This is a changed Dallas Cowboys defense, and the locker room after Sunday’s victory over the New York Giants said it all.
A year ago, a 31-21 victory that saw the defense force two turnovers would have been a rousing success. Not this year, though.
These defensive players have expectations.
They were more frustrated by coming up empty-handed in the sack department, giving up 352 total yards and three touchdowns than winning the turnover battle.
“The best thing about this win is we come back in the locker room and guys aren’t satisfied,” linebacker Rolando McClain said. “We know we can play better. We expect to play better, so that’s the best thing about it.
“We’re lucky to get out of here with a win, but we know we can play better.”
Linebacker Justin Durant went a step further, calling it a “bad game” by the defense. Surprising, considering Durant had an impressive game by most standards.
He tied for a team-high eight tackles, recovered a fumble and then forced a fumble at the end of the game. Instead of reflecting back on those standout plays, however, Durant preferred to agonize over a 27-yard touchdown pass he gave up to Giants backup tight end Daniel Fells midway through the second quarter that gave New York a 14-7 lead.
“We didn’t shut them down. We had a bad game,” Durant said. “We didn’t play our game. I felt like we gave up a lot of stuff, a couple of those plays are definitely on me. I have to clean up what I’m doing to get my eyes right. We’ve got a lot of stuff to get better at.”
None of Durant’s teammates disagreed, but they came through when it mattered most.
The Cowboys had a fourth-and-1 at the New York 40 early in the fourth quarter but, instead of going for it, they trusted their defense and punted.
The defense made that decision pay off when safety Barry Church stripped Giants tight end Larry Donnell and Durant recovered. That gave the offense a short field and the Cowboys scored four plays later to make it a two-touchdown game, 28-14.
“At the end of the game, we were able to come back and do what we needed to do to get the stops, taking the ball away,” coach Jason Garrett said. “Certainly a big sequence for us in the game.”
But, as stated, the defense expects to make those plays and stops throughout the game. And they want more of them.
Another talking point was a third game in which they failed to record a sack. That didn’t sit well with anyone, particularly on the defensive line.
The Cowboys have only six sacks, tied for second-worst in the NFL. By comparison, there are eight players who have six-plus sacks individually.
“We’ve got to get more pressure, more pressure on the quarterback,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said.
Added veteran defensive end Jeremy Mincey: “We didn’t get a sack today, but I tell you what — we were around Eli [Manning] every play. He felt pressure. Sooner or later, that floodgate is going to open up and we’re going to start getting some sacks.”
The Cowboys recorded three quarterback hits, two by Mincey and another by tackle Tyrone Crawford.
But the sacks remain missing and that’s something that continues to drive a defense that is playing with something to prove despite the 6-1 record.
“We didn’t perform as well as we could have,” Mincey said. “But a win is a win. We’ll go back to the drawing board, clean it up n get a lot of things fixed.”