Nobody is saying that it isn't great news that the Cowboys have discovered how great David Irving and Terrell McClain can be -- that is fantastic news. Their development and subsequent effects on the game have been a very important factor for this defense in 2016.
But, players like Irving and McClain were supposed to be the frosting in 2016, not the cake. The cake must be the key players the Cowboys have signed long-term to change this defense into something dynamic and special. Quite simply, they need guys who can not only carry out a scheme, but consistently "win" against their man.
That is a distinction we don't often elaborate on, but you must learn the difference to properly study a defense. The 11-man unit can use scheme and tactics to get advantages, but that is difficult to pull of consistently in a sport where very wise men are organizing every detail of every moment. Scheme is important, but what makes a defense special is when you have guys that are accounted for by the opponent who whip the men in front of them to destroy a play. They did not sneak up on you -- you just didn't neutralize them.
Those are the types of players you pay to keep and build your defense around. Unfortunately, the Cowboys have not had enough of these guys who "defy the Xs and Os" and just cannot be blocked. But they have made major investments in two guys in their front seven, and on Sunday, they were the difference on defense by consistently "winning" against the guy across from them.
Tyrone Crawford (5 years/$45 million) and Sean Lee (6 years/$42 million) are the two players the Cowboys have invested heavily in and for many reasons -- health, supporting cast, roles -- but they have not exactly paid off their promise with delivery.
But there is reason to believe both are now back in the middle of the Cowboys' defensive success, which has now shown us seven games of evidence over which the defense has not allowed 24-plus points even one time this year. Fourteen sacks and 10 takeaways get them up to "league average" numbers and they held Philadelphia under 300 total yards, which will win almost any game against anybody.
First, Lee, who turned 30 this summer, experienced a stretch from 2012 to 2014 when he was "always hurt" and made many of us think he chose a profession that his body could not withstand. During that time, he played in just 17 of 48 games and was listed as a player who could not be depended upon -- surely, something that drove him a bit crazy to hear.
Since 2014, he has returned and continued to play with reckless abandon. Last year, he actually suffered two more concussions and, at times, still showed signs of his injury past. But, as we reach the halfway point of 2016, he has been available for 23 of the past 24 games. That sort of attendance record suggests he may be shaking his reputation, all while playing at a very high level. In fact, let's not just talk about it. Let's prove it, from Sunday, when I credited him with 3.5 splash plays:
This one is a simple third-down stop. Drop in your zone to the sticks, then come up and make the stop and get off the field. Third-down stops are among the most important part of a linebacker's job, and Lee has not really missed on much at all this year. Not highlight-film stuff, it but ends a drive.
This, above, is a thing of beauty. I edited the tape to show his pre-snap genius. Look at this guy. He knows the play and quickly adjusts to get Hitchens and Crawford out wider. Jack Crawford is told to set the edge and force the play back inside. Lee is there, and this is about as good as you can play the position against Darren Sproles. Brilliant stuff here. The key is also to look at the right guard for Philadelphia trying to reach-block Lee. Fat chance.
Later, on what might be the play of the game -- this crucial third down in the fourth quarter -- the Eagles are going to try to get a screen to Sproles out on the edge. I know it sounds like lip service to say Sean Lee knows the play before it happens, but how else would you explain this? Jason Kelce, the Eagles' center, is going to try to get to him, but that is not close, either. Lee blows it up for another tackle for loss that drives the Eagles out of field-goal range (where they would have gone back up by 10 points) and forces a punt.
Finally, this one, where he gets no credit in the box score, but I gave him a half splash for making this play happen. First, he sells the fact that he is on Sproles again, but he is deceiving the Eagles' pass protection. J.J. Wilcox will get Sproles after Lee blitzes right down Main Street, so I think he should get credit for part of this sack.
He hasn't been like this every week, and I wonder how much of it is babysitting the rest of the linebackers and just not playing full speed with the confidence that everyone else has their responsibilities down. But Sunday, he was awesome.
And then there's Crawford, who has had a very interesting career and is still just 26 years old. He missed 2013 with injury, then was the Cowboys' best defensive lineman in 2014. This made the Cowboys lock him down before free agency to a big deal, to which he responded (like Dez Bryant) by disappointing in Year 1 by playing all year with a shoulder injury and just not taking over many games like he had done the year before.
This year, the Cowboys had a massive problem at defensive end. Their solution was to take their best defensive tackle and to put him at defensive end. I hate this premise because I want my best option at each spot. I was wrong. Getting Tyrone Crawford out to end has changed his year. He even admits that it helps him stay healthier and the drafting of Maliek Collins has really helped this, too. Collins and Terrell McClain have probably been the story of the year, to be honest.
Regardless, Crawford is starting to dominate again at defensive end. I wasn't sure he had the quickness to excel out there, and we still need to see it more often, but look at this guy on Sunday:
This poor tight end is going to slow down Crawford to let the line pull around him? Tyrone thinks not, and drives down the line to end the play in the backfield.
Here is an inside stunt with a blitzer filling his lane outside. Wentz is thinking about stepping up, but then realizes that would be right into the path of No. 98. Again, Marinelli wants guys who can get going on the move and run into plays. That happened right here. Scheme wins.
Here is a zone run where there is so much "white" flashing at the running back that he has no idea what path to choose. Crawford is waiting for the backside cut, but to be honest, so many Cowboys are winning on this play that Crawford was just the man to end it. Nos. 58 and 97 deserve good grades here, too. Just look at Crawford jacking that poor tight end back again. What a strength mismatch. This is what you don't get to do when you play 3-technique.
Here is Crawford on the front side of a zone play, setting the outside edge and then just closing out the play himself. This is beast-level play from a defensive end against the run. There is nothing else to really describe. He is ending these runs by himself. These last few plays also demonstrate how mediocre the Eagles are up front -- a topic that isn't being discussed enough.
Aside from that sack above in the Sean Lee clips that he also was credited for, here is his last play, which is really just a chance to recover a fumble that Terrell McClain makes available. The right guard is going to pull here and Crawford and McClain are both going to destroy their blockers to end this play -- and this drive -- right here. Wow.
If Sean Lee and Tyrone Crawford are going to start taking over games, the Cowboys are going to be OK on defense.
Those are all magnificent numbers. ... 4.1 yards per play? That is the lowest the Cowboys have held an opponent since the Colts game in 2014. Dominant effort that is being a bit overlooked this week. But, you don't hold NFL teams to 4.1 a play very often. Five times in the past 10 years, to be exact.
CARSON WENTZ PASSING CHART
My guy, John Daigle, makes these charts each week for us to show where they are looking on the field to attack. You can see here, this is a horizontal passing game. The deep throws are these slants at the five- to seven-yard depth. The Eagles have a great passing quarterback who can throw the ball very, very well. But their supporting cast is not good and their coach is Andy Reid's student. We have seen this quite a bit in Kansas City over the years.
And here, you can see how the season standings look. We are starting to see the familiar names head to the top.
SEASON SPLASH TOTALS
Where is DeMarcus Lawrence on this list? I wish I knew.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
The defense has been able to stay reasonably healthy here for a while, which means it is time to lose a couple pieces. Barry Church and Morris Claiborne will both miss most, if not all of November now, so the secondary will use a lot more Anthony Brown and J.J. Wilcox than anyone had planned a while back.
This will be a factor, but attrition is the name of the game.
Otherwise, I don't know how you aren't delighted with what the past month has revealed about the defense. You spend all summer fretting about the Cowboys being abused on defense, and then they are fourth in the league in points allowed on Nov. 2.
Long ways to go, but this defense has exceeded expectations so far. Once again, you have to be impressed with what Rod Marinelli (and the personnel department) has put on the field.