Spagnola: Defending Their Honor And Standing


FRISCO, Texas – Times, they are a changin'.

Like the identity of these Dallas Cowboys.

Why, we thought going into this 2021 season, this Cowboys offense would need to set the tone if this team was going to rebound from last year's 6-10 effort. And sure enough, the offense did over the first seven games of this season, averaging 32 points a game and leading the Cowboys to a 6-1 record.

This offense had ranked No. 1 in the NFL after the previous eight games, and also had led the league in scoring as recently as putting up 43 points in that victory over Atlanta.

But suddenly, these Cowboys have grown defensive, pilfering the ball left and right, grabbing 13 takeaways in the past five games, including four each in the past two to not only Heisman that two-game losing streak but help build this two-game winning streak.

And you need no more evidence of this growing perception of the marauding Quinn's Gang than Sunday afternoon when administering "capital punishment" just outside the District of Columbia in Landover, Maryland, with a whole bunch of Cowboys fans among the 61,308 at FedEx Field.

Cowboys 27, Washingtons 20.

And this would not have been possible, nor Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy being a man of his word when stating midweek he was "confident" the Cowboys would beat the suddenly resurgent Washingtons riding a four-game winning streak, if not for the burgeoning Bigger D.

"We preach all week about supreme confidence," Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory said. "[Assistant head coach] Rob Davis talks about it all the time. To have that level of confidence from our head coach is going to trickle down to the rest of the guys.

"They wanted us and got us."

Did Washington ever.

Maybe next time WFT head coach Ron Rivera will mind his own business and not worry about what McCarthy has to say when innocently answering a question about his team coming off a 10-day layoff with a struggling at times offense heading into an all-important NFC East matchup with the home team just two games back.

Come on, Ron. Don't you remember the old slogan about sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me?

Should have worried more about Gregory coming back after missing four games with a calf injury. Should have worried more about DeMarcus Lawrence playing just his second game since the season opener. Should have worried more about Neville Gallimore playing his first game of the season.

And brother, bet in two weeks Washington will worry much more about No. 11, introducing himself to that WFT offensive line and unfortunately to quarterbacks Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen very rudely as NFL Rookie of the Year candidate and maybe Defensive Player of the Year candidate Micah Parsons.

Yeah, yeah, I get it. This was but a seven-point victory for the Cowboys, now 9-4 with still four games to play, the most wins they've had since 10-6 in 2018 to win the NFC East, matching the second most since that 13-3 season in 2016 and third most since the 12-4 season of 2014. And remember, you would have to go back to 2009 to find another season with more (11).

On top of that, the Cowboys now have a three-game lead over Washington and Philadelphia, both 6-7, with four games to play, WFT and Philly still needing to play twice in the next three weeks, so there is some losing that must take place there. As important, the Cowboys own a 3-0 record in the NFC East.

If the Cowboys win just two of the final four games, they would eliminate Washington since the best WFT can do now even if winning out is 10 wins. And, if one of those two Cowboys wins is over Philadelphia in the season finale, then the Eagles can't get to 11 wins either.

So, a huge win for the Cowboys when considering NFC East title implications and upping their conference-leading 7-1 record against NFC teams, right Mike?

"Great question," McCarthy said after his return to the field since missing Game 12 in New Orleans for COVID reasons. "We've got a lot of football left, so if you think it is, I'll go for it."

Permission accepted.

Just understand what this defense did Sunday. Held Washington scoreless in the first half and to a ridiculous 29 total yards with two first downs.

Then held Washington to just 14 overall points, this on the heels of holding New Orleans to 17 points last time out, meaning four of the last five opponents to no more than Kansas City's 19 considering WFT's final touchdown on Sunday was a pick-6 to narrow the score to 27-20 with 4:13 to play.

Held WFT overall to 224 total yards, three of 14 on third-down tries and to just 100 yards rushing for a team totaling at least 112 yards rushing and highs of 195 and 190 in four of their past five games.

And get this: While the Football Team finished with 124 yards net passing, in the first half that bunch finished with minus-7 net passing.

Come on now.

"The defense, they played their tails off," Ezekiel Elliott said.

And then some.

We talked midweek about the beauty of Gregory returning, along with Gallimore and Lawrence in his second game back since the opener, and when adding them to what Parsons already has been dong, Quinn pointing out those four guys had played all of 28 snaps together this season.

Well, Quinn unleashed them, so many times lining up five pass rushers on the line of scrimmage, creating one-on-one pass rush situations for that team of mushers, er rushers.

Lead dog initially was Gregory, batting a Heinicke pass into the air that he then intercepted, leading to the Cowboys' first touchdown/two-point conversion and 11-0 lead.

Then came Parsons for his first of two sacks, beating Pro Bowl guard Brandon Scherff for a strip sack of Heinicke that Dorance Armstrong picked up on the run for a 37-yard touchdown return. Now 18-0.

Parsons would bag another sack in the first half, giving him now 12 for the season, the second most by a Cowboys player (Lawrence had 14.5 in 2017) and second most by a player not named DeMarcus Ware since Tony Tolbert had 12 in 1996. And to think, there are four more games to play, and ostensibly with Lawrence and Gregory on the field.

And get this, not only did Gallimore collect a sack, two TFLs and two QB hits, but Lawrence's stat line reads two tackles, one sack, two QB hits and Gregory one tackle, one sack, two QB hits, one interception, one PD and one forced fumble.

In all, the Cowboys finished with five sacks, four takeaways, nine QB hits and got their hands on eight passes. Oh, and beaten down Heinicke was forced to leave the game with 12:45 left in the fourth quarter

"The best is yet to come," said Parsons, whose six-game sack streak makes him one of three NFL rookies in history to accomplish that feat while his 9.5 sacks in those six games ties Leslie O'Neal's NFL rookie mark set in 1986. "This is our first game having us all back and I think we all should be excited. I mean, there were a lot of turnovers that we created out there. We did score on defense today.

"I think it's just the beginning. I think we have a long journey ahead, and I think the more you guys see us playing together, the more you guys will understand what I'm saying."

Or what I'm saying about this team's identity. Because if not for this defensive effort, the Cowboys offense might not have gotten the job done. Dak Prescott made two horrible decisions on his interceptions. He only completed 22 of 39 passes for 211 yards, was sacked four times, one touchdown and the two picks for a 58.8 QB rating, his second lowest of the season.

Worse, the Cowboys were one-for-six scoring touchdowns in the red zone, still reeling from an inability to run the ball, and even more concerning having finished the game without both starting offensive tackles, Tyron Smith leaving late in the third quarter with a foot injury and La'el Collins ejected with 10:29 left in the game for policing up a perceived late hit on Dak out of bounds.

And with the Cowboys leading 27-14 and the team trying to run out the clock, Dak's second-down pass from his own 26-yard line was intercepted by linebacker Cole Holcomb for a pick-six to narrow the lead to 27-20 with 4:13 to play after C.J. Goodwin deflected the extra point kick. And when the Cowboys went three-and-out on the next possession, here the Football Team was, trailing by just seven with 3:04 left to play, having scored 12 straight points.

But here came the defense to the rescue, Gregory recording his strip-sack on a third-and-3 at the Washington 37-yard line that Jayron Kearse recovered at the 28 with 2:24 to play to put out the fire.

Whew, ballgame.

"We're a confident bunch," Dak said. "I'm confident, I know this defense is confident, this offense is confident, obviously our coach is confident and that's why he said that. I told you guys Thursday that's how we felt, and we had to come out here and go do that.

"Be accountable to our words."

And defend their coach's honor and place atop the NFC East.

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