The Dallas Cowboys are built as an offensive powerhouse. That’s the side of the ball with the most resources and household names.
But the defense stole the spotlight in the Cowboys’ 19-3 season-opening victory over the New York Giants on Sunday night.
Heck, even owner Jerry Jones couldn’t ignore that fact. In answering a question about running back Ezekiel Elliott after the game, Jones said: “Defense was really the story tonight.”
Yes, they were on a night when the Giants were without play-making receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
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New York scored only a field goal, its fewest points since being shut out by Philadelphia 27-0 on Oct. 12, 2014 and the fewest against Dallas since Dec. 21, 2003. New York rushed for only 35 yards, its fewest since gaining 33 yards on the ground Nov. 29, 2015 at Washington and the fewest Dallas has allowed since holding Philadelphia to 7 on Sept. 20, 2015.
And New York converted 4 of 12 third downs, including going 0-for-5 in the first half.
“There were a lot of good things in the game, obviously. I thought the third down was really, really important in this game,” coach Jason Garrett said on Monday. “I thought we played the right way. We played with a relentless spirit. When you go back and look at it play by play, obviously there are so many things we can get better at. The execution has to get better.
“But the overall picture about how you play was positive, not only on defense but throughout our team. That situational football, particularly the third down stuff, was key for us.”
Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence got things trending in the right direction early. He sacked quarterback Eli Manning on the defense’s first third down of the night to force a Giants punt.
Later in the first half when the Giants faced a third-and-4, linebacker Sean Lee delivered by stopping receiver Sterling Shepard for a 2-yard gain and another punt.
The Giants were moving the ball well on the first possession of the second half and had a second-and-goal from the Cowboys’ 4 when Charles Tapper came through with his first career sack. The Giants had a short pass underneath on third down and ended up settling for a 25-yard field goal.
Those proved to be the only points the Cowboys gave up.
“That’s hard to do — three points — in the NFL, especially a team we respect as much as we do as New York,” Jones said.
The defensive performance certainly resonated within the locker room.
Elliott called it a “lights out” performance. Quarterback Dak Prescott and receiver Dez Bryant said they’ve seen it all along in training camp.
“It ain’t nothing new to us,” Bryant said. “They make it tough for the offense in practice and it showed tonight on the field.”
Added Prescott: “We know exactly how salty they are.”
This is a defense that had plenty of questions going into the opener. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said he’d never had a unit with as much uncertainty.
The Cowboys lost four contributors in their secondary to free agency, and had relative unknowns on every level.
The linebacker corps had questions with what to expect from Jaylon Smith, who sat out a year. And the secondary had plenty of youth considering the turnover from the free agent departures.
Let’s not forget that the most proven secondary player, cornerback Orlando Scandrick, took only nine snaps before exiting with a fractured hand.
“There were some question marks,” Garrett said. “We felt good about the group of guys that we had, but we hadn’t seen them play in a regular-season game yet. And I thought they responded well. I thought the defense did a good job responding within the game.
“Orlando Scandrick played nine plays in the game, he comes out. All of a sudden Anthony Brown is going from outside to inside. Chidobe [Awuzie] is out there playing corner against really good football players. I thought all those guys played with poise, handled that stuff well, made the adjustments well, communicated well so they all played together even though they were in a couple of different spots.
“So I thought all that stuff was positive, something we can build on.”
Cowboys at Broncos
3:25 p.m. Sunday, KDFW/4