It is certainly difficult to define what constitutes a "good defense" in today's NFL. The days of domination from the defensive side of the ball seem almost theoretical and nostalgic in many regards. The Steel Curtain? Doomsday? Most defenses in this league now routinely surrender 4 Touchdowns in a big game and we just accept that the new rules and the evolution of football dictate that you never shut down offenses anymore - you just try to get a key stop at a key moment.
So, against that backdrop, we examine the post-Wade Phillips defensive era and attempt to provide some context to a Cowboys defense that never excites the fans and media like the torching of Tony Romo and Jason Garrett, but it may provide a little more substance than those exercises anyway.
A fascinating number started circulating last night after the Cowboys gutting 37-34 defeat at the hands of the Giants that provided some insight about how the Cowboys continue to lose games that are in their grasp at the moment of truth. Now that Garrett is 12-9 as coach of the Cowboys, it is interesting to note that 8 of the 9 defeats featured a Dallas 4th Quarter lead (only the Sunday night loss in Philadelphia did not). Many of them, including last night's affair were of the double-digit variety (NYJ, Det, NYG) and all of them threaten to derail the playoff train here in 2011.
Last night's 4th Quarter lead was maximized when Sean Lee picked off a pass and 2 plays later Romo hits a wide-open Dez Bryant from midfield and the Cowboys appeared to have sealed a huge divisional battle with a 34-22 lead with less than 6 minutes to go in the game.
The only way the Cowboys lose the game from there is if they allow 2 Touchdowns on 2 drives and score nothing on their 2 remaining drives to end the game. And, in that exercise, they sadly went 4-4.
Eli Manning, the subject of countless debates and a fair amount of ridicule, absolutely owns this stadium. In 3 trips in, he has left with 3 wins - all requiring his passing to be excellent, and he answered the bell all 3 times. 77-120, 1036 yards and 8 TDs in only 3 trips! If anyone deserves to sign the wall at Cowboys Stadium, it would be Eli. His passer rating of 99.9 in this stadium is enough to concede that he is plenty good to deal with this particular defense regardless of how he does the other weeks of the year. And the most stunning statistic on his ledger? In those 3 trips to the new stadium in Arlington, Eli Manning has been sacked 1 time. Once. DeMarcus Ware got him in 2010. Otherwise, the other 120 times he dropped back to pass, he did so without a whole lot of resistance from the Cowboys pass rush. Being sacked once every 121 pass attempts is certainly not going to get it done.
Down 12, Manning drove his team right down the field. Rob Ryan would rush as few as 3 defenders or as many as 7. Manning seemed fine with either option as he would either enjoy all day to throw or find tasty coverage opportunities down the field. He was impossible to rattle, yet again. And cashed in on a 3rd and 1 when the Cowboys sent 7 as he lofted a pass to Victor Cruz for 23 yards down the right side. Later, the Cowboys sent just 4 and he fired a rocket to Hakeem Nicks for 24 yards down to the 8 yard line. 2 plays later, against a 3 man rush, Manning finds his tight end posting up Sean Lee for a TD and the lead is now 34-29 with a bit over 3 minutes to play.
Now, the Cowboys take the ball at their own 20 yard line and are a play or two away from making sure the Giants never see the ball again. 3rd and 5 from the 25 yard line with 2:25 to play and the Giants only having one timeout left is the game that will properly receive massive amounts of discussion this week. The Cowboys need one play to likely salt away the contest. And Perry Fewell, the Giants defensive coordinator, decides to send everyone. It is a "Cover 0" blitz which is the riskiest coverage in football, and the Cowboys get an opportunity to show why as Miles Austin runs right by Aaron Ross and has a substantial gap with nothing between him and the endzone. Unfortunately, between Romo's throw which was a tad long and Austin's admission that he lost the ball in the lights, the ball falls incomplete, the clock stops, and the punt team comes on to the field. It was simply a play that has to be converted, and if it is, the division title is quite possibly presented to the Cowboys right then and there. It was not, and now the onus will fall on the defense to preserve a 5-point lead with only one chance left for the Giants.
After a poor punt from Mat McBriar, the Cowboys had to protect 58 yards. A field goal would not hurt them, and they simply had to keep the Giants out of the endzone. Again, it is unfortunate to mix a poor pass rush with poor pass coverage, but the Cowboys seemed to have no ability to get a stop.
First, an easy dump down to Jake Ballard turns into a 22-yard gain as Anthony Spencer is trailing the undrafted Tight End down the field. Then, on the 1st play inside the 2-minute warning, an errant snap and a huge loss for New York is nullified as Ware is offsides at exactly the wrong time and for the second time in as many drives. A 2nd and long turns into a 1st and 5. 9 yards to Victor Cruz moves the chains again to at the Dallas 24. On the very next play, a 3 man rush leaves Eli to pick his spot and he drops a beautiful pass into the endzone on Mario Manningham's hands. Manningham had run by Terence Newman and was open for the go-ahead touchdown, but the pass fell off his hands. A drop gave the Cowboys a reprieve.
Trouble was, it was a short-lived reprieve. A near sack is taken off the board because of a defensive holding play. With 1:21 to play, again, the Cowboys cannot cover Ballard as they rush 2 (it appeared Spencer was not aware of his assignment as he covered the same RB (Bradshaw) out of the backfield that Sean Lee was already on) and Manning finds Ballard down to the 1-yard line as he eludes Danny McCray. Two snaps later, Brandon Jacobs is celebrating yet again, a 2-pt conversion is also good, and with :46 left, the Giants take a 37-34 lead.
No timeouts, 80 yards to go, and the Cowboys only had :46 to play. Romo and Miles Austin practically get it all back in 2 plays and have the team down to the Giants 29 yard line with 6 ticks left on the clock. And when Dan Bailey attempts the game-tying kick, Jason Pierre Paul does what he has done all night - dominates the play and blocks the kick. Game Over. Giants win.
A series of unfortunate events again conspire to give the Cowboys another gutting loss. In their 1st 50 years of football, the Cowboys had lost 11 point+ 4th Quarter leads just twice (Nov 28, 1965 at Washington and Oct 23, 1988 at Philadelphia). Then, in 2011, they have done it 3 times. Remarkable and maddening altogether. They are surrendering big leads and doing it quite often when the opponent has to go a long way to get to the end zone.
Very few timely sacks and too many confused and over-run coverage situations. Sometimes, it is Tom Brady or Eli Manning. Other times it has been Rex Grossman and Kevin Kolb who have done the deed late in the game against the Cowboys. They cannot seem to get there without a blitz, and when they do blitz, their coverage is hopelessly compromised.
It would be impossible to find a sole offender for this loss. As is often the case, it is a total team effort that wins and loses in the NFL. Coaches and players all share in the spoils. And again, in a home game against their hated rivals, the Cowboys played well enough to win, but leave with a loss due to too many mistakes at high leverage moments.
It is an episode we are all getting used to seeing in the new stadium. And now, they are backed up against the wall yet again.