IRVING, Texas – The names Sterling Moore, Alex Albright, Eric Frampton, Michael Coe, Brian Schaefering, Ernie Sims and Brady Poppinga don't exactly strike fear in opposing quarterbacks' minds.
Yet all seven of these players found the field on defense and made some sort of a difference in holding the Steelers to 24 points while the more-touted Steelers defense allowed 27.
Somehow, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's been able to integrate backups and free agents, some who've been on the team and practicing less than a week before suiting up, and found a way to plug them into a game without seeming overwhelmed or out of place.
No other team wanted many of these players, but the Cowboys saw something in them. It's not that they've been perfect, but they've held up long enough through the first three quarters to keep the offense within striking distance and allow the few scattered veterans on defense to make plays when it matters most.
On a defense without Bruce Carter, Sean Lee, Barry Church, Kenyon Coleman, Jay Ratliff, Josh Brent and Orlando Scandrick, the Cowboys have allowed 24 points or fewer in each of their last two games. Last week against the Steelers, that defense was also without cornerback Morris Claiborne, while DeMarcus Ware fought through a hyperextended elbow.
"The guys we have brought in for the most part are veteran players who have played a little bit and have some experience," said head coach Jason Garrett. "We try to ask them to do some things that they're capable of doing. But again, a real tribute to Rob and the defensive staff. They've done an outstanding job working through that situation. But at the same time, I think there is a willfulness to the group to understand that there are no excuses, injuries don't matter, put the next guy in there and we're going to function."
How a defense can hold a team to fewer than 30 points, let alone survive a complete and catastrophic meltdown, in these circumstances is worthy of some praise. But the best part of what this defense has accomplished the last two weeks in extending the Cowboys' winning streak to three games is coming in the fourth quarter, when the few healthy veterans are closing out the wins.
The newcomers keep the defense operating, but it's the players this defense can no longer afford to lose, athletes like Anthony Spencer and Brandon Carr, who keep this defense functioning at its high rate.
The Cowboys won by a combined four points the past two weeks. Without a few defensive stops at critical moments, they would've likely lost both games and been out of playoff contention.
After not forcing a punt through two and a half quarters, the defense held the Bengals late and made them punt on each of their last three possessions. The final two punts occurred because of third down sacks by Ware and Spencer.
Fast-forward a week and find a similar occurrence. The final three full Steelers' possessions went punt, punt, interception. Ware and Spencer split a third down sack on the first fourth-quarter punt, while a second-down sack by Spencer on the next possession put the Steelers out of reach of another first-down conversion on that drive.
Those plays forced the game to overtime, where free agent cornerback Brandon Carr sealed the win with a 36-yard interception return to the Steelers' goal line.
The new faces on defense should be applauded for their ability to operate quickly in a new system with a new coordinator in a new place. But what really makes this defense function to its capability is the late, clutch, crunch-time performances by the handful of veterans who will need to continue that play to keep the playoffs in sight against two more high-powered offenses before regular season's end.