ARLINGTON, Texas – This is how I imagined many family conversations going right around kickoff today.
3:29 p.m. – *Man, I'm stuffed. I just want to sit here and watch the Cowboys game. *
3:31 p.m. – *Wait, the Cowboys are wearing blue jerseys today? At home? Wow, never seen that. *
3:33 p.m. – *He was down! That wasn't a fumble. *
3:35 p.m. – *Well, it's the blue jersey curse. We always lose in the blues. *
And so on and so on. I'm sure a little bit later on, something about the Cowboys' pass defense getting carved up by a former receiver who wasn't good enough to make the practice squad here was being regurgitated in between desert and a turkey sandwich.
But somehow along the way, the Cowboys were able to ease those stomach pains and give their fans something to be happy about.
And it really started with the defense. Sure, the offense had a huge drive before halftime to stay in the game, but the fact the Cowboys simply locked down Oakland in the second half was the difference in the game. And how did they do it? Stopping the run, of course.
Really? This from a Cowboys defense that entered the game ranked 28th against the rush? We saw the Giants' Andre Brown and Brandon Jacobs rack up 200 yards last week. A Saints squad of Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles mashed them three weeks ago in an embarrassing display.
So it didn't seem that favorable against the Raiders, who featured Rashad Jennings and Darren McFadden. But the quarterback makes a difference, too. And while young Matt McGloin completed a few jump balls early, he's not a guy you really worried about making plays with his arm all game long.
And he didn't. The Cowboys simply shut down the run, yielding just 50 yards against the Raiders, including only 15 in the second half.
Fifth yards? I think Jacobs rumbled for 40 last week. Ingram had a couple in that range, too. So just 50 for the entire game? That's a defense rising to the challenge.
Say what you want about this Dallas defense, and trust me it's been said, but the Cowboys lost one of their best players in Sean Lee two weeks ago, and they're 2-0 without him. And no, it's not a situation where the backup might be better. They're just holding on with Ernie Sims in the middle and Kyle Wilber playing on the outside for Justin Durant (although Wilber might have found a permanent home at outside 'backer).
And what they're doing at linebacker is what they've had to do all year on the defensive line.
Thursday, the Cowboys stuffed the run in the middle, thanks to the play of Jason Hatcher and Nick Hayden. DeMarcus Ware sorta looked like Ware again. He didn't get a sack, but he was very active against the run and pass.
Sure, the Raiders completed some plays early and Brandon Carr didn't have his best moment. But in typical Carr fashion, he stepped up when it really counted. That interception in the end zone was clearly a huge turning point, and gave the Cowboys a chance to get back on offense and put the game out of reach.
People want to blame Monte Kiffin and, yes, there are some things that should fall at his feet. But as the starting lineups were being introduced on defense before the game, we're up in the press box having our own mythical conversation back in training camp.
*What if I told you back in August, the Cowboys would play the Raiders on Thanksgiving with Ernie Sims in the middle, Kyle Wilber at outside backer, Jeff Heath will start. Scandrick is your best cover guy right now. And no Claiborne, no Jay Ratliff, no Anthony Spencer and no Sean Lee. *
Seriously, injuries aren't the best excuse because no one cares, but sometimes it's just reality.
As a team, you have to find a way to rally. I thought the Cowboys have not only done that in the last two weeks, but definitely in the second half of this game Thursday.
"I thought we did a really nice job of rallying to the ball and tackling," Kiffin said. "Our guys are pretty good tacklers. Yeah, we've had some games where we didn't tackle, but for the most part, we tackle. And we tackled today."
One guy who needs to be mentioned here is Barry Church. While you don't want your safety making that many tackles, Church is about as solid as it gets back there. He made a couple of really nice open-field tackles in this game, especially one on Jacoby Ford, one of the fastest players in the league. [embedded_ad]
Church is actually tackling so well that the Cowboys are using him in the box as a nickel linebacker. That's just another example of a team trying to fill gaps, literally, without their best player in the middle.
You'd like to think this defense will be much better when Lee comes back. And after the game, Lee said he expects to return for the next game in Chicago.
Are the Cowboys cured on defense? Certainly not. Even with Lee's return, there will be some issues. There were before he went out.
Obviously, this team is much better against weaker quarterbacks. That makes the health status of Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers become much more relevant here in the next two games. But we know if anything, this defense is not going to simply roll over. They definitely had a chance to do that Thursday and went the other way.