Spagnola: Defense Says Lean On Me For Now


FRISCO, Texas – The Cowboys' defense ranks fourth in total yards.

The Cowboys' defense ranks third in points per game.

The Cowboys' defense ranks second in sacks, one behind league-leading Chicago.

The Cowboys' defense ranks second in yards per play.

The Cowboys' defense ranks second in passing yards per play.

Now I get it, it's only two games for the 1-1 Cowboys. A long way to go. But not bad, right.

Especially for a team last season giving up an average of 32.43 points per game in its seven losses.

In fact, this up and coming Cowboys defense, spliced with an inordinate amount of speed, front to back, and some budding playmakers to go with Sean Lee and DeMarcus Lawrence, can't afford to be bad, at least not any time soon.

This defense so far, and this is no startling revelation, has been the backbone of this 2018 Cowboys team, holding the Giants to just 13 points in the only win and at least providing a chance in the season-opening loss by giving up just 16 to the Panthers.

And these lean-on-me defensive performances need to continue if the Cowboys hope to survive the early part of the season, meaning for sure Sunday against the 0-2 Seattle Seahawks up there at CenturyLink Field, end even though up next are the currently 0-2 Lions and the 0-2 Texans.

Because that side of the ball needs to buy time for this offense.

Talk about a work in progress.

As opposed to the defensive stats, this Cowboys offense after two games, and be ready to cringe, ranks 30 in total offense, 30th in passing offense and tied for 29th in points per game, coming in at a lackluster 14 points a game, like 0.9 fewer than the Cowboys are giving up. Not good.

So here is my two-game take: The Cowboys' defense has to hold down the fort until the offense gets up to speed. Just don't think that side of the ball will continue to struggle. There is talent over there. No matter the popular narrative, Dak Prescott can play. Zeke has the ability to lead the league in rushing again, and despite the offense struggling mightily against Carolina, Zeke's 147 yards rushing over the first two games is just 37 yards off the league lead. Heck, that could be just one carry for him.

The more the offensive line in its current makeup plays together, the better it will be. And if the Cowboys ever get Travis Frederick back . . . .

Plus, again, no matter what anyone thinks, there is talent at the wide receiver position.

This group just needs time to jell.

So, when you're not strong, bring on whatever this Hot Boyz stuff is and the rest of them to the rescue.

"We always wanted that," Lee says of being leaned on, knowing this defense has been building toward that each year since bottoming out in 2013 with the 32nd-ranked (dead last) total defense. "Now it's consistency, do it week in and week out. Got to create that, and take the next step."

Lee is right. Mentioned previously the Cowboys giving up those 32.43 points a game in last year's seven losses. In the nine wins, it was more like it, just 11.9 points a game, though probably need an asterisk in the 6-0 win in Philly since the Eagles punted away the meaningless final game of the season.

But this group is different. Faster, much faster. Younger. Six of the 11 starters are either different guys or guys in different positions from last year, with Byron Jones now playing cornerback and Tyrone Crawford now playing defensive tackle. Then there are the additions of Randy Gregory, Leighton Vander Esch, Antwaun Woods, Joe Thomas and a physically-improved Jaylon Smith. And let's not sleep on an improving Damien Wilson, the addition of Dorance Armstrong, improving Taco Charlton, a healthy Chidobe Awuzie and the possibility in two games of adding David Irving to a defensive front accounting for six of the team's nine sacks.

Plus, there is the acquisition of secondary coach/defensive pass-game coordinator Kris Richard. Let's let defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli tell you all you need to know about the former Seattle defensive coordinator, who should know the Seahawks' personnel Sunday inside out.

"He's been a tremendous impact, obviously," Marinelli has no problem saying. "You know that. I said that the very first day he came in."

Marinelli would go on and on, on Richard's influence, to the point of saying how he has no problems handing off the defensive play-calling to his sidekick, and says he plans on doing so Sunday against the Seahawks, even adding, "We're fortunate" to have Richard aboard. "I'm lucky."

And if Marinelli is lucky, then the Cowboys are lucky, too. Richard not only has added a measure of swag to this defense, but also some aggressiveness. Meaning not just more blitzing, especially against a questionable New York Giants offensive front, but more importantly coordinating a highly effective blitz attack.

The Cowboys already have nine sacks in two games, which factors out to an unfathomable 72 over 16 games. Probably won't get there, but for some perspective, the Cowboys totaled 38 sacks last year, their most since 42 in 2011. The franchise record is 62 in 1985, which also is the season of "Thurman's Thieves" when the Cowboys finished with 33 interceptions, second most in franchise history to the 37 in 1981.

Marinelli, though, always the realist, will put up a huge stop sign when talk of sacks and pressures reaches deafening heights.

"(Seattle) will come out and run the ball against us," he says, or at least try, though the Seahawks have only rushed for 138 yards in two games, just 3.6 a carry as compared to the Cowboys' 232/4.9 a carry.

But here is his logic:

"You can't be a good defense if you can't play good run defense. You can't, because you never get to use your firepower. You are always in third-and-2."

So far, the Cowboys are giving up 91 yards rushing a game, and 3.7 a carry. OK, but not good enough since Carolina rattled their cages for 147 yards, thanks to the 13 carries for 58 yards of quarterback Cam Newton. And while they held the Giants to just 35 with first-round draft choice Saquon Barkley, Seattle and quarterback Russell Wilson pose some of the same running problems as Carolina.

The five-time Pro Bowler's greatest asset is creating plays with his legs, moving in and out of the pocket, throwing on the run or keeping the ball himself. Even in the loss to Denver, Wilson threw for 298 yards and three touchdowns. Downside, Wilson has been sacked six times in each of the first two games. A third six-pack would certainly help.

As you can see, that Cowboys defensive "firepower" will be in great demand, along with the rest of that No. 4 defense capable so far of being leaned on.

All buying time for a growing offense to catch up.