Cowboys' D avoids collapse this time

SAN FRANCISCO -- So did you think of last year when Tony Romo was in the locker room during the third quarter Sunday waiting for the pain-killing medicine to take effect on his fractured rib?

The oddest part of the Dallas Cowboys' 6-10 finish last year was how the defense collapsed after Romo suffered a broken collarbone against the New York Giants. They allowed 41 points that night and sunk to depths a Dallas defense had never sunk to before by the end of the year.

And here they were Sunday without Romo again, trailing 14-7 entering the second half.

The first drive: a three-and-out thanks to a Jason Hatcher sack. The second series: Alan Ball intercepts Alex Smith's pass to Josh Morgan.

The score was tied at 14-14 thanks to a defense that rallied.

"We had a lot of the guys, a lot of leaders on the defense step up and that motivated a lot of the young guys," cornerback Mike Jenkins said. "We could've folded. Last year we had a couple of situations we couldn't close the game like that."

It came after a first half in which things did not go all that well for the Cowboys, especially after a busted play led to a Bradie James' pass interference penalty in the end zone. San Francisco converted eight of 10 third-down opportunities. Smith completed 12 of 16 passes.

But a sense of calm took over the defensive side of the locker room at halftime as Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan spoke.

"Rob doesn't like to get us all amped, like we're on edge," linebacker Anthony Spencer said. "He wants us calm and do the things he wants us to do. He just simplified it for us."

In the second half San Francisco failed to convert on a third down, picked up just three first downs and gained 67 yards.

That's stifling, like how the Cowboys finished the 2009 season.

The only hiccup came when Spencer could not keep up with tight end Delanie Walker down the sideline on a 29-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, but the Cowboys responded on the next series. Starting at the Dallas 46, San Francisco was held to a 55-yard field goal by David Akers and a 24-14 lead.

A touchdown there and the Cowboys need two of their own to tie the score in the final 11:12. With a beaten-up quarterback, offensive line, tight end, wide receiver and running back, that would have been a tall task.

After Miles Austin's 25-yard touchdown catch cut the gap to three, the defense needed another stop. DeMarcus Ware answered with an 8-yard sack of Smith, setting up a third-and-16 that became third-and-forget-about-it after a delay-of-game penalty.

It was Ware's second sack of the game -- and first in which he was unblocked -- and fourth in two games.

"Pressure is the big thing when it comes to Alex Smith," Ware said. "He gets the ball out so fast. I was thinking of getting there as fast as I can."

Then came overtime. So often it seems as though whoever wins the coin flip wins the game, and San Francisco won the coin flip.

"I believed in the defense," defensive end Jason Hatcher said. "I didn't think they would drive it from the 20 and score it on us at all. We believe in each other."

That type of confidence was missing from the 2010 defense. Maybe that is what Ryan changed the most in a short time.

"We knew they weren't going to run it on us," Ware said. "We didn't want to get beat deep."

Frank Gore finished with 47 yards on 20 carries and like Ware on the previous series, the Cowboys other Pro Bowler on defense, nose tackle Jay Ratliff, came up large. He sacked Smith, setting up third-and-11 and an eventual punt.

Two plays later, Dan Bailey had the game-winning field goal.

"At the end of the day, you expect guys like Jay Ratliff to show up," said Hatcher, who had two sacks. "He's that kind of player. D-Ware shows up big at any given time. That's what you need from the defense."

And it just might be the start of something really good.

Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.