NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The worst defense in the league last year. The worst defense in Cowboys' history and one of the five-worst statistical defenses in league history.
These guys on this defense have heard of those monikers for months now. All they could do is get to the season and turn the page.
Sunday was an example the Cowboys are headed in that direction.
Ready to call them a good defense? Maybe not just yet. But Sunday they were certainly good enough to help the Cowboys get out of LP Field with a clutch 26-10 victory that prevented this team from a dreaded 0-2 start.
You could argue the Cowboys' best defense on this day was when the offense was on the field, which was two-thirds of the game. The Cowboys' 41:11 time of possession was like a best friend for this defense.
Give Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray and, of course, that offensive line a ton of credit. Dez Bryant was pretty darn good, too, with 10 catches, including many that were clutch plays to extend drives.
But let's not discount what the defense was able to do Sunday. And please, save us all the time by trying to argue with the "Well, it was only Jake Locker" mess. Nope, he's a first-round pick who has two years under his belt and after last week in Kansas City, he was being praised as one of the next young quarterbacks in the league.
And if memory serves back to last year, guys like Matt Flynn and Josh McCown had no problems lighting up the defense. So we're not going to give asterisks for defensive performances against quarterbacks who won't be going to the Pro Bowl.
Locker looked bad at times on Sunday. And the Cowboys made him look that way some of the time.
Did he have open throws that he missed? Certainly. He looked rattled and uncomfortable but give defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli some credit for mixing up the blitz calls and front-seven looks. You saw the linebackers coming from all over the field and slot corner Sterling Moore, who played a really nice game, was active off the edge, too.
For a young quarterback like Locker, he had plenty of unique looks to digest on this day. The guys up front pushed the pocket for most of the day. Henry Melton gave us some glimpses that he's returning to form, and to me, Tyrone Crawford played his best game – regular season or preseason – since the start of camp.
The defensive backs were much better – aside from the poor tackling play that sent Delanie Walker to the end zone for 61 yards. That was a clear breakdown and Morris Claiborne needs to wrap up and not think just a shoulder hit is going to get a tight end to the ground. But Brandon Carr was much better on the outside and Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox were much more active and around the ball this game at safety.
And, of course, the linebackers were a strength on the defense, most notably Rolando McClain, who just keeps getting better with each snap. He's one of those wow-players and it happened more than just once Sunday. Yeah, that interception was a beauty, with McClain saying his early days at Alabama playing tight end might have helped him come up with that catch. But just as impressive to me is the way McClain finds a way to the football. He's like a missile from the MIKE position and having awareness is the one thing that separates the good middle backers from the great ones.
I'm not calling him great yet, but he played great Sunday. And he was pretty good the first week, too.
That's one of the guys that can make this defense something special. If you're drafted No. 8 overall as a middle linebacker, you're already special. Now he's got to figure out how to be that consistent player with this third opportunity he's received. So far so good with him.
What I like the most about McClain is the "dog" he seems to have in his play. When we're sitting high in a press box, which wasn't the case here in Tennessee where they make a case for the best media view in the NFL, you can always tell when McClain makes the play. Even when you're way up there and can barely make out the numbers, the way he hits people and ends their momentum just stands out.
And he plays like a guy who with bad intentions. That's not a bad thing. That's the nature of the sport, and we hear so many times about the Cowboys wanting "the right kind of guy." Every now and then it's OK if you have a few guys who have some reckless qualities. Those guys sometimes show up on the field the same way. Right now, that's what McClain is doing and he's helped this defense tremendously.
Overall, the defense answered the bell, especially at the end when the Titans were knocking on the door to make it a one-score game. Four plays from their own 6-yard line and the defense wouldn't let Tennessee get any closer. Last year, we didn't see a stop right there, and that's why the defense lost a few leads late in games.
This was a good team win for the Cowboys, who certainly needed to avoid an 0-2 start. Could they make the playoffs without winning Sunday? Of course. We've seen this franchise win a Super Bowl after losing two games. Something tells me New Orleans won't be cancelling the rest of the season because they're 0-2.
But, this game was crucial for the Cowboys because they had things to prove. They needed to see this offensive line dominate a game like it did. [embedded_ad]
They needed to see Tony Romo show he is capable of strictly managing the game. They needed to see DeMarco Murray take his game to another level.
And they needed to see if the defense had the ability to win a game.
For one day at least, the Cowboys proved all of that, which is why this is a 1-1 football team with a much brighter outlook on the 2014 season.