It didn’t take long for Henry Melton to dissect the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive performance on Sunday.
“We had a chance to really clamp down and end the game,” Melton said. “We didn’t. That’s where we can get better —closing it out.”
Melton couldn’t have said it better.
Instead of talking about pitching a shutout in the first half and playing well for three-plus quarters, the defense’s storyline was their struggles with Rolando McClain sidelined late and their inability to finish off the Texans in regulation.
They redeemed themselves with a defensive stand in overtime that set up the Cowboys’ game-winning drive, but the 20-17 victory shouldn’t have come down to the wire.
“We have to find a way to turn that corner and finish the game — take the air out of the game,” cornerback Brandon Carr said. “We’re a growing defense and we’re still learning how to do it.”
The Cowboys had a 17-7 lead with 9:44 left in the game and it appeared to be over. The Cowboys had held Arian Foster in check most of the game, Ryan Fitzpatrick had completed fewer than half his passes, and the Texans’ offense had looked lifeless.
But something changed the next two series, notably McClain missing pivotal snaps with a groin injury. The Texans put together a 13-play field-goal drive that made it a one-possession game, 17-10, and took more than seven minutes off the clock.
After a three-and-out by the Cowboys’ offense, the Texans got the ball back at the Dallas 45 with 1:59 left. Fitzpatrick completed passes of 29 and 19 yards, and Foster needed only two runs to take it the final 6 yards to tie the game at 17-17.
McClain was on the sidelines when Foster scored.
“I hate not being out there,” said McClain, who reinjured the same groin he injured in Week 2 at Tennessee.
“I would just say with my injury, the doctor said two to four weeks and it obviously hasn’t been that long. Coming back and playing after one week, you’re going to have your ups and downs. It’s all a part of the game. You need to be out there. We need everybody out there.”
The defense eventually showed it can survive without McClain in overtime.
The Texans had the ball first, and Foster took it 24 yards up the middle on the first play. It felt like the defense would revert to their 2013 ways at that point and give up the game.
That, however, didn’t happen.
The Texans had a third-and-2 from the Dallas 48 and Fitzpatrick tried to find Foster in the flat. It fell incomplete, as Fitzpatrick felt pressure from end Jeremy Mincey and linebacker Justin Durant had Foster covered.
“It wasn’t going to be on me,” Durant said, smiling. “We’ve been coaching it up all week on a couple things they have out of that look and he actually did something different than I expected. He played off my leverage and I just had to recover.”
That stopped what had become a mini-meltdown by the defense late in the game. Just consider that the Texans had 86 total yards of offense in the first half, but finished with 330 yards.
Foster had the most significant change, going from 40 rushing yards in the first half to 117 in the second half and overtime.
“Still some things we need to adjust and iron out,” Carr said. “But, at the same time, we’re winning ballgames.”
In the end, that’s all that matters. Some, after all, thought the Cowboys had a better chance of being 1-4 than 4-1 with this defense coming into the season.
“Some? Really? Some outside people?” Melton said, shaking his head. “Let’s be real. There were a lot. Anytime you read something about us, it was just negative. They didn’t know how hard we were working, all the effort we were putting in, what this defense was going to be like with some different pieces in it.
“It’s still early, but we’re 4-1 and we’ve just got to keep on track. We’ve got big goals this season.”