knee injury and didn’t return.
“I’m all right,” Smith said.
Smith has managed injuries throughout the season. He missed two games early in the year with a bulging disc in his back, and did not practice this week with knee and back injuries.
Swing tackle Emmett Cleary replaced Smith at left tackle.
Smith is widely considered one of the top left tackles in the game, and was voted to his fourth straight Pro Bowl earlier this month. With the finale next week at Philadelphia meaningless, Smith could be a strong candidate to rest going into the playoffs. But Jones said he wouldn’t rule out Smith yet.
The Cowboys’ went into the game with the top-ranked run defense, but it’s the secondary that stood out for much of the night.
The defense’s first takeaway came on an interception that ricocheted off cornerback Brandon Carr’s hands and to safety J.J. Wilcox. It marked the first interception by Wilcox since Week 2 at Philadelphia last season.
Wilcox played for the first time after missing the previous three games with a thigh contusion.
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, among those in the MVP conversation, had one of his worst games of the season. Stafford completed just 26 of 46 passes for 260 yards with no touchdowns, one interception and one lost fumble.
But, much like the D-line, the secondary sustained an injury setback. Rookie cornerback Anthony Brown exited with a concussion.
Brown has been one of the pleasant surprises of the season, filling in nicely for the injured Morris Claiborne. He will now have to clear the NFL’s concussion protocol before returning to practice.