Eatman: Defense Playing As Unit, But More Than Few Individuals Peaking Now

IRVING, Texas – The phrase "peaking at the right time" has been used a few times here in the last week or so.

And in the case of the Cowboys, there's no other way to describe how well they've played down the stretch, winning all four games in December to cruise into the playoffs at 12-4.

Yeah, the bye week would've been nice, but who knows if it's a smart thing to stop this train right now. It's rolling at an impressive pace and maybe, just maybe, the best thing the Cowboys can do is lace them up this Sunday and get ready for the next challenge.

But when we mention the term "peaking," it's usually in reference to the overall team or unit. When I actually look at this thing a little closer, you can make a case that the arrow is pointing up on an individual basis as well.

This offense has the NFL's leader in passer rating, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and TD receptions. So we know what has truly driven this team to its 12-4 record.

But what is amazing to me is the defensive play down the stretch. Over the last four games, this defense has registered 10 forced turnovers, including seven interceptions, and nine sacks.

The defense is playing its best football of the season, but it stems from individual play. Just go through the entire list of defensive players and let's look at the guys who are indeed playing their best football of the season.

Orlando Scandrick – He's been the team's best defensive player all year. Remember, just like Tony Romo, the Cowboys have only lost three games when Scandrick was in the lineup.  But Jordan Matthews of the Eagles and DeSean Jackson of Washington never did anything against him. He's done this all year, but has even better here lately.

Brandon Carr– He gets blamed for a lot of things, but he's playing better now than we've seen in the last two seasons. The Odell Beckham Jr. catch will forever be linked to him, but for the most part, he's keeping plays in front of him and showing more physicality than we've seen in a while.

J.J. Wilcox – Much more active here lately, especially with turnovers. He got a big interception against the Eagles late in the game and then another one against Andrew Luck and the Colts. He recovered a fumble against the Redskins, giving him at least one turnover in the last three games.

Anthony Spencer – We might have expected a lot more from him, but given the nature of his injury, just being on the field early in the year was a surprise. Spencer has showed more bounce in his step the last few games. He's been getting pressure and it was nice to see him rewarded with a touchdown return off a fumble late last week.

Bruce Carter – Just the two picks alone last week are enough to say he's playing his best football. But it's three interceptions this month, along with a blocked punt. Carter also had 12 tackles last week against the Redskins, recording the highest grade from the coaching staff of any linebacker in recent years. He might not be a full-time starter, but Carter is definitely contributing on the nickel and on special teams.

Tyrone Crawford – This guy just gets better each week. After Scandrick, I would call him the second-best defensive player this year. Henry Melton hasn't been bad, but the Cowboys won't miss him too much mainly because Crawford isn't just playing better, but he's becoming a difficult player to get off the field.

Anthony Hitchens – Like most rookies this time of year, Hitchens is playing the best we've seen from him all season. That's why his high-ankle sprain injury has the Cowboys somewhat concerned, even if Rolando McClain is expected to return. The physical style Hitchens plays with can be infectious, and if he's not on the field, the Cowboys will miss that. Hitchens was one of three players to reach 100 tackles this year, based on coaches' film, becoming the first Cowboys' rookie since Roy Williams (2002) to post triple-digit stops in a season.

Terrell McClain – He has also played better the last few weeks and that's a great thing considering Melton's injury. His sack and forced fumble was just an example of the disruptive player he's starting to become.

George Selvie – About two weeks ago, I answered a Mailbag question about the lack of production from Selvie this year. Since then, he's shown up more in the last two games than even before. He got solid pressure off the edge with three hurries against the Colts and a fumble recovery, along with another sack against Washington. Just like the other guys, he wants in on the good times, too.

I could probably go on and on with every player. Nothing against guys like Barry Church or Jeremy Mincey or Nick Hayden. They are playing well, too. But the others are just standing out more.

It's a credit to defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who has this defense playing its best football of the season – as a unit, but also as individuals.

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