When the Dallas Cowboys signed defensive end Greg Hardy in the off-season, they were willing to put up with the scrutiny and criticism because they relished the chance to add a difference-making player.
It was considered critical to any hopes they had of building on last year’s 12-4 team and making a run to the Super Bowl.
That was before the Cowboys started the season with a 3-7 mark and heading into Thursday’s game against the Carolina Panthers (10-0) fighting to keep their season and playoff hopes alive.
Ironically, it’s the Panthers, Hardy’s former team, who reign as the best team in the NFC and are favored to represent the conference in the Super Bowl.
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The Panthers’ defense lead the NFL in turnovers with 25, fourth in yards allowed and second in sacks with 31.
“They have an excellent defense,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “Arguably as good a defense as there is in the NFL.”
Carolina coach Ron Rivera said his defense had to find their way last year after losing Hardy following the second week of the season when he was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list.
He credited defensive coordinator Sean McDermott with getting players in the right position and dialing up blitzes at the right time as well as players such as defensive end Kony Ealy coming into his own as a pass rusher and defensive tackle Kawann Short becoming a force in the middle.
Short was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for October after recording five sacks, three pass deflections and a forced fumble in helping the Panthers to a 3-0 mark.
“One of things that was a plus for us last year was that we did it by committee,” Rivera said. “There were a number of young guys stepping up and were able to make plays for us.
“This year we have Kony Ealy, who was drafted last year in the second round. He is developing into a solid football player for us. He has done some really nice things.”
The Panthers have playmakers at every level of the defense. Linebackers Luke Keuchley and Thomas Davis are as good as any tandem in the league.
“Well, they’re certainly among the best,” Garrett said. “Both of those guys are great football players and have been since they entered the NFL. They’re so active. They’re fast, sideline-to-sideline. They’re physical, they make plays on the ball and it just seems like they’re everywhere. Their defensive line does a good job giving them opportunities, letting them run free and they certainly take advantage of it.”
No cornerback in the league is playing as well as Josh Norman, who has four interceptions and 13 pass deflections. Per Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks have the lowest pass rating going against Norman than any other corner.
He is expected to have single coverage on Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant.
“He’s just a really good player and he has done that,” Garrett said. “He makes interceptions. He also knocks the ball away and is playing with a lot of confidence right now.”