Spagnola: Dawning Of A New Day For This Cowboys Defense

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IRVING, Texas – Right from the beginning, and the beginning was precisely 10:30 p.m. (CT) on New Year's Day, the Cowboys knew darn well why they were heading home heads down with a sorely disappointing 8-8 record and without a postseason ticket punched, while the New York Giants were scampering into those coveted NFC playoffs as the East Division champs at but 9-7.

Why, the New York Giants, as we've previously pointed out over the offseason, had handed the Cowboys a blueprint for necessary renovations, first in their 37-34 victory over Dallas exactly 21 days earlier and then lastly in their 31-14 win over said Cowboys during a three-hour time span that first day of 2012.

Your defense is not worthy.

And the Cowboys didn't need some nosy consultant to tell them any more. When you give up 23 points a game over 16 games, when you give up at least 24 points seven times, with four of those for more than 30 points and representing half of your losses, you ain't going nowhere once the 17-week season has been completed. Not with that defense.

You know, sometimes 24 points just has to be enough.

So the Cowboys were honest with themselves. They just had to upgrade the secondary. The linebacking corps had to pick up speed. And the front, more specifically the pass rush, had to pick up the pace. Otherwise, they would be languishing in same ol', same ol' another year.

And they did. The Cowboys pledged $50 million to cornerback Brandon Carr after previously extending safety Gerald Sensabaugh the final month of the season. They committed not only their first- and second-round draft choices on cornerback Morris Claiborne, they also spent their third, two fourths and a seventh on defensive additions. They signed veteran linebacker Dan Connor just in case projected starter Bruce Carter wasn't ready. They parted ways with Terence Newman, Bradie James, Keith Brooking and Abe Elam, all 30-somethings, along with Alan Ball and Frank Walker.

A New Day Defense, made to order for Rob Ryan's scheme.

You guys know me by now; I'm not one to jump hastily to conclusions. And I do understand in Wednesday night's season opener against these Giant redesigners before a MetLife Stadium record crowd and a national television audience that Tony Romo threw for 307 yards and three touchdowns; that DeMarco Murray rushed for 131 yards; that Kevin Ogletree established personal bests with eight catches for 114 yards and scored his first two career touchdowns in his fourth-year opener; and that the Cowboys amassed 433 total yards, their most since putting up 444 the first time around against the Giants last season.

But guess what? I'll be darned if 24 wasn't more than enough, the Cowboys, just 248 days since their New Year's Day lesson, gleefully heading home from the same Newark Liberty International airport where they had last left off, only this time with a 24-17 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants that likely sent shock waves throughout the NFL.

Maybe you, too.

Now, of course this is just one game. We all know that, and so do these guys. A bunch of them, and I mean a bunch of them, after a 4:30 a.m. landing back at DFW on a prescribed Thursday day off, were here at The Ranch, eagerly crowding into the assistant coaches' offices to watch what had taken place the night before.

As Carr would say, "This win will not crown the Super Bowl champions for the year."

Or as defensive co-captain Sean Lee said, "We can still clean up some stuff. It's one win, we have to put that behind us and learn … that's only a good start."

Yes, only a start, but a good one no doubt. You saw that before your very eyes, and have received similar sightings during the four preseason games when no one scored a touchdown against the Cowboys' first-team defense when on the field.

So for some meaningful perspective on the level of goodness in this start, let's compare a few numbers.

In the previous six games against the Giants, the Cowboys had given up 193 points. That's a 32.2-point average. No wonder New York won five of them.

In those six games, Giants quarterback Eli Manning combined for 1,996 passing yards and 15 touchdown passes. That's averaging 332 yards and 2.5 TD tosses a game.

In those six games, encompassing 226 passing attempts, the Cowboys had sacked Manning all of four times. Four, for cryin' out loud.

And if you think taking the previous six games might exaggerate the most recent Cowboys' defensive deficiencies, just look at the previous two games, 37-34 and 31-14 losses to the Giants in 2011. Huh, for starters, that's a combined 68 points (34 a game).

In the two games from last year, Manning completed 51 of 80 passes for 746 yards, five touchdowns and one interception while getting sacked just twice. Oh, and least we forget 11 of those completions went for at least 20 yards, including ones for 74, 64, 47 and 41.

Now then, Wednesday night: Manning completes 21 of 32 passes, but for only 213 yards, a modest 6.6 yards-per-attempt. He's sacked three times, hurried another five and has two passes knocked away. Generally, the Cowboys defense had Manning on the move, or as Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said, "I thought we affected the quarterback … made him move off his mark."

On top of that, if not for leaking that 33-yard run to Ahmad Bradshaw in the fourth quarter, the Giants would have totaled but 49 yards rushing on 18 attempts while losing one fumble. So as it was, the Giants finished with just 269 yards of total offense, far less than Manning had averaged simply passing in the previous six games. And, they converted just four of 12 third-down attempts (33 percent) compared to 45 percent in the two games last year.

And … and … the Giants only scored 17 points, a tad more than half as much as they have been averaging over the previous three seasons, representing only the second time in the last 15 games the Cowboys have held the Giants to no more than 17 points.

"No question, huge, huge difference," Romo said when it was mentioned sometimes you've just got to win games, 24-17.

So what's the difference?

Start with the back end. Carr shadowed and controlled Victor Cruz when he lined up outside. He only averaged 9.7 yards a reception on his six catches. Take away a 26-yarder when Carr and Orlando Scandrick sort of bumped into each other off the line of scrimmage and Cruz would have ended up with just five catches for all of 32 yards, a most modest 6.4-yard average.

Rookie Morris Claiborne, in his NFL debut, followed veteran Hakeem Nicks, who finished with just four catches for 38 yards, and did a nice job of causing Manning to look elsewhere.

And if not for the heave-and-hope throw from Manning to Domenik Hixon for 39 yards that Carr mistimed his jump and safety Mana Silva was a tick late arriving, even though for a moment it was a simultaneous catch-interception, the secondary would not have given up any serious big plays. Plus, saw more from Barry Church in one game than we saw from Elam all last year.

Up front, DeMarcus Ware was DeMarcus Ware (two sacks), and pressure from Jason Hatcher (one sack) and Anthony Spencer (seven tackles), along with the play of Lee (12 tackles) and Carter (five tackles), caused Manning to nervously shuffle his feet in the pocket.

When asked about his team's secondary play, mainly the corners locking up successfully in a lot of man coverage, Garrett said, "That's how we wanted to play, and couldn't play that way last year."

No, the Cowboys couldn't and didn't and seemingly haven't.

But they did Wednesday night, and while only one game, it was a step forward … to a possible New Day Defense.

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