ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' defense looked different all summer, but it was difficult to tell if it was really that good or if it was just a case of going against an offense that was finding its way during training camp.
Two games into the regular season, it's fair to say the Cowboys have a defense that can win games.
When was the last time you could say that?
The Cowboys’ 20-13 win over the New York Giants on Sunday night featured what Dallas fans hoped to see with Tavon Austin’s 64-yard touchdown catch from Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott’s 6-yard touchdown run with 5 minutes, 45 seconds left to cap a 14-play, 82-yard drive.
The Giants’ offensive line has issues, and the Cowboys made sure to expose those issues by sacking Manning six times.
The last time the Cowboys sacked Manning that many times was in Week 15 of the 2008 season when they had eight. Wade Phillips was the head coach and DeMarcus Ware was on his way to a 20-sack season.
The Cowboys got after Manning with the blitz, something they have not shown much of in Rod Marinelli’s time as defensive coordinator. Call it the Kris Richard effect. The former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator and Cowboys passing game coordinator has changed the mindset of the defense.
Five of the Cowboys' sacks came when they blitzed. The last time they had that many sacks from the blitz came at San Francisco in 2011 when Rob Ryan was running an aggressive 3-4 scheme with Ware and Anthony Spencer.
Manning was so flummoxed he could not find Beckham for much of the game. He had two catches for 20 yards through the first three quarters and was mostly invisible.
Barkley had 28 rushing yards. He was effective out of the backfield with 14 catches for 80 yards, but he was not the No. 2 overall pick because of his ability to catch the ball.
Things got shaky late after linebacker Sean Lee left with a left hamstring injury, but some of the late drama was due to the type of defense the Cowboys used and the inability to recover an onside kick. That led to the Giants’ final 10 points, but don’t lose focus on what the defense did.
In most of the Jason Garrett era, the Cowboys have had a defense they could not rely on for the key stop at the key moment. Anybody remember the 51-48 loss to the Denver Broncos in 2013 when Tony Romo threw for more than 500 yards? They needed to be protected by a running game led by either DeMarco Murray in 2014 or Elliott in 2016 as the Cowboys’ offensive line controlled the tempo of games.
When the defense needed to come through, it would get close to taking the ball away but never really get the ball. It would come close to getting a sack but not get the quarterback down.
After two games, maybe it’s time to believe in what the defense can be.
The Cowboys will be tested throughout the season by quarterbacks such as Russell Wilson. Matthew Stafford, Deshaun Watson, Drew Brees, Andrew Luck and Carson Wentz, but for the first time in a long time, they appear to have defensive answers.
“We still have room to work,” Lee said. “It’s two games. We have to play an entire season. And we have room for improvement. That’s what we need to concentrate on.”