CINCINNATI– Something seemed to click in a makeshift defense playing with a bevy of backups as the fourth quarter began Sunday.
The Cowboys, who hadn't made the Bengals punt once in the first half, forced three punts on Cincinnati's final three possessions to allow the offense to complete another comeback victory.
"We didn't have great rhythm throughout the day, but you've just got to hang in there," said head coach Jason Garrett, "and speaking of hanging in there, just a real credit to our defense. We have a lot of different guys playing."
At one point, cornerback Sterling Moore, who'd been with the team for a week, was starting on the outside at cornerback after Morris Claiborne left with facial lacerations. Claiborne lost his helmet on a tackle near the sideline and stayed down for several minutes before a stretcher came out. He eventually was able to walk off to the locker room while pressing a towel directly on his face.
Injuries are nothing new to this defense, and once again the Cowboys persevered and hobbled through another matchup. A litany of unfamiliar faces took the field to account for injuries, and with so much change on defense, Garrett needed his veterans to seize the moment.
Brandon Carr answered that call early on following an emotional week for the Cowboys' cornerback, who was attending another funeral when he heard about teammate Jerry Brown's death. He fought through a gamut of emotions to help hold top receiving threat A.J. Green to three catches for 44 yards.
Carr's interception on a pass intended for Green in the second quarter with the Cowboys trailing, 10-3, turned the momentum the Cowboys' way. The defense wouldn't allow the Bengals into the end zone the rest of the day.
"It wasn't perfect, but our guys continued to hang in there, particularly when our offense wasn't doing a whole lot," Garrett said. "They kept us in the ballgame, and ultimately we were able to make a couple drives to allow us to score some points."
The defense benefitted from dropped passes, including a potential touchdown grab for Green, but the patchwork group also made the necessary plays to force the Bengals into four field goals when they got into Cowboys territory. The defense held up long enough for linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer to help seal the win after three quarters of relative silence.
Ware was held in check all game until he forced Cincinnati to punt with a third-down sack on quarterback Andy Dalton on the Bengals' first drive of the fourth quarter.
Spencer followed suit on the Bengals' next possession with a third-down sack of Dalton to force another punt after quarterback Tony Romo cut the deficit to two points on a 27-yard touchdown pass to Dez Bryant. The Cowboys' next drive put them in field goal range for kicker Dan Bailey to send the team home with a win.
"The guys that are used to being out there a lot, they need to step up a little bit," Garrett said. "On a number of different occasions in this ballgame, they did. Brandon makes the big interception, Spence makes the big sack, D-Ware gets a holding penalty and a sack. All those guys over the course of the ballgame, they just kept fighting."
Spencer led all Cowboys with 11 combined tackles and Ernie Sims followed close behind with 10. The defense also got contributions from safety Eric Frampton and linebacker Alex Albright.
"It doesn't look pretty all the time," said defensive end Marcus Spears, "but we've got a bunch of guys that won't quit, and that's kind of been us all year. If that's got to be our M.O. and if it manifests into us winning ballgames and being able to do what we want to do and the goals that we set, so be it. We're just going to continue to do that. We're just fighters, man. Bottom line."