Spagnola: So Far So Encouraging For This Much-Maligned Cowboys Defense

ARLINGTON, Texas – Rayne Dakota Prescott has been the rage of preseason.

Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, in no more than cameo appearances, have been the bomb.

Alfred Morris so far has been a steal.

Morris Claiborne is killing it.

Oh, but this Cowboys defense, the one creating great anxiety from the start of training camp, mostly through guilt by association with last year's version that couldn't get a turnover to save themselves or a late-game stop. The Cowboys finished 4-7 in games they either led or were tied in the fourth quarter.

These guys, virtual no-namers, quietly as it is being kept, are sneaking up on us before our very eyes.

Look, I'll admit it's the preseason, right? And it's not like the Cowboys have played the NFL's gifts to quarterbacks. I mean, last week Case Keenum and raw rookie Jared Goff in the first half. This past Friday night Ryan Tannehill and Matt Moore in the first half.

Hey, Eli's coming.

OK, fine, but it's not like the Cowboys have been rolling out the Fearsome Foursome or Doomsday. Look what they've been playing with, thanks to suspensions and injuries. Like, there is only one guy on this defense that's been to a Pro Bowl. That's Sean Lee, and he has only played 12 snaps, all of those against the Dolphins in the Cowboys' 41-14 victory at AT&T Stadium.

In fact, among Friday night's starters, only four of those guys – Lee, DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford and Brandon Carr – started as many as 12 games last year.

Now granted Orlando Scandrick is back from last year's season-ending torn ACL. He played for the first time against the Dolphins, 11 plays, two series. Byron Jones did start 11 games last year, but just seven at free safety where he permanently is now. Claiborne did start 11 games last year, but he only started Friday night because the Cowboys opened in their nickel defense. And remember, while Lawrence led the team last year with eight sacks and did start all 16 games, he will be suspended for the first four games of this season.

So it's quite understandable the anxiety building up over this defense for the past couple of months. Me, included.

[embeddedad0]But a funny thing has happened during the first halves of these first two preseason games, leading toward the third one against the Seahawks in Seattle this coming Thursday, certainly a truer test, what with the Seahawks offense ranked fourth last season and likely playing the majority of their starters in this third preseason game.

Fine, we'll see.

But check it out, the Cowboys makeshift defense in the preseason opener against the Rams gave up just seven points and 132 yards in the first half. On Friday night against the Dolphins, the Cowboys defense gave up 14 points and 190 yards. But they had one takeaway and two sacks.

Also, let's figure this into the equation from Friday, when for some reason ticky-tack infractions were being blown up into 15-yard personal fouls or unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. The Dolphins needed back-to-back personal foul and unsportsmanlike penalties, totaling 30 yards to set up their first touchdown. That accounted for 30 of the 75 yards in the drive.

The second touchdown was scored against a mixture of secondary starters and backups in the front seven. Also note that after giving up a 55-yard completion, the Cowboys frontline defense held tough from a first-and-10 at their own 20 and then staged a four-play goal-line stand when the Dolphins had moved to a first-and-goal at the 4, thanks to a facemask penalty on Anthony Hitchens.

Not bad.

"We've had a good start," Lee said afterward. "We took a step forward."

In other words, he's not buying this defense has arrived or anything.

So maybe the word after two preseason games should be encouraging.

The Cowboys have totaled four sacks, 10 tackles for loss and three takeaways, while giving up 21 points in two first halves, along with 322 yards.

Plus, this defensive front sure looked a lot different in the Miami game with Jack Crawford and Lawrence starting at defensive end and Tyrone Crawford and Terrell McClain starting at defensive tackle, and with Cedric Thornton rotating in behind McClain and newcomer Shaneil Jenkins behind Tyrone Crawford.

And to think restricted free-agent signee Benson Mayowa has yet to play, his presence certain to help out the rotation at defensive end, especially in the four-game absences of Lawrence and for sure Randy Gregory. And missing on Friday were defensive ends David Irving and fourth-round draft choice Charles Tapper, both off to impressive starts before sidelined by day-to-day injuries.

So there are possibilities up front. There is promise.

But as defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will readily remind you, "Now we have to have production."

Much of the Cowboys improvement over last season will depend on the font four. With the return of Scandrick, the strong camp from Claiborne and finally getting Jones settled at one position (free safety) the back end of this defense appears fine.

Same at linebacker, even without Rolando McClain in the middle, and you get the distinct feeling he's played his last down for the Cowboys, not only facing a 10-game suspension but never having reported to camp, which, who knows, might even be by the team's choice. Hitchens has been more than just fine, with Justin Durant having his back.

All Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett will say of Rolando McClain is "we coach the players who are here."

So far, when all are here and healthy, this appears to be a surprising group, and as long as the offense can average more than the 17 points a game of last season. That's hard for even the best of NFL defenses to cut it.

Just remember, no matter the lack of takeaways last year or fourth-quarter failures, this team lost two games in overtime on the first possession and five total by no more than seven points. And in four of those seven losses last year the Cowboys scored no more than 20 points, and in two others no more than 16.

Hard to win when you're so offensively challenged.

We'll see. Two more preseason games to go, and again, let's not forget that this is, after all, just the preseason.

"We have to keep in mind we only won four games last year," Lee says. "We know we have to continue to improve."

But at least they seem to be on the right track and with the right mindset. That this is a team game, not one made up of individual stars.

Says newcomer Thornton, "It's not about the names, it's not about the numbers," obviously listening intently to Marinelli. "It's about playing together."

So right, encouraging.

Take a look at some of the action happening before the Cowboys face the Dolphins at AT&T Stadium.

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