<
>

Cowboys' D shows no improvement

Orlando Scandrick's interception Sunday was an effort play -- something the Cowboys need lots of. Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT/Getty Images

OXNARD, Calif. -- Don't think about safety J.J. Wilcox's huge hit on Dez Bryant on Sunday afternoon and convince yourself all is right with the Dallas Cowboys' defense.

The same goes for Orlando Scandrick's nifty interception. It was a nice play, no doubt, but this defense still hasn't fixed its biggest issue.

The Cowboys gave up too many big plays last season, and Sunday's Blue-and-White controlled scrimmage did little to quell the concerns of head coach Jason Garrett and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.

Bryant caught a slant, shook off Scandrick and went about 80 yards for a touchdown.

Later, Wilcox drilled Bryant as he caught a pass across the middle, igniting a brief but entertaining scrum.

That hit should've inspired the defense and motivated the unit to get a stop. Instead, it gave up about a 50-yard pass to Terrance Williams on the next play, setting up a touchdown.

Williams caught the pass, which was more like a punt, between safety Jeff Heath and linebacker DeVonte Holloman. It was the same kind of jump ball we saw completed in front of Heath a couple of times last season.

Understand, the Tampa 2 defensive scheme the Cowboys fired Rob Ryan after the 2012 season to implement is designed to force teams to drive the length of the field. The one thing you shouldn't be able to do against the Cowboys' scheme is get big plays.

The safeties play deep, and they're supposed to keep everything in front of them. The goal is to force the opposing offense to drive the ball and hope it makes a mistake or the Cowboys' defense makes a play before the opponent scores.

The Cowboys gave up so many big plays last season that they couldn't consistently stop teams.

We're talking about a defense that yielded 415.3 yards and 27 points per game. It allowed a league-leading 257 plays of 10 yards as well as a league-worst 71 passes of 20 yards or more.

FYI: Dallas also yielded 65 runs of 10 yards or more. Only Chicago allowed more.

And the Cowboys are trying to improve without linebacker Sean Lee (knee), who's out for the year, and rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who will miss eight to 10 weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a broken foot.

Cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne didn't play Sunday, and safety Barry Church left early with an ankle injury. But all of those guys played last season, when the defense was a disaster.

As you would expect, Garrett preferred to focus on Wilcox's hit, Scandrick's interception and defensive end Martez Wilson's strip-sack and fumble return for a touchdown.

"There were some big plays made by the offense and the defense did some things that were good," Garrett said. "We'll go over the tape, but it's important to recognize and understand why some of those plays happened."

The reality is the Cowboys' offense has pushed the defense around virtually all of training camp. The offensive players have talked trash and treated the defense like their little brother.

Wilcox's hit was the first indication that the defense is tired of getting its butt kicked.

What this unit must accept is that it must play as hard as it can every play. It's not nearly good enough to take any other approach.

It must be physical and play through the whistle -- perhaps a second or two longer -- to succeed. It must be scrappy and take Scandrick's Rodney Dangerfield mentality to the field.

Any other approach and this defense will get torched again. It has few proven playmakers, and linemen Henry Melton and Anthony Spencer -- two guys you might put in that category -- have issues.

Melton is still recovering from the knee injury that forced him to miss 13 games last season. Nobody knows if Spencer will ever play again as he recovers from microfracture knee surgery.

The pass rush is unproven, and it has barely bothered Tony Romo or the first-team offensive line.

Jeremy Mincey has 20 career sacks, a figure DeMarcus Ware achieved in 2008 and nearly achieved in 2011 (19.5 sacks).

Blitzing is not a viable option because the Cowboys aren't good at it. Quarterbacks had a 117.5 passer rating when the Cowboys blitzed last season.

Playing fundamentally sound while giving maximum effort is the Cowboys' best formula for not being one of the worst defenses in the league -- and it still might not be enough.

The defense is on the field for about 65 plays most weeks. Two or three good ones a game isn't going to be good enough.