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Spagnola: This Will Be A Case Of Judging If This Defense Is For Real

FRISCO, Texas –The storm clouds ripping through Ford Center this past week have diverted attention from tangibly the most pressing issue facing these Dallas Cowboys on Sunday at AT&T Stadium:

         Can this Cowboys seemingly up-and-coming defense deal with the high-octane Kansas City Chiefs offense?

           See, we've all been overly preoccupied with the running back position, and to a certain extent, rightfully so. Heck, Zeke isn't just any ol' running back. By golly, he's Ezekiel Elliott, defending NFL rushing champ as a rookie. He's leading the team with 690 yards rushing, ranking third in the NFL while having played one less game than the two backs ahead of him. He's leading the team with six rushing touchdowns and seven overall in seven games – more touchdowns than a six-pack of abs already.

         And for some reason the NFL is trying with all its might to make good on his six-game suspension, accusing him of the domestic violence the legal system decided was not worth prosecuting and the NFL's own lead investigator, after questioning the accuser, deemed not worth punishing.

         Yet for the past two months the NFL has been throwing down legal road spikes to prevent his lawsuit from ever going to court and trying with all its might to fight any potential injunction that would allow him to continue playing this season while that suit meanders through our legal system's jungle. Not to mention conducting that shady arbitration hearing that to no one's surprise supported commissioner Rodger Goodell's decision to suspend.

         But thanks to a 23rd hour brief administrative stay handed down at 9 a.m. Friday by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals based in New York, Zeke's suspension once again has been placed on hold, allowing him to at least play Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs at AT&T Stadium, putting to rest – for now – all those questions being thrown against the wailing wall:

*         How in the world will the Cowboys ever run the football?*

*         Will Dak have to do more?*

*         Who will be the starting running back?*

*         How will this Cowboys offensive system, having scored at least 28 points in the past five games, be forced to change?*

         On and on and on.

         We act as if some rookie named Derrick Lassic is replacing Zeke, as if the Cowboys will be throwing out some latter-day Troy Hambrick the way those guys had to replace Emmitt Smith back in the day.

         Hey, if and when Alfred Morris, Darren McFadden and Rod Smith will be rolled out to replace Zeke, it's not as if they will come wobbling onto the field with metal crutches or something.

         They will be fine. No, they aren't Zeke. They won't put the fear of Zeus in an opponent the way Zeke will Sunday against the Chiefs. Probably won't threaten the back end the way Zeke will against the Chiefs, KC knowing Zeke is capable of taking any handoff from any yard line on the field to the house.

But even before we found out Zeke will be allowed to play Sunday while the 2nd Circuit Court convenes a three-judge panel – maybe by Tuesday at the earliest to decide the merits of his appeal – to me here was the most concerning deal for the Cowboys on Sunday, and still is:

  • The Chiefs bring the NFL's No. 3-ranked offense to the town of their birthplace. Remember, right? The Dallas Texans of the erstwhile American Football League, founded by late Dallasite owner Lamar Hunt.
  • Chiefs rookie running back Kareem Hunt leads the NFL with 763 yards rushing, bolstered by four 100-yard games and a 5.2 average per carry.
  • Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith is the NFL's top-rated quarterback, what with his 115.4 rating, bolstered by his 16 touchdown passes and yet to be intercepted, along with his out-of-nowhere 8.42 average gain per attempt.
  • Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill runs so fast, he might make "Cool Papa" Bell seem a slowpoke turning off the lights and getting into the bed before it gets dark, and why he averages 14.6 yards per catch.
  • Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce is seventh in the NFL with his team-leading and NFL tight end-leading 44 catches, is tied for the team lead with four touchdowns and stretches a field horizontally and vertically as if warm Scamorza cheese on a pizza.

Got your head spinning yet?

"This is as good an offense as we'll play all year," Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli says, and not sure he'll get any arguments from even Twitter's peanut gallery on that one.

And if you think Rod is just blowing smoke up your chimneys, how about this from the defensive "sweeper," as he is referred to by Marinelli, one Sean Lee:

"This will be one of our toughest challenges."

Let's second that notion.

In five of the six games the Chiefs have won they have scored at least 27 points, including 42 twice and 29 twice. Even in one of the two games they lost, the Chiefs scored 30 points, losing by one to the Raiders, and then only 13 in their other loss to Pittsburgh.

That means one of two things must happen if the Cowboys are to win their third consecutive game. Either they must put up a boatload of points, as they have in the past four games, scoring at least 30 points, or they must slow down this Chiefs offense.

See if you sense a correlation. In the four games the Cowboys have won, they have held each opponent to no more than 19 points (Washington this past Sunday) and the other three teams to 3, 10 and 17. In the three they have lost, the Cowboys have given up 42, 35 and 35.

Can't do that. Can't win that way on a consistent basis.

So what do you think priority No. 1 is for this Cowboys defense, and if you have been paying attention, this is an easy one.


"At the end of the day, it's a physical running game … got to stop the run."


"Stop the run, and it's hard to do."

And you Jason Garrett, knowing the Chiefs have this assortment of high-powered offensive weapons?

"At the end of the day, they're going to hand the ball to 27."

That would be Hunt, and they have done so 146 times, an average of 18 times a game and as many as 29 in their 42-34 victory over Houston. They also will throw it to him, already 28 times, and that includes his rookie debut against New England in the opener when starter Spencer Ware went down, catching five passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns.

Now it would appear the Cowboys defense is starting to jell, but again in the past two games they were going up against a rookie quarterback making his NFL starting debut in San Francisco and a beat-up Washington offensive line this past Sunday in the win at FedEx Field.

When asked if his defense has turned the corner with Lee and Anthony Hitchens back on the field at linebacker, finding a home for Tyrone Crawford at right defensive end, David Irving finding a home at the 3-technique defensive tackle spot, Maliek Collins at the nose and left defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence leading the league with 10.5 sacks, Marinelli, in his best impersonation of Peyton Manning, said almost.

"We're just coming" is how he phrased it.

Well, while last Sunday was an indication going up against the Redskins offense, this week should give us a more definitive answer. Because, right, we knew all along this offense would hum. What we didn't know was if the defense would improve. If it would sustain a run for back-to-back NFC East titles.

And to me, we still don't. We've received a few positive indicators, like their 25 sacks ranking seventh in sacks per pass play and fifth overall in the NFL – one sack away from being tied for third. Like collecting three takeaways in each of the past two games, plus a blocked field goal, with five of those six takeaways leading to three touchdowns and two field goals.

Play well in this game defensively, and I'll ask this question no more. We'll mark this down as an in-nick-of-time arrival, since who knows how much longer Zeke will be available to play.

"We're really going to be challenged this week," Marinelli says of what seems to be his up-and-coming defense.

And unlike the ongoing legal saga of Ezekiel Elliott vs. The NFL, me thinks a definitive answer is forthcoming.

Smack the gavel, we adjourn this case until roughly 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

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