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Spagnola: This Defense Needs To Step Right Up


What you say we just cut to the chase.

There is a multitude of reasons why the Cowboys sit here at 2-4, heading to meet the Washingtons on Sunday in Landover, Md.

Look, we get it. This Cowboys offensive line is decimated by injuries. You know, if heard it once, must have heard it as least three times during the Thursday night Eagles-Giants game, Joe Buck repeatedly pointing out the multiple injuries on the Eagles offensive line, that they were starting their sixth different five-man combination. Well, guess what? If not for one play, the first of the game against Cleveland, Cowboys center Joe Looney suffering a sprained knee, the Cowboys, too, will be starting their sixth different combination on that front five in Game 7.

We know all too well the Cowboys will be without franchise quarterback Dak Prescott for the remainder of the season, the controls being turned over to veteran QB Andy Dalton.

And oh, those blessed turnovers, 15 of them, leaving the Cowboys with a league-worst minus-12 turnover differential going into Week 7, the next worst in the NFL a minus-7.

Plus, we continue to hear how the Cowboys have a new head coach, predominantly a new coaching staff, but of all things, because of COVID-19, this staff did not have a chance to implement their systems with a normal offseason. No weight and conditioning program. No OTAs or minicamp. Shortened training camp. No preseason games.

We get it. All of it.

But if we are going to be honest, most culpable in this worse start since the 6-10 season of 2010 that got Wade Phillips fired at the halfway point, with the Cowboys desperately needing a win over the 1-5 Washingtons at FedExField to retain a slim lead in the NFC East over the Eagles (2-4-1) is …

The defense. Hands down.

The Cowboys enter Game 7 having already given up 218 points, the most in a league with 14 teams having won no more than two games. At this rate, the Cowboys are on pace to give up 581 points. That's 145 more points than the current single-season record for most opponent points in franchise history, set in 2010 (436).

The Cowboys defense ranks 27th overall in the NFL, already having given up 2,460 yards. That pace over 16 games comes to 6,560. That is approaching the single-season franchise-worst 6,645 yards of 2013, but solidly on pace to become the second worst.

And when it comes to rushing yards, the Cowboys defense ranks 31st, already having given up 1,040 yards, which comes to 173.3 a game. That pace? Well, 2,773 yards, besting the 2,636 of 2000, and as if more damning, just 13 yards a game fewer than the 1960 team of 0-11-1.

Just historically poor.

And this, by no means, is unnecessary roughness. Just the facts.

Yes, with a backup quarterback behind this offensive line and the mounting turnovers, that's no recipe for success. But just because the offense is struggling doesn't mean the defense has to struggle, too.

And we're going to get an assist here from Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith, a non-believer in excuses.

"Put together a full game, that's what our defense must do, regardless of what our offense has going on," Smith said. "Our offense can score 50 points, our offense can score three points, it doesn't matter. It's on the defense's job to be there for our brothers. That's what we just do. We've got to put together a full game."

Yeah, sort of the way the Eagles defense stepped up on that final drive of their narrow 22-21 win Thursday night over the Giants, who did the opposite, allowing Philly to recover from a 21-10 fourth-quarter deficit in the final minutes.

Smith, during his conference call, was given a soft pillow to rest his head on. You know, the offense putting you guys in bad field possession with far too many turnovers, especially with the four committed in Monday night's loss to the Cardinals.

Not having it.

"It's about responding to adversity, being there for our brothers," Smith said. "That's what we must do. We didn't do that, we didn't accomplish that. Anytime it's inside the red zone, it's three or less."

He's darn right. Think about it. Only one of the four turnovers Monday night was in Cowboys territory, that at the 27-yard line, the Cards turning that possession into a touchdown. The others came at the Arizona 46, the Arizona 21 and the Arizona 10. The Cards scored two more touchdowns and a field goal on those ensuing possessions.

But Jaylon, come on. No offseason to speak of, not enough time for the new staff to implement new schemes; for the players to make that transition, as if football is as intricate as splitting the atom. Come on, it's football.

"All of the no OTAs, all that no preseason, all of that good stuff is over," Smith said, knowing they are two games short of the halfway point. "There're no excuses. We've got to get the job done, and we're finding a way. That's what we need to do. We've got to keep taking steps forward. But this week we must win. That's what we've got our eyes on."

And then, of course, the elephant let into the room, that report anonymously attributing multiple players criticizing head coach Mike McCarthy's coaching staff for the problems, seemingly someone on defense that not only drew the ire of veteran linebacker Sean Lee, but also Smith.

"All of that anonymous stuff is trash to me," Smith said. "The head coach, he's a players' coach. And he's about everyone being men. If you got something to say, own up to it. Regardless of what allegations were said, it could have come from anyone."

Or as Lee suggested, maybe from someone not even in the locker room or possibly an agent.

Whatever, if the Cowboys are to beat Washington, this defense must play better against a team averaging 18 points a game and tied for dead last when it comes to yards gained. Washington has scored no more than 20 points in each of its now five consecutive losses.

So it's time. Especially these next two games, NFC East games. McCarthy pointed out, with the lowly state of the East, likely at this point winning division games will determine the outcome of the East. And at this point, after the Eagles edged the Giants Thursday night, they are the only other team in the division with two wins (2-4-1), but 1-1 in division games. A Cowboys victory on Sunday would keep them a half-game ahead of the Eagles and move their division record to 2-0. A loss leaves them a half-game behind and even with the Eagles in division games.

Ah, but it would also mean the Washington's would move into a second-place tie with the Cowboys at an unsightly 2-5, only a game ahead of the now 1-6 Giants.

And then there is next Sunday night's confrontation with the Eagles in Philly. Either way, it will be a battle for first place, if you can imagine that.

"You win the division games, you win the division," McCarthy said. "This is probably going to come to the division games as it normally is."

But to do so, this Cowboys defense must become defensive. In a hurry.

"Look at the first 30 plays last week," Smith said of the first quarter against Arizona when the Cowboys forced three consecutive punts. "We were grinding, we were rockin'. We need to be consistent throughout the entire game.

"And it's nobody's fault but ours. We've got to make it happen because we're out there playing.

Exactly, no ifs, ands or buts.

Nor excuses.

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