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Spagnola: Defensive Resurgence A Must To Keep From Slip-Sliding Away

IRVING, Texas – Just when you thought it was safe to come out from under the covers, when you might even do a little bragging on the Cowboys defense, when you thought, OK, Tony Romo is out eight weeks and Dez Bryant will be out at least until after the Oct. 18 bye, but at least the Cowboys can lean on their defense in the interim, you get …

         Falcons 39 points.

         Falcons 158 yards rushing.

         Falcons backup running back Devonta Freeman 141 of those yards and three touchdowns.

         Falcons receiver Julio Jones clinching NFC Offensive Player of the Month with 12 catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns.

         Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan completing 24-of-36 passes for 285 yards, and the only time the Cowboys touched him was the very first time he attempted to pass, so 36 consecutive deliveries untouched.

         What the what?

         Come on, these were the same guys holding Philadelphia the previous week to 7 yards rushing, 10 points (barely) and 19 minutes, 30 seconds time of possession in a 60-minute game.

         The same defense, without being saddled with the offense's turnovers, that had given up just one touchdown on its own in eight quarters, and that one scored with 1:21 left in the eighth quarter.

         My gosh, it was time for a nickname, time to ballyhoo, time to trust. Time to believe scoring 28 points in a game, be it in the first half or spaced out over four quarters, would be more than enough to pull off victories with even a backup quarterback and a bevy of young, inexperienced receivers.

         Not so much.

         Nope, what was so good turned so, so bad in Week 3 of the NFL season. And for good reason has folks on pins and needles with the Cowboys heading into a Sunday night game in New Orleans where things have been known to stretch the limits of bizarre – on the field and especially in the streets, one in particular.

         While the Big Easy has been known to turn many a stomach queasy, just the thought of Cowboys-Saints recent history, and no matter the Cowboys come into this game 2-1 and the Saints winless in three tries, might leave Cowboys fans doubled over.

         Like the Saints beating the Cowboys, 40-17, in their last visit there in 2013. Drew Brees threw for 383 of the Saints' 625 yards, the most ever totaled by a Cowboys opponent, and the Saints racked up an unheard of 40 first downs, not only a Cowboys' opponent record, but also an all-time NFL single-game record.

         Like the Saints beating the Cowboys four out of the last five times they've met in the Superdome since 1998. The Cowboys only win, 24-17, came in 2009, that just one of two over New Orleans anywhere in the past 10 games – the other last year's 38-17 drubbing at AT&T Stadium.

         That the Cowboys have won their past 10 straight regular-season road games and the Saints have lost the past six in their Big House represents somewhat of an emotional antacid for this weekend.

         Now, only the Saints know for sure if quarterback Drew Brees will play come Sunday night's nationally televised game. Head coach Sean Payton somewhat cryptically said on Friday of his quarterback nursing a bruised right rotator cuff, "I think he's planning on starting, and we're planning on starting him." Not sure why Payton is using the words planning on, although the Saints are listing Brees probable on the official NFL injury report, meaning he has at least a 75 percent chance of playing.

And if history means anything, containing Brees will be a daunting task. In six career games against the Cowboys (4-2), going back to 2006, he has completed 181-of-260 passes for 2,216 yards with 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions for a robust 140.6 passer rating.

         But heck, even if backup Luke McCown must play, he completed 31-of-38 passes for 310 yards in last Sunday's 27-22 loss to Carolina. That was his first start since the second game of 2011 with Jacksonville when he posted a 1.8 passer rating (that is not a typo).

         So to me, eclipsed by all this bluster over what Brandon Weeden did or didn't do in the loss to Atlanta, that he threw underneath way too much despite putting up 28 first-half points, or this endless discussion about the team's rushing attack, is the defense's abject failure in the game, burned so bad that the Cowboys would have needed to put up 40 points to win. And guess what, even though they did that in each of the final two games last year, along with a third time a few weeks earlier that season, since 2000 they have only scored at least 40 points in a game over the past 243 a grand total of 10 times. That averages out to once every 24.3 games.

         Them is long odds, and even longer when playing a backup quarterback and no receiver named Dez.

         Of course, the Cowboys were without starting right defensive end Jeremy Mincey (concussion), along with backup defensive tackle Terrell McClain, placed on IR (toe surgery), littering the field with four defensive linemen in no more than their second year (one making his NFL debut) and a fourth-year guy making his first NFL start at defensive end instead of the tackle spot he's been playing since the start of training camp.

How bad was it?

Here is what Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett had to say when asked what needs to improve most on defense against the Saints:

 "Oh, I think everything. We have to defend the run better. That starts with being a physical defense. It's being a disciplined defense, being a relentless defense. We did a really good job a couple of weeks ago in Philadelphia, so it's not like we haven't done it before, (like) we don't know how to do it.

"Just have to go back to being who we are, being the best version of ourselves. It's play after play after play. You have to understand how to set edges, be in the gaps, run to the ball, tackle well and be physical when you get there. At times we've done that really well this year. We just have to get back to that."

Yeah, like Sunday. See, the worst thing that can happen to a unit is putting bad tape out there for the universe to see. Don't you know Payton, the Cowboys former offensive assistant, must be salivating after watching how the Falcons scorched the Cowboys by running outside of defensive ends who didn't do a good job setting the edges.

Don't you know his eyes opened up wider than the gaps the Cowboys inside guys created by not holding down their lanes, probably getting over-anxious chasing the ball instead of moving like a coordinated chorus line of four down the line of scrimmage.

And I'm guessing when it came to the Cowboys' pass-rush evaluation, certainly there was no one in that game putting the fear of a DeMarcus Ware in Payton. In fact, the Cowboys resorted to trying anything they could to provide pocket pressure, lining up strong-side linebacker Kyle Wilber as a pass-rushing defensive end in nickel and dime situations, and also rookie linebacker Damien Wilson, who says he last put his hand on the ground as a rush defensive end during his freshman season when he was then at Alcorn State before eventually landing at Minnesota for his final two years of eligibility.[embeddedad0]

"It wasn't good," said veteran defensive tackle Nick Hayden, who led the front line with five tackles, one for a loss, with two passes batted down against the Falcons. "A lot of people lost focus and were running to the ball. We are such a gap-disciplined defense."

Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli was politely obliging during his Thursday media session while criticizing his unit, but believe me, that's likely not what took place during meetings and on the practice field this week. Not that the little sign on one of the defensive meeting room doors is, "If you're not rushing, you're stealing money," with the drawn picture of a guy slinging a big sack on his back.

The numbers spell out the problem against Atlanta. Just one sack, and most upsetting, not a single takeaway. Then there is giving up more yards rushing in one game than they had in the first two combined (106). Bet that football on a spring attached near the entrance to the meeting room got a workout this week, his reminder to slap at the ball at every chance.

As Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Friday morning, "On the defensive side of the ball we've just got to get some pressure no matter who is at quarterback."

Yes, help is on the way, Mincey returning this week. And next week, here come Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain, their four-game suspensions expiring Monday. Then Randy Gregory (high ankle sprain), maybe after the bye. That should help a rush that hasn't been very manly these opening three games, registering only three sacks, but only one by a defensive lineman, Tyrone Crawford. Just think, former defensive end DeMarcus Ware has 3.5 by himself for Denver, winning him AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors.

"We just didn't execute our rush well enough," said Marinelli, not at all miffed when answering some tough questions quite honestly. "We got locked up, all those things. That can't happen, has to get better. We're working at it, working at it. That wasn't good enough.

"It's not good, not at a championship level. They know that. … It's not good enough."

That has to get better, the pass rush, the run defense, all of it, and starting Sunday in New Orleans. And the defensive play must remain better if the Cowboys are going to keep their heads above water in the absence of Romo and Bryant.

Because as Cowboys COO Stephen Jones says, "We're not just trying to hold on."

Absolutely not, since as the elder Jones says, "We need to go down to New Orleans and win at New Orleans."

But if this Sunday night's defensive performance does not render last week's a mere aberration, if the Cowboys can't lean on those guys as they mostly did in the first two games of the season so scoring 40 doesn't become a necessity to win, then even merely holding on will become a slippery slope.

Sending everyone for cover once again.

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