ARLINGTON, Texas - David Irving was a lot more intimidating *during *the Cowboys 26-20 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers than he was immediately afterwards. Following the game, the guy couldn't stop smiling, and it's hard to blame him.
NBC's Sunday Night Football telecast awarded Irving with the honorary game ball for dominating the second half and being a constant terror for Jameis Winston.
"It's an honor," Irving said, moments after a brief congratulatory phone call from his high school coach. "I never thought I'd even be in the NFL."
Irving knows how to make a big difference in a little time. He recorded two sacks and a deflected pass. He had close to 10 hurries and five hits on Winston on pass attempts. That was all in the second half.
The surprising performance came when the Cowboys needed it most from him, with DeMarcus Lawrence and Cedric Thornton inactive due to injuries.
"We all felt like we had more to do," Irving said. "We had some key players that were out that always contribute to our rush so we all had to step up."
This was the second time this season that Irving stepped up out of nowhere to dominate a game. Irving earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week after the Cowboys Week 6 victory over the Green Bay Packers when he sacked Aaron Rogers and forced three fumbles.
He hadn't been heard from much in the games since, but Sunday night's performance goes to show that opportunity is starting to bring about confidence for Irving. "I feel like I'm coming into it. [Defensive coordinator Rod] Marinelli sure does work us pretty good in practice. It's just paying off."
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Irving's game on Sunday was that his impact became more and more prevalent as the game went on. With the Cowboys entering the fourth quarter trailing 20-17 Irving was just beginning to become more and more sure of his abilities to wreck havoc.
It was probably just momentum," Irving said. "I couldn't really put a finger on it. We just kept playing, kept grinding and doing what we're supposed to do."
[embeddedad0]Consistency has managed to elude Irving this season, but momentum and confidence are scary things to add to a 6'7, 230-pound defensive linemen. It was like Irving was understanding his potential in real time, and in a moment like that fatigue is something a player can just play through.
"I was out there dead too, but they were more dead," Irving said. "We work pretty hard in practice. We're used to being exhausted and playing exhausted. So they were doing the hurry-up and we were getting tired, but they were too."
The Cowboys needed an extra boost in a game that could have gone either way. On Sunday night, Irving was the difference maker. "It starts with the guys upfront," Jason Garrett said in his postgame press conference. "David Irving really looked like he showed up in the game."
"When we find a mismatch we go to it," said Tyrone Crawford. "Fortunately we have young guys that can step up and ball like that."
With Irving's giant presence in Winston's vicinity on a routine basis, the rest of the team was able to make plays. With 11:59 left in the fourth quarter he came within inches of Winston who hurried his throw, resulting in a Jeff Heath interception. The subsequent Cowboys drive ended with them reclaiming the lead with a field goal.
"It's definitely contagious," Irving said of the way he felt his confidence growing as the game went on. "If I feel that then I know all my teammates on the offense, defense, and kicking team feel that. We play off each other."
"Our defense, everything goes through our D-line," Heath said. "When those guys are rolling it makes our job super easy."
Sunday night's game could make Irving a steadier fixture in the defensive rotation. He doesn't plan on waiting another seven weeks for his next big game. "We're out here to work, and I'm not perfect. Our standard is set so much higher that I'll never be satisfied."
At 23-years old with his physical stature and athleticism, it's enticing to think about what might happen if Irving's confidence starts to carry over from game to game.
"The guy's phenomenal," Dez Bryant marveled after the game. "The guy's the truth."