FRISCO, Texas – The NFL isn't the place for moral victories, but this at least felt like a step in the right direction.
It's not unfair or exaggerated to say the Cowboys' defense has been awful this season. In a season full of disappointments, the team's league-worst defense has been one of the biggest.
That's why it feels noteworthy that the Cowboys managed to flip the script Sunday night in Philadelphia.
Yes, to be clear, they did lose. But for anyone that watched it, this 23-9 loss felt much different from the ones before it – and a big part of that was in the defensive approach.
"Clearly, our defense took a huge step," said Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy.
It might not have been a perfect night, but it was a game that saw the Cowboys do the things they had been unable to.
Starting on the first Eagles possession of the night, the Cowboys flustered Carson Wentz relentlessly. Philadelphia's third play of the night saw Wentz flushed outside the pocket, only to be sacked and stripped by Donovan Wilson for a key takeaway.
"It was just like a read-and-react, it wasn't even a blitz," Wilson said. "Just trying to give the ball back to our offense and give them more opportunities."
Believe it or not, takeaways became a theme for the night. The Cowboys entered Sunday as one of the NFL's worst teams at taking the ball away, with just three on the season. Against Wentz, they finished with four on the night – as Leighton Vander Esch added a strip-sack of his own, while Trevon Diggs picked off two passes.
Frustrating as it might be to admit, Vander Esch's was one of the few that led to Dallas points, as the Cowboys' offense took the good field position and turned it into a field goal that cut the deficit to 7-6.
"It feels good to make those plays and get the ball back for your offense," Vander Esch said. "It was a defensive effort, it wasn't just me going and getting in there and getting a strip-sack. It was the defense taking it one play at a time, focusing on doing their jobs and that's what created that opportunity."
This stat probably isn't surprising based on the previous two months, but Sunday night marked the first time this season the Cowboys finished with a positive turnover differential. Even with Ben DiNucci contributing two fumbles to the cause, the Cowboys' four takeaways saw them finish positive for the first time all year.
"We needed takeaways," McCarthy said. "That's the brand of football, that's the team identity we're focused on playing. Winning the turnover margin for the first time this year, and that was led by the defense."
Obviously, it wasn't quite good enough. But, without trying to point fingers, it's hard to find much fault with the Dallas defense in this one. The Cowboys' offense managed just nine points on the night, and it's fair to point out that the Eagles' game-sealing touchdown came on a fumble return.
As McCarthy noted, allowing 15 points defensively should ideally lead to wins.
Even still, considering the depths this defense has shown in recent weeks, this felt like progress. Only time will tell if the Cowboys can make it a trend, but for now it's at least a start.
"I think defensively we're looking to just continue to play the right way – to run, to hit, to hustle, to make plays," said Sean Lee. "I thought we started to do that tonight. The next step is to continue to build on that, continue to grow as a group."