If newly signed defensive tackle Everett Dawkins takes a snap this Sunday, he’ll be the 17th defensive lineman to see game action for the Cowboys this season. Lucky No. 20 will receive a framed picture of Jerry Jones in the 2013 war room, inscribed with the sentiment, “We see our defensive line as a strength going into this season.”
We can’t blame the war room. The injuries have been epic. Absent among the 16 players who have already trouped through those four fragile spots are guys like Jay Ratliff, Tyrone Crawford and Ben Bass, all of whom were projected to see considerable snaps this season but never made it to the field. This latest newcomer, a rookie 7th-round pick out of Florida State signed off the Minnesota practice squad on Wednesday, was given a third-round grade by the Dallas war room, according to the team’s site.
Dawkins joins a Cowboys team ranked next to last in the league in yards allowed; one that gave up a franchise record 623 yards of offense to Detroit in Week 8, and with seven games remaining on the schedule has already allowed as many 400-yard passers as any team in league history.
Some have pointed to the team’s intangibles as the problem, what with much-publicized public displays of “passion” and the locker room’s perceived “lack of leadership.”
But this season’s challenges aren’t a result of intangibles. Winning in the NFL is nearly all about talent: “Intangibles” like passion and leadership don’t mean squat if there’s a dearth of “tangibles.” A team needs players who can execute the game plan. How much difference did Michael Irvin’s passion and leadership make to that 1997 team that went 6-10?
But despite an injury bug made gluttonous off the limbs of Dallas defensemen, lost in the flurry of prodigious yardage stats and TV expert criticism is this defense’s evolution into a big-play unit. The “worst defense in the league” has played a huge role in at least three of the Cowboys’ five wins, turning in the timely sack, stop, strip or pick at just the right moment.
Against Minnesota it was the strip/sack/score in the third quarter to put the Cowboys ahead by two scores, then the 3-and-out following Tony Romo’s interception late in the fourth quarter.
Against the Redskins it was the fourth-quarter strip sack that gave the offense a first-and-goal to go up two scores, then an endzone interception on the Redskins’ ensuing drive.
Against the Giants it was the pick-six inside the two-minute warning that put an ugly game out of reach.
The stats don’t look so hot, but this defense is making huge plays in huge moments to win games. It’s ironic: The same TV experts who scoff at Tony Romo’s gaudy stats because he “can’t win,” define this defense by its stats and ignore the way it has helped the Cowboys win.
Something is happening in Dallas. This defense is developing an identity: There’s a Big Play D in Big D. New Orleans won a Superbowl in 2009 with a very similar 4-3 defense. That year the Saints ranked 25th in the league in yards allowed, 20th in points per game, and 2nd in turnovers. Big D’s Big Play D currently ranks 31st in yards per game, 15th in points per game, and 2nd in turnovers.