The Cowboys’ biggest concern going into the 2017 season was whether they had enough defense to go as far as their offense wanted to take them.
Now that defense, back at full strength, can no longer afford to be complementary. It needs to keep being exemplary for Dallas (4-3) to make a return trip to the playoffs.
Sunday’s 33-19 road whipping of Washington marked the second consecutive game in which the Cowboys have had their best core defensive players — linemen Demarcus Lawrence and David Irving, linebackers Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith and safety Byron Jones — all playing together. The pass rush missed Irving during his four-game suspension to start the year. The front seven as a whole sorely missed its leader, Lee, when he was hamstrung and inactive during shootout home losses to the Rams and Packers.
But over the past two weeks against the 49ers and Redskins, Lawrence and Irving have been a devastating duo up front off the edge, and by no coincidence, Tyrone Crawford has played much better at the other end. After recording two sacks against Kirk Cousins, Irving has five sacks in his first three games of the season. Lee keeps cleaning up against the run on the second level, and Smith in his second year is improving with every start in the middle.
Behind them, Jones has been a terrific, versatile cover man. His reward for frustrating the Redskins’ tight ends, a vital part of their passing game, was a late pick-six to finish off Cousins.
When those five and Crawford are playing that well at the same time, the Cowboys are hard to beat. The trick is doing it against teams that aren’t having major offensive line issues and can’t easily be rendered one-dimensional with their ineffective power running games.
In other words, Washington and San Francisco were built to be destroyed by Dallas’ defense. The upcoming, tougher three-game swing — vs. Kansas City, at Atlanta, vs. Philadelphia — is pretty much the Cowboys’ season.
For the Cowboys to feel good about their chances to least get a wild card behind the 7-1 Eagles in the NFC East, they probably need to beat the Eagles at home and upset one of the other teams. That won’t against Alex Smith, Matt Ryan and Carson Wentz, quarterbacks who play in more diverse offenses than the ones in which Cousins and C.J. Beathard operate.
But the Chiefs’ offensive line, which is not elite, is also banged up, and the Falcons’ line is slumping. The Eagles are now more vulnerable up front without injured left tackle Jason Peters. There are opportunities for the Cowboys to keep getting a push and forcing mistakes.
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The Cowboys moving forward will have a good offensive baseline with quarterback Dak Prescott, but whether they will have the dominant rushing services of Ezekiel Elliott for the next six games — not to mention whether they can be effective running without him — remains uncertain.
Either way, the Cowboys need to be aggressive in the passing game with Prescott in an effort to jump out to leads. Their defense is built to succeed against teams that are forced to drop back to pass often in order to keep up.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli likes to find a comfort zone of aggressiveness with the blitz, but it doesn’t work unless the Cowboys can contain the run early. Kareem Hunt, the Falcons’ duo and the Eagles’ committee all can produce in different ways. In those games, the Cowboys and their opponents are bound to trade some big plays.
But the Cowboys can’t afford to just bend and not break. They need to keep getting the game-changing sacks and takeaways. Sitting back and being picked apart on short-to-intermediate passes will put heavier pressure on Prescott.
The Cowboys were so good in 2016 because they controlled the game flow each week. Their offense allowed their defensive to overachieve. Now it seems like the training wheels are off the defense, and the unit is capable of winning games with less help; it’s no longer a luxury development.
In a more desperate mode, the defense pushing the issue is a necessity for the Cowboys to save any shot at another special season.