Once we establish that this is the NFL and both teams are really good and all of these games are going to be close from week to week, we cut through the noise and get down to the name of the game.
The name of the game in the NFL is: "Who is going to make that play at that moment to win this game?" That is how defense is played. Every team is going to give up between 300-400 yards most weeks, 20-24 points and several highlights. The teams are too good. The players are too talented. There are almost no "clean sheets" in the NFL. The rules are geared toward the offense and the league wants excitement. They don't want a 3-0 game. They want 28-27.
That isn't to say the Cowboys have a great defense. They don't. We all know it, and compared to league averages, the Cowboys must do better in nearly every category from what we've seen.
But we are seeing guys battle hard. We are seeing them push to make plays. And the only difference between Weeks 1 and 2 from a defensive standpoint -- the difference between winning and losing -- is that they were able to make a few plays in the fourth quarter and in the red zone.
And that is where I think we should start today:
Here, the Redskins have a chance to take a 10-point lead with a touchdown in the fourth quarter. That seems pretty big against a young quarterback like Dak Prescott. So this play, on 3rd-and-6, has a chance to either put the game in a great spot, settle for a field goal to put you up by six, or maybe, Barry Church can make a play.
There is a lot to look at here. First, see Church and Jones in the middle of the field playing safety. Jones is the extra guy on the left and Church is watching the other side. I am pretty sure that Cousins expects Church to help Sean Lee on Jordan Reed. Everyone is thinking the big tight end is the target, but Church sees Garcon in the back of the end zone and heads over there from the weak side. I love sending pressure here, but Rod Marinelli predictably does not. And because of that, he has a weak-side obstacle who is able to get in the passing lane. Dropping seven always allows this possibility and when it works, it looks brilliant. Look how mad Garcon is at Cousins for not seeing that. Huge play.
The above play is from the next drive. There is 2:38 left in the game and the Redskins are now down 27-23, facing a 3rd-and-1.
They simply want to move the chains here, so they want to go get that one yard. And out of nowhere, from the far side into the gap, is Sean Lee with his trademark run stuff. This angle doesn't do the speed of impact justice, but this was huge.
So they stonewall them and set up 4th-and-1 out of the two-minute warning.
Cover 1, rat in the hole. This means as opposed to man coverage with two safeties high, you switch a safety for a linebacker and have one deep, one shallow. The shallow man is the linebacker, Durant, and this is one of Marinelli's go-to coverages. Durant must carry the first man and then read the eyes of the quarterback to step in and make a play in the passing lane, because again, the target is Garcon and he can get Claiborne on the slant with ease. But Durant knows that is the read, and he gets in on it.
Here you can really see Durant mirroring Cousins. This reminds me of Rolando McClain's pick-six last year in Miami.
This is clearly something that a nice middle linebacker better be able to do here, and Durant got it done to stop the Redskins.
And then, with a little time left, Washington had one final chance.
So what team doesn't want to unleash their best pass-rush group? And what team would ever answer that question by sending out four defensive tackles? The Cowboys, of course. And Tyrone Crawford turns the corner and smashes Cousins for a huge sack.
I kind of wonder, if this keeps looking like this, if No. 98 is best played at the left defensive end spot with Maliek Collins and Terrell McClain inside and DeMarcus Lawrence on the other side. Weird to do that with that contract on Crawford, but Collins looks OK at 3-tech at times, and McClain (as you will see below) may be the best player right now on this front.
There is no question Kirk Cousins missed throws -- or he might have rolled up 400 or 500 yards passing -- and the Cowboys were fortunate. But all of those stops in the red zone should be credited to Dallas and those plays in the fourth quarter are what this game is all about.
Look, they need better players, but all they can do for now is fight to make a play. That was good enough in Washington.
You have already seen a good number of these splash plays above, but we should not forget several of the plays earlier in the game when defenders were able to make a significant difference with their efforts.
In particular, I thought David Irving continues to flash in smaller doses, Byron Jones might have made the unsung play of the game for running down Josh Doctson after Brandon Carr busted on a coverage miscue. He didn't get a splash for that (I can't do it on a 57-yard gain), but Jones did something there that resulted in zero points because of Church's interception moments later. That is something that should not be forgotten when we evaluate the play of No. 31. I think he has been pretty solid -- as I expected.
KIRK COUSINS THROW CHART
We knew Kirk Cousins was not a franchise quarterback based on evidence before Sunday -- but it just solidified it more as he again missed too many open receivers, and you can see how his performance relies on the long ball and not throws into tight spaces. He is a third-down dump-off artist who uses play action to hit bombs over the top. If he connects, he is great, but it is not something to bet upon over a six-year contract. They took several shots and he just missed guys. The Cowboys likely lose against a better quarterback on Sunday. But, as we have said, this season's schedule is not filled with very many good quarterbacks.
And finally, here is the season total (through a mere two weeks) of splash plays. As you can see, there are some unfamiliar names at the top of the leaderboard, but things often normalize as we go.
That said, I am here to say that Terrell McClain is showing me things that are very impressive and while he has always been a player who is very dependent on staying healthy, I think we should give him a little time and attention.
If you can believe it, the Cowboys signed him in the spring of 2014 to a three-year deal worth a little over $3 million. You may be wondering why you haven't seen much since and, again, it goes back to health. In 2014, he was a depth guy who got banged up and played about 300 snaps. Then, last year, he was lost for the season in Week 2 at Philadelphia and played just 45 snaps -- a number he has already surpassed. He already has six splash plays this year and is close to the nine splashes he had in 2014 and 2015 combined.
Let's prove how great he has been through two weeks:
Big No. 97 is right on the nose here, where the center tries to get a piece but really doesn't. The right guard has no leverage and McClain devours the running back in the hole.
Here he deals with a direct double team and stands his ground until the running back is in his grasp. Then he finishes the play himself. Goodness gracious, man.
I appreciate all that Nick Hayden did (including staying healthy), but there is no substitute for the quickness like this on a man this size. A true 300-pound dancing bear.
Here, McClain gets down that line and makes the play himself. A play-making 1-technique? Is this real?
Now in the other direction he goes. I won't even try to describe how good this is for a big man chasing the play down and waiting for the running back to cut back.
You want a little pass rush from your nose? How about a three-man rush where he flushes the pocket after battling through a triple team?
Let's see him stay healthy, but if the Cowboys keep getting this from the inside, they've got something very nice. I had no idea he could keep Cedric Thornton on the sideline, but this is really great stuff.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
They continue to try treading water until DeMarcus Lawrence gives them a real edge presence in Week 5. Until then, they get to take on Brian Hoyer and Blaine Gabbert. You would like to think the defense can stand up to those two tests and put the team in a position to win.
More importantly, they are starting to make us think they can deal with stopping the run -- although that fourth quarter against New York remains a disconcerting mystery.
Some bad, but the game ended with some big plays. I am not sure you can ask for too much more from this defense at the moment. But that may be good enough to get a few more early wins.