Mac Engel

Cowboys defense establishing an identity for not making big plays

Linebacker Sean Lee says the Cowboys defense is better than it is playing.
Linebacker Sean Lee says the Cowboys defense is better than it is playing. Star-Telegram

Walking through the tunnels of MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., early Sunday evening, Cowboys safety J.J. Wilcox and receiver Dez Bryant screamed at Giants receiver Dwayne Harris.

The yelling was loud enough that some of the stadium workers stopped to notice.

Perhaps this was a fight that originated about 30 minutes before when Harris defeated the Cowboys with a 100-yard kickoff return.

All of the yelling and woofing was just for show — they are former teammates giving each other a hard time.

Speaking of just for show, start with the Cowboys’ defense. It looks and sounds more imposing than it is playing.

Unlike the Dallas Cowboys’ first three losses of this memorable 2015 season, the fourth was the one that required the least explanation, and is easily the most disappointing.

The Cowboys’ 27-20 loss against the New York Giants was the classic “Wade Phillips Win” — they lost, but they were the better team. If (when?) the Cowboys miss the playoffs, this is the one they will look back on and kick themselves over.

Do not forget to direct your latest round of Cowboys ire at the defense that is beginning to establish an identity of not making plays. The defense does not stink, but it is not good. Good defenses change games.

Unless this trend changes, the previous Sunday will be repeated next Sunday and every game thereafter. If the defense remains a steady diet of close, it’s toast.

Adding guys such as Rolando McClain and Greg Hardy are only worth it if they make plays that lead to wins. The Cowboys’ 0-2 record with McClain and Hardy on the field together is not their fault. The fact that this defense has yet to force a single turnover with this pair is both bewildering and an indictment on poor timing.

“It is frustrating, but we have to be better than the way we are playing because it is not good enough,” linebacker Sean Lee said Sunday after the game. “I know we are better than the way we are playing.”

Before the NFL Monday night game, the Cowboys’ defense ranked a respectable eighth in the NFL. That is more than good enough.

The ranking in the plays that make a difference, however, is a different matter.

They rank 19th in the NFL in sacks.

Their two interceptions are the fewest in the NFL.

And in the Stats I Can’t Believe Department: They have forced one fumble, and recovered one fumble. Both are the worst in the league.

The team is minus-9 in turnover margin for the season. That is a wonderful way to a losing record.

Put another way: The Giants forced more turnovers Sunday against the Cowboys than the Cowboys have forced all season.

This can’t all be explained with the season-ending loss of defensive back Orlando Scandrick.

Last year’s defense was celebrated as an overachieving pack of obscure spares that was tough, and did exactly what was asked. What they lacked in talent they compensated for with a willingness to fight, and help out.

This defense looks better and is more talented and yet is not making plays — sacks when they matter, a tackle for a loss, an interception, a forced fumble.

When the Cowboys had the Giants pinned at the 1-yard line midway through the third quarter, they did not get the stop. Instead, on third-and-5, Eli Manning completed a brilliant 44-yard pass to Rueben Randle for a 44-yard gain. Later on the same drive, when the Giants had the ball at the Cowboys 8, tackle Tyrone Crawford sacked Manning to force a field goal.

Crawford still made a good play, but the game changes dramatically if such a play is inside the Giants’ 10.

Rookie defensive back Byron Jones had an interception in the first half against the Giants until instant replay showed the ball touched the grass and the top of his shoe at the same time to nullify the pick.

In the first half in the loss against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 3, defensive back Morris Claiborne successfully jumped on a quick slant pass to Julio Jones, but dropped the interception inside the 10-yard line. Two plays later, the Falcons scored a touchdown.

“I know one of the biggest things last year was we had was more strip attempts [on the ball] than we do this year,” safety Barry Church said. “I know that figure is down. And I know last year we were better at everybody tackling together. It was not just one guy.”

What we saw in the first half of the loss against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, and even against the Giants, had the necessary elements of physical domination.

What has yet to be seen, other than the ugly afternoon in Philadelphia in Week 2, are plays that win.

What we have seen so far is a defense that is neither good, nor bad, or making any difference.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

Mac Engel: 817-390-7697, @macengelprof

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram