Spagnola: Big D Creating Visions Of Sugar Plums


FRISCO, Texas – Someone asked Cowboys owner Jerry Jones this week if he could have dreamed before the season began that with three games left in this 2021 season his Dallas Cowboys, on a three-game winning streak, would be on the verge of clinching the NFC East title.

Yes, he could have.

Back toward the end of training camp and the four-game preseason, when asked his thoughts about a 2021 Cowboys team coming off back-to-back 8-8 and 6-10 seasons, his answer was resolute.

"We're going to be a good team," Jones said.

Me, too, pointing out in that same column the Friday before the season opener against Tampa Bay that this was a "New Team. New Year." That 2020 was buried.

But with this rejoinder:

But now we've got to see, see if this defense has improved. See if a rushing defense giving up 5 yards a carry last year and the second-most rushing yards in club history has improved. See if a defense lacking pressure on opposing quarterbacks and takeaways can even approach what took place in 2019.

Like 2019, are you kidding me?

Talk about a gross underestimation.

Maybe should have said like 1992. Or at least 2007.

OK, maybe not quite that good with three games to play. But the other day when Jerry was asked about his current defense, what with the pressure it has been imposing on opposing quarterbacks with its defensive front, the prime reasons for totaling four takeaways in each of the previous three games, if he had ever seen anything like it, well, here is where he went.

"Well, we had [Jason] Hatcher, we had [DeMarcus] Ware, we had [Jay] Ratliff, we had those guys back here," Jones said, referring to that 2007 defense helping the Cowboys to finish 13-3 that season on his 105.3 The Fan radio segment on Tuesday. "I thought that was arguably a combination of some of the best players we've had on the interior. Beyond that, I'd have to go all the way back to the '90s when we had such a rotation in the defensive line, and we really had fresh guys out there all the time.

This season's Cowboys defense is creating visions of year's past, like in 1992 and 2007 when the team's defensive front was dominant."So, this group has the potential to have that kind of talent, without exaggeration. But have numbers. We have fresh legs that we can keep out there and keep those guys coming. I think that really gives rise to some optimism."

Jerry speaks of that 1992 defense, and we should remind of how good that overlooked unit really was. See, because of the likes of Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith, Jay Novacek, Alvin Harper and Daryl Johnston on the offense, not to mention that "Great Wall of Dallas" offensive line, few remember the defense.

Check it out: No. 1 in total yards. No. 1 against the run. No. 5 in pass defense. And in the NFC, they finished 1-1-2 in those categories.

But guess what? When it came to the Pro Bowl that season, votes in far ahead of the Cowboys going on to win Super Bowl XXVII, with six offensive players named, nary a defensive play made it. Not a one.

And this was a defensive front that included Charles Haley, Tony Tolbert, Leon Lett, Russell Maryland, Jim Jeffcoat, Tony Casillas, Chad Hennings, Jimmie Jones and Danny Noonan. And when it came to 1993, again Super Bowl winners, only two defenders made the Pro Bowl cut, Maryland and Ken Norton Jr. That's it.

But who can forget the nine takeaways the Cowboys brutalized Buffalo with? Leading to 38 points either directly or indirectly, and would have been 45 if Lett had been one step faster during the 52-17 victory over the Bills. They also had four interceptions, recovered five of eight forced fumbles and four sacks.

That year the Cowboys finished with 31 takeaways – 17 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries, along with 44 sacks.

Uh, do the 31 takeaways sound familiar?

Of course, that's how many takeaways the Cowboys will carry into Sunday's 7:20 p.m. start against Washington at AT&T Stadium, where the two easiest scenarios for clinching the division title are to have the Giants beat the Eagles or to just beat the Washingtons themselves.

Now, the Cowboys overall defensive rank does not compare to what took place in 1992. The Cowboys come into the game ranked 21st in defense, 15th against the run and 23rd against the pass. Have given up just too many big plays.

But they have excelled taking the ball away, their 31 tying Indianapolis for tops in the NFL with a league-leading 23 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries, the most interceptions since 24 in 1999 with three games to go, the club record being 37 in 1981 followed by the 33 in 1985. Oh, in those two seasons, Everson Walls, owner of the team's single-season and rookie interception record of 11, combined for 20 interceptions.

And while their sack total of 32 is not particularly inordinately high – 62 the franchise record in 1985 – the pressure up front has been immense, and increasing with the likes of DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Neville Gallimore, Micah Parsons, Dorance Armstrong, Tarell Basham, Osa Odighizuwa, Trysten Hill and even Jayron Kearse all on the field together at last.

"It's good to have pretty much everybody healthy at this point," Gregory said, knowing Odighizuwa and Hill will return soon from Reserve/COVID. "It's nice. Gives you a certain level of confidence. Real comfortable with those guys around you."

But what really has escalated the pressure is having Gallimore back in the middle, to go along with Carlos Watkins, Hill and Odighizuwa, along with defensive coordinator Dan Quinn mixing and matching defensive ends, moving inside at times the likes of Lawrence, Basham and standing up Gregory and Parsons inside, along with blitzing Kearse off the slot.

"We talk about our pressure, and we should," Jones said. "But down the middle to me is where we've had a real improvement on this defense, right up the middle. Whether it's the big boys in the middle, the bigger boys that we've got. We've got some quickness, two of the guys we didn't have last week are really big, quick guys (Hill and Odighizuwa)."

Some would like to say, proving there always is a glass half empty, that the Cowboys having created four takeaways in each of the past three games is the product of playing against backup quarterbacks, the likes of Taysom Hill, Taylor Heinicki/Kyle Allen and Mike Glennon/Jake Fromm.

Fair point. Probably not playing those types come playoff times, so what does Jerry think if this defense must go up against Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford or Tom Brady, and if they can go far enough, Patrick Mahomes again? Although in Kansas City's 19-9 victory over the Cowboys, Mahomes' stat line read: 23 of 37, 260 yards, three sacks, no touchdowns, three interceptions and a 71.9 QB rating.

So as Jones said, "I wouldn't go that far, but I would say this, if we can get in front of those kinds of players with this pressure we've got, this pass rush we've got, that will really make a difference. And we haven't had it. We can have it, and if we can do that and if we can continue to improve with what we're doing in the middle, then we're better equipped to be against those guys than any time in the last many years around here."

Boy, is that the truth. Since two of the past three playoff losses have come at the hands of Rodgers and McCarthy's Packers, as we know "The No-Catch" game and then Rodgers' desperation throw to set up the walk-off field goal with little pressure on Rodgers in either of those games. The other, the massive inability to stop the Rams' running game, giving up 273 yards in that 2018 season playoff loss.

Jones is right. This is probably the most capable defensive unit the Cowboys have possessed in quite some time, probably going back to 2007 when the Cowboys walked out on defense Ware, Ratliff, Hatcher, Chris Canty, Marcus Spears, Greg Ellis, Brady James, Terence Newman, Roy Williams and Anthony Henry.

And even though they held the Giants to just 21 points in the 2007 playoffs, the Cowboys offense short-circuited without a healthy Terrell Owens, losing 21-17, the Giants winning three consecutive playoff games on the road, and get this, giving up no more than 20 points in any of those games to go on and beat New England 17-3 to win Super Bowl XLII.

Defense, eh.

Maybe the Cowboys are on to something. You know, 'tis the season of sugar plum visions dancing in heads.

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