The Real Dallas Cowboys Defense Will Show Itself Sunday Night


This week we find out if the Dallas Cowboys defense is for real.

What happens when the Hungry Dogs face an elite quarterback? They haven’t faced one yet. San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick is a one-read-and-run guy. Tennessee’s Jake Locker missed open receivers in several key situations in Week 2. Austin Davis was an undrafted free agent making his second career start for the St. Louis Rams last week.

This week, the Cowboys get Drew Brees – a quarterback who can read a defense, make his progressions, hit all the throws, and has 12 years as a starter in this league along with eight Pro Bowls to recommend him.

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This week, we find out if the Dallas defense has improved enough for the team to have a shot at a playoff berth. People like to blame the head coach or the quarterback or the playcaller for last year’s playoff miss. I say those folks are parsing things a bit fine.

After all, they’re analyzing a team with a defense that gave up 432 points. That’s the second most in franchise history, eclipsed only by the 2010 Cowboys team, who gave up 436 points and finished 6-10. By those numbers, 8-8 was pretty impressive last year. So it’s not the coach or the quarterback or the playcaller. If James Carville was a Cowboys fan, he might say, It’s the defense, stupid.”

Is this 2014 defense any good? They sure seem scrappy. They appear to play hard every down. They appear to have a flair for making timely plays on the ball. They’re a little banged up, with two key contributors, linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive tackle Henry Melton, missing practice this week. Both those guys were injured during a game, and played through it. This defense is tough, hard-nosed.

Yet defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s rushmen have struggled to get the opposing quarterback off his spot. Then end result is giving up 7.4 yards per pass attempt (seventh worst in the league) to the likes of Kaepernick, Locker and Davis.

Other key stats (courtesy Pro Football Reference) don’t look great either: 4.5 yards per rush attempt (22nd in the league); 23 points per game (18th); opponents are converting 48.6 percent of third downs (27th).

What will Brees and the high-powered New Orleans offense do to this group? The Saints are scoring touchdowns in the red zone at a near-70 percent clip. They’re averaging 6.1 yards per play. They lead the league in first downs with 83, and have converted on 61.5 percent of their third down opportunities – also tops in the league.

No one really knows what the Cowboys are yet. And they could get better as they get healthier. This week, cornerback Orlando Scandrick gets his first start of the year, and rushman Anthony Spencer could see his first game action in more than a year following his rehab from micro-fracture surgery.

Rookie second-round draft pick DeMarcus Lawrence should be recovered from his broken foot around midseason. McClain and fellow starting linebackers Bruce Carter and Justin Durant have played just one game together so far this year; is it too much to hope that they can all be healthy and on the field at the same time for a reasonable stretch of games?

Who can say? We’ll have a much better idea once Week 4 is in the books. If the Saints steamroll these hungry dogs on Sunday night, it’s worth remembering that this Cowboys defense is expected to improve as the season progresses. If the Saints are held in check, then this team is a whole lot better than anyone thought a month ago.