Dallas Cowboys: 7 factors in the recently improved defense

DeMarcus Lawrence, Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty) Images
DeMarcus Lawrence, Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty) Images /
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Aldon Smith, Dallas Cowboys
Aldon Smith, Dallas Cowboys (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports) /

The Dallas Cowboys’ historically bad defense has gotten better. Why?

For most of the season so far, it’s been hard to watch the Dallas Cowboys. Painful is the word I’ve used. And it’s not just the win-loss record, though two wins and seven losses is pretty bad. What’s worse is the way they’ve lost. They’ve been embarrassing, ugly losses.

For most of the season, the most humiliating part of these games has been the defense. The Cowboys have seemed totally unable to stop the other team at all, especially against the run. Through the first six games, Dallas gave up an average of 464 yards and over 36 points a game.

Through the first seven games, Dallas opponents averaged 178 rushing. It’s no wonder they’ve been losing. You can’t win that way.

America’s Team was particularly bad against the Cleveland Browns, giving up 508 yards, and allowing 49 points. 307 of those yards were on the ground. That’s right. The Browns ran for 308 yards against the Cowboys.

They were even worse against the Atlanta Falcons in terms of yardage, giving up 570 yards. Somehow, Dallas won the game anyway, due to the heroics of quarterback Dak Prescott, and a watermelon-style onside kick.

But since Prescott has gone out with a season-ending ankle injury, there’s been no superheroes to save the Cowboys from their historically bad defense. Yup, that’s the phrase that’s been tossed around: historically bad. You’ve got to admit, it’s got a ring to it. I just wish it was applied to some other team.

But then, a few weeks ago, things started to turn around. In week seven, the Cowboys held the Washington Football Team to only 142 yards and 25 points. In week eight, Dallas held the Philadelphia Eagles to 265 yards, and 23 points, and the Cowboys defense made four turnovers: two interceptions, and two fumble recoveries.

It was an impressive performance, even though the Eagles prevailed in the end. Both of those teams, however, are also having horrific seasons in the dumpster fire that’s called the NFC East, so no one was really all that impressed.

The next game, this time against a real opponent, would be different, went the conventional wisdom. That game would be against the Pittsburgh Steelers, undefeated with seven wins and no losses. Everyone assumed the Steelers would destroy the Cowboys in week nine.

But as we all know, that didn’t happen. The Cowboys led Pittsburgh for most of the game and came within a whisker of winning the contest. A lot of that was due to the Dallas defense, which was surprisingly solid against one of the best teams in the league.

The Cowboys held Pittsburgh to 24 points, but that’s a little deceptive because the Steelers made 15 of those points in the fourth quarter. Dallas held one of the best teams in the NFL to nine points through three quarters.

Perhaps even more impressive, they held Pittsburgh to 46 yards rushing in the entire game. That’s incredible considering they were routinely giving up 200-yards-plus on the ground just a few weeks before.

Okay, now we’re up to date. Here’s the question: How’d they do it?