When you play a dynamic offense that has attacked weak defenses -- including racking up 537 yards at New England on opening night -- and averaged 378 yards all year long, and limit that offense to 55 yards below its season average (with 56 coming on one play we don't like to speak of), you take it.
When that same team has been scoring an-NFL leading 29.5 points per game all season and you limit it to 17 points, you wildly embrace it with great optimism that, perhaps, your defense has a little more punch than you think.
On Sunday, the Cowboys played a team that had "too many weapons" and was too accomplished to expect Dallas' bad unit to hold its own against. But this little defense is not looking so little with all of its pieces in place.
At the bye week, the Cowboys were allowing 340 yards per game. That actually isn't too bad, but look at what has happened now that they can put David Irving and DeMarcus Lawrence together with Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens behind them. Three games against opponents that, albeit, included lesser offenses in San Francisco and a battered Washington, but these three opponents averaged 299 yards. That may not sound impressive, but it should. Last year, the No. 1 defense in football allowed 313 yards per game. This year, the NFL is being led by Carolina, which is allowing 292 yards per game. So, yes, less than 300 yards is very, very good.
Speaking of Carolina, the Panthers show up in another stat that should also give you some optimism about the Cowboys' defense: Since Week 5, when Irving returned from his suspension and joined Lawrence to form quite a formidable pass rush, these are the NFL's team sack leaders (that included a bye week for Dallas):
TEAM SACK LEADERS SINCE OCT. 4:
1. Carolina Panthers, 18.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars, 17.
T-3. Dallas Cowboys, 15.
T-3. Philadelphia Eagles, 15.
That is pretty fine company, right? Well, look at this, too. Here are the NFL sack leaders since Irving returned:
But the real effects seem to be felt by a team that was playing without two starting-caliber linebackers as we detailed in this space against the Rams and Packers, a team that was being repeatedly attacked in scenarios where we assumed Sean Lee, in particular, would snuff out the threats pretty quickly.
Here are some Lee -- with or without you -- numbers to look at. Again, it is a bit cliche for us to suggest that it is Lee alone who makes these differences and not a bigger personnel view (both with fellow defenders and not having to deal with Jared Goff/Todd Gurley and Aaron Rodgers every week), but here are the numbers:
That is a lot to drink in, and I will not tell you that everything is fixed, but when you consider how the Cowboys look with Lee and Irving now alongside Lawrence, you are allowed to wonder if all three are playing at or near All-Pro levels right now. And if they are, this team has a chance to go to some impressive places.
WEEKLY DATA BOX
Everything about this Kansas City game was solid. The third-down defense was better than usual and the Cowboys did a nice job throughout of not being fooled by the complex Kansas City scheme -- which should be a source of encouragement going into the Philadelphia game, against an Eagles team that runs a similar scheme with less explosive, but still threatening pieces. They only allowed the Chiefs into the red zone twice! This is all very promising, considering that near catastrophe before the half.
ALEX SMITH THROW CHART
As you can see, Alex Smith was attacking the underneath throws, but you will see on a number of the videos below that the reaction time from Cowboys defenders to corral the threats was very strong. There is no way to quantify the value of capable linebacker play, but we are getting closer to seeing it. In other words, hope that Lee can stay healthy for a few more years.
With just three 20-plus-yard plays allowed to Kansas City, the Cowboys continue to sit in an optimal position in the league in allowing "big plays." They rank 12th, with 27 on the season, in a league that has many teams well above that number (the Colts have given up 50!). Thirty is the league average. If you stay on the positive side of league average, you can compete pretty well in this league.
SPLASH PLAYS - KANSAS CITY
Somewhat interesting to see is that the splash play count was rather low. But with four of them timed on third downs and another on fourth down, the Cowboys accomplished their objective of getting off the field.
Interesting to see that, in the four games for which Irving was suspended, Lawrence led the team in splashes each time. Since Irving's return, he has led the team in splashes each week. What a dynamic duo of war daddies!
Good work all around from this defense. Let's look at some tape:
Slowly but surely, our young prospect Xavier Woods is getting a chance to make a difference. Look at this beauty on third down early in the game, when he sees the Chiefs are trying to screen him out and he fights through it to make the play on Travis Kelce. Woods is going to be a really nice player and they are spoon-feeding him for now. I really liked this moment for him to show again -- like he has several other times -- that he reads quarterbacks well.
If you think that one of the reasons the Cowboys are good on defense is Irving, another is Lee and the third is Lawrence, then here is a look at all three of them stopping the NFL's leading rusher at the line of scrimmage. Well done. Look at Irving from the opposite side of the line getting over to stop that. This is some nice hunger.
OK, this is the play that everyone is talking about (in a positive light). This is the Cowboys in 2-Man (2-Deep, man under), where Lee has to follow Kareem Hunt. A great man beater, of course, is for the Chiefs to run him through traffic so that Hunt can gain a real advantage. This angle is hard to see, but now that you have looked at the overall coverage, see below to appreciate Lee.
I mean, that is All-Pro stuff. Look at his recognition, then his speed, and then his technique to end that play for a loss when it might have gone for a big gain with all of those blockers out in front. Big No. 70, left guard Bryan Witzmann, had ideas of taking Lee out, but he could never catch him -- all the while Lee is catching Hunt in open space. Just a beautiful piece of football.
This is Lawrence and Lee combining again for another tackle for loss. You think Lee makes a difference out there? You think those stats above are a coincidence? Lawrence does plenty of the heavy lifting here, so we split this splash play. Just watch No. 90 on this play crash through and lock on to the running back again. What a season he is having.
Now, I realize this has been talked about at great length, but here is the Tyreek Hill play that you won't soon forget:
What I am seeing here is a pretty disappointing lack of aggressiveness. I know Hill is the most terrifying open-field threat in the NFL. But I also know you have him way outnumbered and just have to keep him off the goal line. This is not that hard -- unless you assume someone else will get him. I see Nos. 32, 27, 25, 31, 59, 30 and 38 all looking like they could have done better, to varying degrees.
Let's look at it from the end zone.
This is just not great. Orlando Scandrick (No. 32) just allows Hill to almost stop completely. Anthony Brown (No. 30) and Jeff Heath (38) are on the far side and really slow-playing things. Jourdan Lewis (No. 27) lets a little shove take him all the way out of the play. Byron Jones (No. 31) and Woods (25) actually do get blocked. I don't know why Scandrick doesn't just dive at his legs, and then Hitchens (No. 59) completely whiffs as it appears they all are trying not to hurt each other. Very odd and disappointing efforts all around.
But, to Scandrick's full credit -- he is a warrior. He makes tough plays, plays tough and does it all for this team from a sacrifice standpoint. He isn't afraid of contact and always goes 100 percent, so I bet he took his frustration from that Hill touchdown out on himself and made sure the next shot he got at No. 10 was going to go differently. Look at this speed. This is more like it.
This is one of two sacks on the day. This is a five-man pressure with two defensive backs off the edge. It forces Smith to step up right into the path of a hard-charging Irving, from defensive end, going inside again. He is a beast and this is what we should consider normal from him. He will get your quarterback.
The sacks keep coming with Taco Charlton opening his account. This is good work from Richard Ash (No. 76) on the inside destroying that guard, and then Smith tries to escape, going right into the backtracking Charlton. Good for him. He needed some good news.
This appears to be a hybrid coverage with some man and some zone. But we do have the 2-Deep safety look at the snap with Heath (No. 38) diving down to protect the sticks with a robber sitting on Kelce. This is a real nice job of anticipating the throw.
This is fourth down and you can see Lawrence crashing in on Smith. Smith has to unload it and sees Scandrick in a trail position on Kelce, so he is thinking this is his throw. Heath coming from the other side when the pocket collapses is why they will always say "pressure gets picks" while coverage gets sacks. A quarterback with time can see this happening. But Smith had no choice. Takeaway!
Very good stuff from this defense, especially a good second half after it was kicked in the groin with the Chiefs doubling up before and right after halftime. The Cowboys responded well, and now they can tangle with the hibernating Falcons attack.