IRVING, Texas – Head coach Jason Garrett put the game in the hands of his defense when the Cowboys kicked a field goal to take a two-point lead with 3:28 left in the game.
The defense responded by forcing a turnover on downs the next series and stopping quarterback Cam Newton and company with less than a minute remaining to seal the victory. The focus of that defense centered on a healthy front seven playing together for the first time this year.
The addition of linebacker Anthony Spencer lining up with a healthy Jay Ratliff made it easy to forget about a backup defensive lineman whose impact completely changed the course of Sunday's game.
With Ratliff nursing an ankle injury to start the year, defensive linemen Josh Brent and Sean Lissemore took the majority of snaps on the inside. Lissemore earned a contract extension while doing so.
But with the return of Ratliff and the rest of the battered defensive tackles, it seemed the backups wouldn't be needed much longer. As Brent displayed Sunday, that's far from the case.
Brent's role expanded once again with Lissemore nursing a high ankle sprain. Brent made every one of his 22 defensive snaps count, including a play that would swing the momentum entirely toward the Cowboys.
Morris Claiborne can credit Brent for the rookie cornerback's first career NFL interception. The defensive lineman's pressure up the middle forced Newton to throw his only interception of the day on a second-and-goal pass from the Carolina 6-yard line.
The ball sailed into the end zone nowhere near the intended target, and Claiborne swooped in right before the ball hit the ground to corral the interception.
"Thank God the D-Line got there and put a little pressure on the quarterback and made him do some things he didn't want to do," Claiborne said.
That was less the entire defensive line's pressure and more one particular player's. In what turned out to be a five-point victory for the Cowboys, Brent's pressure might have made all the difference.
But it wasn't the only time Brent was noticeable. Earlier in the drive that ended with Claiborne's interception, Brent's push up the middle drew a holding penalty. He also stuffed running back Jonathan Stewart for no gain on a first down rush, beginning a three-and-out on that drive.
Brent's stats Sunday don't reflect his influence on the game, but there's a reason Brent, a backup in the standard 3-4 defense, was on the field for 35 percent of the defensive snaps. If he continues to make his limited reps count, that percentage should increase.