The Dallas Cowboys have made a commitment to being much better on the defensive side of the ball in recent years. A unit that was once a liability during the Tony Romo/Dez Bryant era they've been one of the best against the run since 2016 finishing 8th, 1st and 5th respectively. In 2018, they were 13th against the pass as well as the Cowboys finished 10-6 and won the NFC East crown for the second time in three years. Players like Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Xavier Woods, Chidobe Awuzie and others have made this defense one that can be counted on. Even with a somewhat shaky start, this unit is still one of the better of it's kind in the NFL.
The season opener was a success as the Cowboys won 35-17 against the arch-rival New York Giants, however, the defense didn't exactly have a stellar all-around performance. Running Back Saquon Barkley broke a 59-yard run early in the first quarter that set up a touchdown giving the Giants a 7-0 lead. Fortunately for the Cowboys, they were able to hold him to only 61 yards for the rest of the game. The 120 yards by Barkley won't look good on the stat sheet for the Cowboys defense but holding a player of Barkley's talent to that low of a rushing total for the final three and half quarters was impressive, and the Cowboys offense running Giants out of the building didn't hurt either.
Eli Manning threw for 306 yards but his lone touchdown pass came halfway through the first quarter on the Giant's first possession. In total, they racked up 25 first downs 470 yards of offense. Not flattering statistics by any means but there were a few bright spots for the Cowboys defense in week one. They only allowed the Giants to convert 2 of 11 on third down, held them to 17 points and forced two turnovers. That's a winning formula any Sunday.
Week two saw the Cowboys hit the road to face the Washington Redskins. The defense was looking to bounce back after their week one showing, and they did just that. The Redskins were never able to gain a consistent rhythm on offense due to the Cowboys offense keeping them on the sidelines for over 33 minutes. The Cowboys held the Redskins to a minuscule 255 total yards for the game with only 47 yards on the ground, very reminiscent of the run defense we've seen since 2016. Once again they were excellent on third down as the Redskins only converted 2 of 9 attempts. A late touchdown made the final score of 31-21 much prettier than it actually was.
Star Linebacker Jaylon Smith didn't sugarcoat his feelings on the Cowboys defense so far after defeating the Redskins, communicating his displeasure with the lack of turnovers and sacks. “If we’re going to be great defense we have to get those,” Smith said.
He isn't alone in his thinking, though, as All-Pro Byron Jones had similar thoughts on the defensive unit so far in 2019. “The finish part needs to be a lot better,” Jones said. “Don’t let up at all, no matter what the score is. That’s the mental toughness part. You have to understand if you are a point in the game where you can step on someone’s throat. You have to not give that offense hope.”
The Cowboys definitely have room to improve on defense and it's early enough to make the necessary adjustments needed with 14 games left. Even though they only have 2 sacks and no interceptions they have been excellent on third down only allowing 4 conversions on 20 attempts. Also, they have only given up 38 points (19 per game). When you can get off the field on third down and you keep points at a premium you'll win a lot of ball games.
The next two weeks give the Cowboys defense an opportunity to really improve on what they've failed to do so far in 2019. The Miami Dolphins have only scored 10 points in two games and the New Orleans Saints will be without future Hall of Fame Quarterback Drew Brees for six weeks after suffering ligament damage to the thumb on his throwing hand this past Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams. All the signs point to the defense finding it's footing but the game of football isn't won on paper. We'll see if it starts to come full circle defensively this Sunday in Arlington.