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Spagnola: Maybe The Cowboys Have A Defense To Lean On


IRVING, Texas – Holy Grabowski, the Cowboys actually ran the ball – somewhere.

I mean ran the darn ball for 193 yards against the St. Louis Rams this past Sunday, and only needed 34 carries to do so, averaging 5.7 yards a carry, two yards a carry more than they averaged during last season's all-time, 16-game running drought. Why, the 193 is more yards than they rushed for in the first two games of 2013 combined.

And DeMarco Murray, he threw down 175 yards, and that's only six yards short of his previous three-game total. And … and … Murray ran one into the end zone, the first rushing touchdown the Cowboys have scored in the past five games.

Be still my beating heart.

On top of all that, this running success had nothing to do with "balance" or "sticking" with the run, but everything to do with being effective. In other words, production, because when you are productive you can keep doing what you're doing, unlike when you run the ball the 12 times Murray did against Kansas City and end up with 25 yards and no more than two yards on seven of those 12 carries.

So the $64,000 question come Sunday when the Cowboys (2-1) square off against the San Diego Chargers (1-2) in Qualcomm Stadium is …

Can the Cowboys gain enough rushing yards to at least stretch from one end of the field to the other, or will their effort reflect running on some Pacific Ocean sand dune? Was the Rams game, in deference to Pacman Jones, simply the Rams, dude, or did the Cowboys take a huge step toward solving their own Rubic's Cube?

Whatcha think?

Dicey at best if recent history influences our logic.

But if you are looking for a measure of consistency, if you are looking for a phase of this team's game so far this season to chest bump then look no further than the defense, especially that defensive front, with a huge assist from the linebackers. Right?

Yeah, I know they got drilled by the Giants for 31 points and 478 total yards, but the final seven points were a product of allowing the Giants to eat up the clock while driving the length of the field for that touchdown while guarding against the big play. And don't forget those five takeaways on defense and another on special teams.

Then the Cowboys give up just 17 points on the road to a still undefeated Kansas City team. Next, you saw this past Sunday the Cowboys dominating what many thought was a good Rams offense, and one that if not for Jason Hatcher's hand inadvertently hitting Sam Bradford's facemask to nullify a J.J. Wilcox interception, would have been shut out.

Now San Diego, out there, where I'm guessing Cowboys fans not only have gobbled up enough tickets to prevent a local TV blackout that is being predicted for the Chargers next two home games, but also seriously blunt a Chargers home-field advantage.

The Cowboys go into the contest with the NFL's second-ranked run defense, giving up just 66.3 a game, and if not for that final drive in Kansas City, they would be right at 51 yards a game. They also go in tied for fifth with seven takeaways and tied for fourth in third-down percentage, opponents converting at a 29.7 rate.

But to me, here is the key number so far:

No. 2 in sacks with 13. Think about that: 13 in three games. Factor that out over 16 games, and the Cowboys – the Cowboys now, a team that totaled just 34 sacks last year – are on pace for a 69-sack season, which is seven more than the franchise's single-season high of 62 established in 1985.

Now I understand it's just three games, and am well aware two of those games were played at an uncommonly noisy AT&T Stadium. But you know what? Playing well defensively and putting pressure on the quarterback should not matter if you are playing – and in deference to Jason Garrett – at home, on the road, in the parking lot or on the moon.

And brother, if you can play defense, then you give yourself a chance to win every time out.

For a little historical reference to support this case, let's check out the Cowboys defensive rankings during their five Super Bowl-winning seasons: 1971 (3rd), 1977 (1st), 1992 (1st), 1993 (10th) and 1995 (9th). And in all but one of their last six winning seasons the Cowboys sported a top-10 defense, and in fact, were No. 1 in what must go down as the most miraculous of all seasons while going 10-6 in 2003 with personnel that leaves you shaking your head in disbelief.

But in the past three disappointing campaigns, the Cowboys defense has been ranked 23rd in 2010, 14th in 2011 and 19th last year.

Starting to detect some sort of correlation?

Hmmm, or would you rather just continue blaming Tony Romo for everything that goes wrong out here, taking what has become the cliché way out.

Most impressive defensively so far has been the pressure the Cowboys have thrown down on opposing quarterbacks, sacking the erstwhile un-sacked Sam Bradford six times, Kansas City's Alex Smith four times and the Giants Eli Manning three times.

And, these sacks after just three games have been produced by five different guys, led by DeMarcus Ware's four, Jason Hatcher's three and two each from George Selvie and Bruce Carter. That's almost as many guys recording sacks as all of last year (eight), and only three of those players from 2012 had more than three sacks (Ware, Hatcher and Anthony Spencer).

This Monte Kiffin/Rod Marinelli tandem has something going up front. And remember, the Cowboys are playing without Jay Ratliff, now Spencer after his 34 snaps, Tyrone Crawford, Josh Brent, Ben Bass, Sean Lissemore (traded), and if you want to get technical, Rob Calloway.

Yet this defense held St. Louis to 18 yards in the first half last Sunday.

"No never," said Cowboys safety Barry Church when asked if he had ever played in a game where the opponent only gained 18 yards in a half. "That defensive line, I'd take two steps back and man …"

Play over.

Takes me back to like 1990 when the Cowboys defense wasn't all that – yet – and the pass rush was severely lacking while the Philadelphia Eagles defense was eating up the league with the likes of Reggie White, Jerome Brown and Clyde Simmons up front.

Cowboys cornerback Ike Holt, right here in the locker room out at The Ranch one day, was jealously lamenting how long the Cowboys defensive backs had to cover compared to those in Philadelphia.

Standing in front of his locker, Ike mimicked an Eagles corner, crouching down, getting into his back-peddle and taking two steps while counting, "One, two," then standing up straight, puffin' out his chest and going, "yeah man, I'm cool," as if the play is over in an instant because of the pressure up front.

"Man, that makes it real easy," Church said of playing safety behind a line getting after the opposing quarterback. "You get a feel for it, and you only got so much time, you don't have to hold on forever."

And it's not just the sacks so far, it's the pressures, too. The Cowboys have 34 of those spread over seven guys. [embedded_ad]

Well, heading into San Diego on Sunday there certainly is no resting on any of these three-game laurels. This defense will have its hands full with veteran quarterback Philip Rivers, who is sporting a 116.2 passer rating thanks to completing 70 percent of his passes and throwing for eight touchdowns while getting picked off only once.

Letting Rivers sit in the pocket will make for a long So-Cal afternoon.

Which is the very reason why Marinelli, the creative guy that he is, continues to place these little mind vitamins in his guys' lockers each week. As an example, this time around Selvie comes into work on Wednesday to find a miniature souvenir rubber-like football tacked to this note addressed to Brick Layer taped to his locker: I'd like to introduce you to the ball. Now go get it.

Especially this Sunday since the Chargers very well could be playing without three of their starting five offensive linemen, with a fourth, D.J. Fluker coming back after missing this past game with concussion-like symptoms.

So here we go, Game 4, the Cowboys trying to break this nauseating trend of losing the past six opportunities to turn a 2-1 start to a season into 3-1. The last time they did so was in, uh, the aforementioned and somewhat mystifying year of 2003, 11 years ago.

It's time, right? Past time to get to 3-1 with the Denver Broncos bearing down on the Cowboys after this. And just maybe it's a different time, especially if you can lean on the D.

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