Spagnola: Offense Is Rolling, But What About That Defense Still Lingers

FRISCO, Texas – There is a lot to like about this Dallas Cowboys team, but …

         You know, great the Cowboys have scored 28, 30, 31 and 40 points in their past four games, an average of 32.3 points per game.

         Great Dak Prescott has thrown three touchdown passes in three consecutive games, something only Don Meredith and Tony Romo have accomplished in Cowboys history.

         Great Ezekiel Elliott has now has rushed for 232 yards in the past five quarters, which doesn't even include that 72-yard touchdown scamper on a screen pass against San Francisco. Keep feeding the guy.

         Great Dez Bryant leads the team with four touchdown receptions – on pace for 11 – needing one more to eclipse Bob Hayes' franchise career mark of 71. And think about that, the fact this record has stood since 1974, for 43 years now, causing even Dez to say, "Man, that's a long time."

         Great this offense has piled up more than 400 yards of total offense in the past four games.

         Great their third-down conversion percentage, woefully lacking early in the season, has jumped to 45.3 percent, fifth in the NFL.

         And certainly great their red zone efficiency scoring touchdowns ranks second in the NFL (66.7 percent) thanks to scoring TDs on 14 of their last 17 trips inside the 20.

          Yet, here comes it comes, the ubiquitous but you've been waiting on:

         But what about this defense?

         Is this defense good enough to help turn the Cowboys' 3-3 record into something division-winning or playoff-quality?

         Is this defense good enough to take on the road to FedExField Sunday to face the equally 3-3 Washington Redskins, whose quarterback Kirk Cousins last season threw for 813 yards, four touchdowns and one interception against the Cowboys, despite losing both games? And remember that was *with *those defensive backs Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox everyone now seems to be fawning over in their absence with revisionist history.

         Is this defense good enough to win a game even if the Cowboys don't score 30 points every time, certainly a tall task to continue doing so?

         Is this defense good enough to withstand the loss of Mr. Automatic, kicker Dan Bailey, for possibly a month?

         Is this defense good enough to survive the upcoming gauntlet of quarterbacks, namely the NFL's third-ranked Cousins, the NFL's top-rated QB Alex Smith, Atlanta's Matt Ryan and the NFL's fourth-rated Carson Wentz, not to mention down the road veteran Philip Rivers, Derek Carr, Russell Wilson and, of course, Cousins and Wentz once again?

         Well, we certainly are about find out, aren't we?

         Or as defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli matter-of-factly says, "I think we go into everything thinking, are we getting better, are we improving?"

Well, the Cowboys defense certainly played much better and seemed to continue improving this past Sunday in that 40-10 victory over San Francisco, and really held the Niners to just three points before taking their foot off the gas with a 40-3 lead and just 10:49 left to play.

That victory has left Cowboys owner Jerry Jones saying heading into this Washington game, "I like the way we're improving, especially on the defensive side of the ball."

And, look, I know. That was against the now 0-7 49ers, but a team that was averaging 25 points per game over its previous four and had put up 39 in a loss to the Rams. And I know the Cowboys gave up 42 to Denver in a game they thoroughly got whipped on both sides of the ball.

But let's remember a couple of things. Defensive quarterback Sean Lee (see last Friday's column) was not there for the 35 points yielded to the Rams and Green Bay. David Irving and Anthony Hitchens weren't there for that Rams game.

All three, though, were back for the 49ers, and that marked the first time that Lee and Hitchens were on the field together since the Green Bay playoff loss of last season. And against San Francisco the experienced two combined for 13 tackles, restoring order to the linebacker position.

As for Irving, in his two games back after serving the four-game suspension, all he's done is record three tackles, three sacks, four quarterback pressures, bat two passes down at the line of scrimmage and force one fumble on a QB sack, good enough for Marinelli to move him into the 3-technique defensive tackle spot and Maliek Collins to Stephen's Paea's vacated 1-tech spot.

After some hopscotching, Marinelli has settled in with Tyrone Crawford at right defensive end. He's had a sack in each of the past two games, and three QB pressures.

"Very well, very well," Marinelli says of how Crawford has played over there. "A power guy with finesse."

The Niners' numbers bear some of this out:

Held that offense to 290 total yards, fewest given up since the season opener.

Held the Niners to 103 yards rushing, fewest since Game 3 against Arizona.

Had five sacks, giving this defense 16 in the past four games, a 64-sack pace if factored over the course of a season.

And … and … the Cowboys defense logged two takeaways, plus notched another fumble recovery on special teams after technically going three consecutive games without a takeaway.

Again, was this the Niners, dude, or is the Cowboys defense turning a corner?

Well, we are about to find out.

As Lee says, "We have to keep building as a defense, keep improving."

We spoke of what Cousins did to the Cowboys last year. So far this year the Redskins do score right at 24 points a game, and have scored 27, 27 and 26 in their three victories. Their offense does rank eighth in the NFL and their two tight ends, Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis, are pains in the your-know-whats.

So Rod Marinelli?

"I say it every week, you've got to stop the run," he says before talking about getting after Cousins.

"Have to stop the run."

And here is where Brother Rod is coming from. In the three games the Cowboys have won, they have held their opponent to 36, 46 and 103 yards rushing. In the three games they have lost, the Cowboys have given up 178, 168 and 160 yards rushing.

Sense a correlation?

"I feel like if we had stopped the run we could have gotten after those quarterbacks," making reference to QBs Trevor Siemian, Jared Goff and Aaron Rodgers.

Here is the other factor contributing to the last two losses, 35-30 to the Rams and 35-31 to the Packers: The Cowboys basically handed the Rams a touchdown with that muffed punt at their own 18-yard line and did hand the Packers a touchdown with the dropped pass that turned into an interception returned for a score.

As for the Redskins, they don't exactly have a prolific running game, Chris Thompson their leader with just 213 yards and Rob Kelley, listed as their starter, just 147. But then neither did Green Bay, yet rookie Aaron Jones put up 125 on the Cowboys, the most by an opponent this season.

So here we go again. In this Cowboys offense we trust.

The defense, well, we are about to find out since in consecutive weeks the Cowboys will be playing offenses ranked eighth, third, seventh and fifth, sort of a Murderers' Row in their own right.

"For us, it's building that consistency week in and week out," Lee says.

And enough trust to erase that dangling but.

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