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Spagnola: Just Maybe We'll Be Needing To Make A Case For The Defense

ARLINGTON, Texas – Welcome to the NFL and back to football Jaylon Smith.

         Welcome to the NFL Chidobe Awuzie.

         Welcome to the NFL Taco Charlton and you, too, Charles Tapper.

         Welcome to your second years Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown.

         Welcome to the starting lineup Jeff Heath.

         Welcome back to good health DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford.

         Welcome to the defensive role you now have second-year safety Kavon Frazier.

         Throw in the salty Sean Lee, sprinkle in a few vets such as newcomers Stephen Paea and Nolan Carroll, along with Orlando Scandrick, Benson Mayowa, Byron Jones and Damien Wilson, and look what you have:

         The Giants, the New York Football Giants, the ones many think are the new darlings of the NFC East, stacked with 14-year veteran quarterback Eli Manning and all of these offensive weapons we've been hearing about. Yep, these Giants finished up this 2017 season opener here at AT&T Stadium with …

         Three points.

         That's right, three stinkin' points, a huge reason why the Cowboys were able to start this season off 1-0, beating the Giants 19-3 before a rowdy 93,183 Sunday night for a national television audience to see.

         Now look, no one is christening these Cowboys defenders Doomsday III or anything. And OK, fine, we know Odell Beckham Jr. did not play in this game, that ankle sprain keeping him over there on the bench where he could not haunt the Cowboys again. Granted, the Giants sorely missed him.

         But still, three points?

         This is the first time since the 2013 season that the Cowboys have held a team to no more than three points, and that was 57 games ago against the Philadelphia Eagles in a 17-3 victory. And you would have to go back to the 2009 season to find the last time the Cowboys gave up fewer than three points, shutting out Washington, 17-0.

         "Ultimately, you are measured by how many points you give up," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said.

         Well, if that's the case, then the Cowboys are then in some high NFL cotton this opening week with two games to go Monday night. Only Baltimore has given up fewer points, shutting out Cincinnati, and Carolina matching the Cowboys' three in defeating the 49ers.

          Not bad, not bad at all.

         Again, it's one game. But one impressive defensive performance. And let's remember, while the Giants were without Odell, the Cowboys were without starting middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens (leg fracture), arguably the defensive star of training camp, and then lost their most experienced cornerback when Scandrick went out with a broken third metacarpal in his hand with 10:51 still to play in the second quarter.

         "Defensively, it's hard to keep a team out of the end zone and hold them to three points in this league," Garrett said. "I thought time and time again they came up and made big plays both in the running game and in the passing game, and affecting the quarterback."

         Maybe, more appropriate, discombobulating Manning. Because leading 19-3 with 1:48 to play, before allowing the Giants to dink and dunk underneath while eating up the final seconds, the Cowboys had totally shut down the Giants:

         Total yards: 173

         Manning passing yards: 160

         Rushing yards: 36.

         First downs: 10.

         Third down conversions: 3 of 10.

         Points: 3.

         Yep, and that high anxiety Cowboys defense, the one losing four defensive starters in free agency and two huge contributors to season-opening suspensions (David Irving and Damontre' Moore), ended up sacking Manning three times, hitting him four more times, intercepting him once (Brown) and making life even more difficult for him by totaling five tackles for loss.

         And truth be known, the Cowboys very well could have sacked him at least three more times, having run past him or just not getting him to the ground.

         Manning finished with a 78.8 QB rating, and the Giants finished with only three plays of more than 12 yards, and one of those (17 yards) came on that final possession. (In contrast, the Cowboys had eight.) In fact, that is now consecutive games the Cowboys have held Manning to no more than a 79 QB rating (78.4 second time around in 2016). And get this: The Giants didn't cross the 50 until 12:35 left in the third quarter.

         "We acknowledged that in the locker room afterward, giving us good field position, holding them to three points," Capt. Dak said of this defense. "It was a great team win and they played a big part in that."

         Sure did. Because if you remember a year ago, the Cowboys, with Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott playing in their first NFL games that season-opening Sunday, also scored 19 points against the Giants. And that wasn't quite enough, losing 20-19.

         The Cowboys would go on that 13-3 season to finish fifth in points allowed. And only two other times last year did the Cowboys not score at least 19 points in games they were trying to win (see the 13 points in the finale against Philly), beating the Vikings 17-15 and losing again to the Giants 10-7.

         Now this offense will play better, though give the Giants defense credit. Well some, since the Cowboys did rack up 392 yards, but just like in last year's season opener, kicked four field goals and scored just one touchdown. Again, defense was the difference.

         "We know exactly how salty they are," Prescott said of his teammates on the other side of the ball. "You were out there in camp, you saw how physical it was and all the scuffles we had going back and forth with those guys. They made it hard on us all camp long, and we know how talented we are on offense, so it was obvious the talent they had and the way they were coming together on defense."

         And to think the Cowboys had four guys playing prominent roles making their NFL debuts. They had eight guys playing prominent roles starting no more than just their second NFL seasons. And let's add Byron Jones and Damien Wilson to that youthful mix, in just their third seasons.

         Eighth-year veteran linebacker Sean Lee must have looked at these fresh faces in the huddle at times and said to himself, "What the what?"

         "We're just going to keep going one game at a time," said a once-again healthy Lawrence, who sacked Manning twice and easily missed at least two more while finishing with five tackles, three tackles for loss and two QB hits. "And (try to) get better each and every day."

         Late last week, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli was reminded of the Cowboys finishing fifth in points against last year and was asked if they could improve on that. Marinelli, a pretty straight-shooting basic guy said the goal is "to give up one less point than we score."

         Goal accomplished, Coach. The Cowboys gave up 16 fewer than they scored, the three points the fewest the Cowboys have given up in an opener since shutting out the, uh, Giants, 35-0, in 1995.

         Not a bad start, you'd have to say.

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