ARLINGTON, Texas – With players like Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott and offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin, the Dallas Cowboys have been known recently for their offense.
Since Jason Garrett took over as the full-time head coach in 2011, the Cowboys have had 35 Pro Bowl appearances. Twenty-five have been on offense, and two were on special teams.
The defense has been represented in the all-star game by Jay Ratliff, DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Jason Hatcher, Sean Lee and DeMarcus Lawrence, who earned his first Pro Bowl trip last January after racking up 14.5 sacks in 2017.
A funny thing has happened this summer for the Cowboys.
While the Cowboys’ identity will continue to largely be Elliott’s running, the strength of the offensive line and Prescott’s growth in his third year, the defense has been the story of the summer.
There can be a tendency to exaggerate the performances in training camp and two preseason contests, but the defense did things in Oxnard, California, it did not do to the Cowboys’ offense in the past. And in two preseason games, what can be considered the “regulars,” have not given up a point while yielding just eight first downs.
“That’s, to me, the highlight of the first two games,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. “We’ve been against the other two teams’ firsts. I think we’ve done a heckuva job. I see depth. I see the ability to on that defensive front to have a rotation ... We’re deep there and can play.”
Because of the names, money and draft-pick collateral the Cowboys have put on their offense, the tendency is to overlook the defense. The Cowboys used three first-round picks on Smith, Frederick and Martin. They took Elliott with the fourth overall pick in 2016. They made Bryant, Witten and Romo among the highest paid players at their positions.
Their projected starting defense is comprised of seven players picked in the first three rounds. That doesn’t include this year’s first-rounder, Leighton Vander Esch, or last year’s first-rounder, Taco Charlton, who will play large roles on defense.
Rod Marinelli said there is no question this is the most talent he has had since becoming the coordinator in 2014.
“But once you get the talent better, you can’t get away from the effort-base,” Marinelli said. “Everybody has got to do it. Your best players have got to do it. D-Law does that. Sean does it. Byron. But we’ve got to keep our edge on that.”
Against the Bengals, Charlton had a sack and a forced fumble that Jones recovered. Chidobe Awuzie had an athletic interception in the second quarter. In the first two preseason games, the Cowboys have not allowed a running back more than a four-yard gain on 11 carries.
“I’ve always thought we could be good, and I’ve said this the last three years. We’ve played better football defensively,” said Lee, who made his preseason debut against Cincinnati. “I think we have the right type of guys to be a great defense and we’ve started to show it a little bit. But we’re not where we need to be. Still a lot of stuff we can clean up. There’s times we can make more plays on the football. We’re getting better, but we’ve got a lot of work to do still.”
Questions remain. Nickel cornerback Anthony Brown has been flagged three times in the preseason. Safety Xavier Woods, who suffered a hamstring injury against the Bengals, has not started a full season. Safety depth is a worry, which is why there is the Earl Thomas talk. Jaylon Smith’s recovery has been nothing short of spectacular, but can he play at a high level for a full season? Can Lee avoid injuries? Can Lawrence come close to repeating what he did a year ago?
“We’re working on our identity,” Marinelli said. “How hard we play. Effort. How physical and fast we play. Taking the ball away. Every day. When you do that, that allows you to win consistently. The worst thing is having a bunch of big clumps. You want to spread them out. But they’re going for the ball. I love what our cornerbacks and secondary is doing. They’re physical. But we’ve just got to keep grinding. They’re grindable. I feel these guys are going to be good.”
But how good?
“Man, the expectations are second to none,” Smith said. “We want to be the No. 1 defense in the league this year, so in order to do that you’ve got to take the ball away. You have to execute. You have to score points on defense. We have to be a reliable source to our offense.”