IRVING, Texas – Anthony Spencer is the key to this defense's cohesiveness and ability to stay afloat through the numerous challenges it's endured the second half of the season.
He's become the guy this defense can't lose. Every few weeks that player seems to change. It started as Sean Lee, and then became Bruce Carter. Spencer's now assumed that role for what he's been able to provide reaching the quarterback and setting the edge in the running game.
This defense isn't generating consistent pressure without Spencer contributing. When the Cowboys sacked Andy Dalton five times, Spencer had two of them. When the Cowboys sacked the Steelers four times, Spencer had 1.5 of them.
Dallas won both of those games. Then came the Saints and Drew Brees, whom the Cowboys didn't sack once. The result was a loss, setting up this weekend's do-or-die matchup in Washington.
"Spence always shows up in the ballgame and makes a lot of plays … He's been playing so well," said head coach Jason Garrett. "I hate to compare game to game. He wasn't quite as productive as he was in previous games, but he's doing a lot of good things for us."
The contraption attached to DeMarcus Ware's right arm indicates the kind of condition the team's sack leader is in right now. His statistics represent that as well, with 1.5 sacks in his last five games. Go from Ware's right elbow up to his shoulder and his neck and everything hurts, as did this team's pass rush when the injuries reached a peak against the Saints.
The only way this team generates any sort of constant outside rush is when Spencer's in the zone, the way he's been in a handful of performances down the stretch. Forget the contract year or what he's playing for next year or how long he'll be in Dallas. The Cowboys need him right now, because he's the player most capable of changing what happened in the first half the last time the Redskins played this team five weeks ago.
Spencer's seven combined tackles against the Saints were respectable, but they're not enough for a defense reeling and in desperate need of stellar play from its veterans. He needs to be the guy setting the edge on Alfred Morris, and, more importantly, he needs to b least bother Robert Griffin III.
He needs to be the difference maker he's been late in games in recent weeks when the Cowboys' backs are against the wall. He needs to be the difference maker who helped bring down Ben Roethlisberger twice in the Steelers' final two possessions of the fourth quarter. He needs to be the difference maker who sacked Andy Dalton on third down of the Bengals' final possession of the game, leading to Dan Bailey's game-winning kick.
Washington remains the league's top rushing offense. That attack helps Griffin comfortable deliver the play action pass, the way he did when picking apart the Cowboys' defense for 208 passing yards in the first half in Week 12.
The Cowboys need Spencer to perform the way he did against the Bengals and Steelers for that to change.
And he needs it, too.
With his destination next year still in question, there's no better way for him to showcase his value than displaying to a national audience what kind of player he's been the second half of the season by flummoxing and frustrating one of the league's most elusive quarterbacks.