After last week's debacle, Cowboys' defense recovers
OCT 14, 2013 1:26a ET
There were questions about 73-year-old Monte Kiffin's competence as a defensive coordinator as the Cowboys fell to 2-3. But in a 31-16 win over the Redskins on Sunday night, the defense regained a modicum of respect. Kiffin's vaunted "Tampa 2" yielded plenty of yards, but the Redskins only managed one touchdown.
Linebacker Sean Lee saved a touchdown when he tackled quarterback Robert Griffin III at the 2-yard line on a quarterback draw on the Redskins' first possession. The Cowboys held the Redskins to a 20-yard field on the drive, and that would become the theme for the night.
The key for the Cowboys was Dwayne Harris in the return game. He had an 86-yard punt return for a touchdown late in the first half and then had a 90-yard kickoff return that set up another touchdown.
Griffin made some nice plays in the running game, but he never really found a rhythm with his passing. A lot of that had to do with some excellent play from the Cowboys' front four.
This group isn't in the Doomsday category, but journeymen like Drake Nevis and Caesar Rayford played big roles in the win. Starting defensive end DeMarcus Ware was having a nice game before he had to leave with a quadriceps injury. Jerry Jones, who may or not own a medical degree, expressed optimism that Ware wouldn't be out for long.
Ware never returned, but the defense line continued to play well. The one recognizable player left on the field, defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, was a disruptive force with two sacks and six tackles.
Hatcher's pressure led to Griffin being erratic throughout the game. He showed some of his old speed when he escaped the pocket, but he wasn't hitting receivers in stride.
Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli were embarrassed by how their side of the ball performed in losses to San Diego and Denver. Marinelli's intensity may have cost the Cowboys three points late in the first half. He was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for arguing that Griffin was down by contact before delivering an incomplete pass. As a result, the Cowboys only led 14-6 at halftime.
Griffin took off on a 26-yard run on the Redskins' first possession of the second half. A late hit on safety Barry Church gave the Skins the ball at the Cowboys' 23-yard line. But the Skins bogged down and were forced to settle for a field goal.
Hatcher beat Redskins left guard Kory Lichtensteiger repeatedly. And Nick Hayden, Nevis and Rayford kept collapsing the pocket. I asked Jones if he was constantly looking at his flip card to remind him who these players were.
"Yes," he said emphatically. "And still don't give me a quiz."
Hayden has started at defensive tackle all season even though he was out of the league in 2012. Rayford honed his craft with the Utah Blaze of the Arena Football League. He said Sunday was the most snaps he'd played in a game since the Blaze faced the Iowa Barnstormers in May 2011.
Rayford and Nevis both were in the Colts' training camp this past summer. Rayford had some success playing outside linebacker for the Colts in a 3-4 scheme, but he seems much better suited for the Cowboys' 4-3 look.
"Basically the stamina is what impressed me," Jones said of the defensive line. "I can tell you, you put about 10 or 12 rushes as a defensive linemen and you're spent. They fought all the way through it. As far as I'm concerned, they need a game ball tonight."
It seemed appropriate that Ware's primary backup, Kyle Wilber, made the game's biggest defensive play. With his team trailing 24-16, Griffin dropped back to pass from his own 11-yard line. Wilber sacked the Redskins quarterback and then recovered the fumble he caused. The Cowboys scored two plays later to take a 31-16 lead with 8:49 left in the game.
It may not have been a dominant performance, but it sure beat how the Cowboys' defense played the previous two weeks. The Cowboys (3-3) can win the NFC East if they play this level of defense. Griffin's still a dangerous quarterback, but it's obvious he doesn't yet have the strength or confidence in his knee to drive the ball downfield like he did last season.
It's a testament to the Cowboys' backups that Griffin continued to have problems after Ware left the game. That's why Jones and Jason Garrett both pointed to the defensive line as a big reason the Cowboys won.
"You can't see yourself as a backup when you go in the game," Rayford said. "If you do that, you'll end up playing like one."
At this point, every defensive linemen on the roster should be viewed as a starter. They'll likely end up there anyway.
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