LANDOVER, Md. – It would've been hard to imagine writing a story that portrayed the Cowboys' defense as heroic before the fourth quarter of their win against Washington.
The stats paint a pretty bleak picture of the performance. The Redskins piled up 462 yards of offense on Sunday. Kirk Cousins averaged eight yards per attempt and hit five different receivers for gains of 25, 28, 32, 38 and 57 yards. The Washington ground game rushed for 4.8 yards per carry, including a 14-yard touchdown.
And yet, the game tape tells a different story altogether. It tells the story of a unit that was faced with short fields twice to start the second half – once after a failed onside kick attempt, and once after an Ezekiel Elliott fumble.
The result of those two possessions, both of which started in Dallas territory, was a combined six points.
"Coming out in the second half, I think our defense did an excellent job in a couple of those sudden change situations," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "After the onside kick attempt and then after the turnover that we had, we did a really good job holding them to field goals."
How about the Redskins' first possession of the fourth quarter, when Cousins found rookie receiver Josh Doctson for a 57-yard gain, all the way down to the Dallas 22-yard line. Two plays later, Washington was down on the 6-yard line, knocking on the door – only for Barry Church to kill the scoring opportunity with an interception in the end zone.
"It was a zone defense in the red zone – which a lot of teams don't really know, because we play man a lot," Church said. "So a lot of teams might think we're in man, and we were able to play zone and I was able to capitalize on a late throw over the middle."
It was the first of three Washington possessions in the fourth quarter, none of which ended in points. Given the ease with which the Redskins moved the ball en route to 23 points in the first three quarters, that has to be considered an upset.
Defenders often say that a short memory is a key aspect of their job description, and that couldn't have been more evident as the Cowboys reversed those fortunes in crunch time.
"You've got to find a way to step up," Claiborne said. "You've got to lock down, move on to the next play – they catch the ball, 'Ok.' It's all about the next play."
That seemed to happen more times than anyone could have predicted. The cornerbacks held Redskins receivers scoreless on what felt like countless back shoulder fades in the end zone. Justin Durant came away with a crucial tackle and a fourth-down pass breakup on Washington's penultimate drive. Tyrone Crawford managed one of the defense's two sacks on the final possession of the game.
"We went back on the field in some situations that were tough situations, and we found a way to keep fighting and keep clawing – to get them to third down and get off the field or hold them to a field goal," Claiborne said.
None of this will change the breakdowns. There were certainly busted coverage, and the Cowboys' inability to generate pressure remains troublesome. That will undoubtedly be addressed when they break down the game film.
But for a defense that repeatedly fell short in the crucial moments last season, it has to generate confidence to actually make some plays. As Durant pointed out after the game, talking about it and doing it are two different matters entirely.
"I think that we know what we can do, the players that we have. Us actually going out and doing it is going to boost it a lot," he said. "We can talk about it all day – you can say 'Hey man, we have the tools to be a good defense.' But until we actually go out there and do it and make plays like we did today, it's just talk. But now we actually put it on tape."