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Spagnola: Jekyll & Hyde Defense Keeps Hope Alive


ARLINGTON, Texas – How 'bout that Cowboys defense?

Really, no sarcasm meant.

But just how contradictory is this:

That defense, ranked dead last in the NFL against the run, and no higher than 31st over the previous nine weeks.

That defense, ranked dead last in points allowed, and on pace to set a franchise single-season record high, already having given up at least 30 points in eight of the 14 games played.

Yep, that same defense, in its best Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde impersonation, made all this possible.

Cowboys 41, 49ers 33.

The Cowboys winning consecutive games for the first time since Games 7 and 8 of last season with a bye week in between, and in consecutive weeks for the first time since the opening three games of the 2019 season.

The Cowboys now 5-9.

The Cowboys now just one game in back of Washington in the NFC East with two games to play, and still the Cowboys needing to win out and Washington needing to lose out after its 20-15 loss to Seattle on Sunday for the Cowboys to have a chance to win the division title.

And with Philadelphia losing (4-9-1) and the Giants losing (5-9), the two teams the Cowboys have left to play this up the down staircase season of 2020, this leaves the Cowboys tied for second with a game up on the Giants, having beaten them already, and a half-game up on the Eagles, who beat the Cowboys the first time around.

Hope lives.

"I'm just really happy for the players," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "These guys deserve this. They've stayed after it."

If looking purely at stats after this one Sunday afternoon before 30,092 at AT&T Stadium, you'd probably think most of what McCarthy might have might have said about this defense would have been laced with censored expletives.

For the record:

· The Cowboys gave up 458 yards total offense in this game, the seventh time this season opponents have exceeded 400 yards in a game.

· The Cowboys gave up another 150 yards rushing to the 49ers, the seventh time this season an opponent has rushed for at least 150 yards, but at least not the 294 of Baltimore less than two weeks ago.

· The Cowboys gave up four touchdowns on Sunday, the eighth time this season giving up at least four TDs in a game, three of those four from within the red zone and all three in goal-to-go situations.

· When it came to passing yards, 49ers backup quarterback Nick Mullens, who head coach Kyle Shanahan contemplated yanking from the starting lineup this past week, and third-stringer C.J. Beathard, who took over on the final drive, combined for 319 yards passing, the sixth time opposing quarterbacks have thrown for at least 273 yards against the Cowboys.

And because of this, why the 49ers were onside kicking with only 40 seconds left to play down just 34-27.

There's the Hyde part.

But … but … there was one saving-grace stat that made all the difference in the world, and who knows as this season plays out, ultimately just maybe all the difference in this COVID-affected season.

Four takeaways.

Welcome, Doc Jekyll.

That's right, four now, not only matching their season-high four vs. Philly, but that is seven in the past two games.

Deck the halls because the Cowboys only had 11 takeaways in the first 12 games. In fact, while winning three of the past five games, this erstwhile (&%$#) defense has pilfered 11 of their growing total of 18 turnovers.

Go figure.

"I feel like we're starting to step up to the plate, live up to our expectations," said defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, registering five tackles, a sack, one TFL and a forced fumble. "When you're playing football, it always starts with the ball, so shout out to the defense for causing those turnovers and recovering them."

Now, for total disclosure, San Francisco (5-9) came into this game having lost three straight and five of their last six. The Niners also had set a franchise record with at least two turnovers in their previous seven games. Now it's eight.

And on top of that, Mullens had turned the ball over 12 times in his previous seven starts, including two last Sunday returned for Washington's only two touchdowns in a 23-15 loss.

But hey, the Cowboys can only play who they have to play. And look, they have not collected more than those four takeaways in one game since 2012, with six against the Giants. On top of that, they finished a plus-4 in the turnover differential, that a season best thanks to not committing a turnover their ownselves in now back-to-back games and for only the third time this season (Rams).

The Cowboys are a plus-7 in the past five games. Consider that about-face, since they were a minus-13 after the first nine games.

"Defensive guys, when they turn over the ball, it's electric," said CeeDee Lamb, five catches, 85 yards.

Great to take that ball away. But then what do you do with those takeaways might be as important, if not more so.

Well, in the 30-7 victory over Cincinnati last Sunday, the Cowboys turned their three takeaways on the Bengals' first three possessions into 17 points.

This time, they turned those four takeaways into 24 points, helping them initially to a 14-0 lead with 6:39 still to play in the first quarter.

Think about this: After 12 games, the Cowboys had turned their 11 takeaways into only 28 points. But in these past two games, those seven turnovers have turned into 41 points.

Why, it took the Cowboys only five plays after Dorance Armstrong forced and recovered a Niners fumble on a punt return at the San Francisco 22 to take a 7-0 lead. Tony Pollard, starting in place of the inactive Ezekiel Elliott (calf) for the first time in his career, did the honors from 1-yard out. Then on the next Niners possession, it was Lawrence with a strip-sack Aldon Smith recovered at the San Francisco 27. Andy Dalton hits Michael Gallup in the back of the end zone from 3 yards out.

Whew, 14-naught.

But that lead disappeared by early in the third quarter, the Niners running the ball down the Cowboys throat using a fullback and at times a fullback and two tight ends to spring Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson for a combined 128 yards on 30 carries. That until Dalton connected with Lamb on a scramble throw for 45 yards down to the 49ers' 12, followed by his touchdown pass to Dalton Schultz.

And the defense couldn't hold that, either, allowing the Niners to drive 75 yards on 11 plays to tie the score at 24.

The Cowboys offense, without any extra help, began stalling out. Couldn't run the ball. Couldn't pass block. Any of that sound familiar? With the game tied at 24, 14:02 left in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys had only run for 37 yards on 15 carries, Pollard just 18 of those on nine carries.

Same ol', same ol' creeping in?

But Johnny on the spot comes safety Donovan Wilson, after missing the previous two starts (groin), making a diving interception of a Mullens pass on third-and-6 from his own 16, setting the Cowboys up at the Niners' 25-yard line for at least a field goal.

And with San Francisco driving, Mullens presented the Cowboys with their final gift, Anthony Brown, with no receiver lined up to his side of the field, basically anticipated a slant pass over the middle to leading receiver Brandon Aiyuk coming his direction for his first interceptions this season, with an assist to pressure on Mullens from Randy Gregory.

Cowboys ball at the Niners 46 with 2:43 remaining.

And finally … finally … what all those Pollard advocates had been waiting for, and with the Niners desperately grabbing for the ball instead of his legs two plays later, the second-year back broke through three would-be tacklers on a 40-yard touchdown romp for a 34-24 Cowboys lead.

"It was great," Zeke said of his partner's TD run. "He's a guy you know is super explosive. You know he can break one at any moment. Before the last play, I told him to 'go put it on ice' and that's exactly what he did."

Prior to that play, Pollard had run the ball 11 times for 29 yards.

No matter. Four takeaways. Twenty-four ensuing points.

Just enough to hold down the Niners, who drove for a field goal and were onside-kicking away down just seven with those 40 seconds remaining before Lamb grabbed the one-hop kick to race 47 yards untouched for the knockout touchdown, the Cowboys first kickoff return for a touchdown since 2008.

"We know there's still is a chance out there, but for us, we just have to make the most out of those last two opportunities and see how everything shakes out."

Crazy, huh? Still a chance at 5-9 thanks to two straight wins.

So let's face it, hail to that schizoid defense.


The Cowboys will take on the Philadelphia Eagles in their last home game of the regular season on Sunday, Dec. 27 at 3:25 p.m. A limited number of tickets are on sale now. Get yours now before they sell out!

Details on all of the health and safety procedures you can expect at AT&T Stadium can be viewed at

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