The defense has needed to make plays for this team to be successful. We know this. In some ways, you would suggest they have done an "about average" job in 2017, with 16 takeaways through 12 games in a league where the average team is at 16.4. The problem has been that they go through substantial droughts without any sort of big plays.
From Weeks 3-5, the team went through a stretch against the Cardinals, Rams and Packers when they generated just one takeaway. That one, as you may recall, was a fumble on the chaotic, final desperation play where Green Bay picked up a Dallas fumble and fumbled it back. In essence, a takeaway, but not really one of any substance. The team went 1-2 in that stretch.
Then there was a surge of takeaways, as seven turnovers in the next three games spurred on a 3-0 stretch against the 49ers, Redskins and Chiefs, and all was right in the world.
Unfortunately, things would turn back in the other direction at just the wrong time. Perhaps for reasons attached to Sean Lee's health or morale attached to Ezekiel Elliott's absence (a real stretch), or just the randomness of football, the Cowboys played their next three games with just one takeaway again. Nobody would suggest it was meaningless, as the Xavier Woods interception in Atlanta turned into the only touchdown the Cowboys would score that day, but just one takeaway in three games would doom them to a 0-3 stretch at just the wrong time.
Thankfully, last Thursday night, with the offense again stuck in neutral, the defense took the ball away from the Redskins with great regularity. Four takeaways and numerous other big plays helped the Cowboys to a season sweep of the Redskins and put their season total of takeaways against Washington at seven. So, to date, 43.7 percent of their takeaways have been at the expense of their rival.
To dig deeper, the Cowboys have 16 takeaways but only seven interceptions. The majority of NFL takeaways are interceptions (60 percent interceptions/40 percent fumbles is about normal) and the average team in the league this year has nearly 10 (13 is the average of the league last year). This is something the Cowboys have not done particularly well -- or to league averages -- in ages. In 2016, the Cowboys picked off just nine passes. In 2015, it was eight. Especially under Rod Marinelli, it has always seemed that the Cowboys acquire low aggressiveness in their player selection in the secondary, and then deployed those players at conservative spots to ensure nothing gets behind them. But that takes them out of spots to make plays.
Thursday night against Washington was the first time the Cowboys have intercepted multiple passes in one game all year. They had two in this game, one because Jamison Crowder let a ball bounce off his hands, and another because David Irving tipped a ball to Anthony Brown late. If you would like to break down the Cowboys' interceptions of the past few years, you would be amazed at how many come off Irving's hands at the line of scrimmage on tipped passes.
The last time the Cowboys snagged multiple interceptions was last December against Tampa Bay. That was the only game last season in which they picked off more than one pass. There were just two such games in 2015. The secondary doesn't make plays and hasn't seemed to employ those who aspire to do so. The 24 interceptions since 2015 ranks above only Chicago in the entire league during that span.
But wait, there could be hope on the horizon. The 2017 draft class includes three players who appear to have futures in the secondary, and they all appear to want the football: Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Woods. They all seem to have good ball instincts and skills and perhaps they have what it takes to turn this around.
Here is a play across the middle when it looks like he had too much of a cushion against Josh Doctson, but his closing speed and ability to get his hand on the ball were nice. I didn't know if he got the ball until we saw this replay:
This is what I really like. This deep shot to Doctson -- where he has been great this year -- tests Awuzie's ability to find the ball and show some skills. He knocks this ball free and really makes you think that he knows what he is doing and has great awareness. Well played.
And then there is this in-breaking route, where the ball could be thrown better, but Awuzie again gets his hand on it. How many defensive backs get their hands on three passes in a game? Now, how many do it as a rookie in their first real test? Very pleased with his early returns. Well done -- now stay healthy for a while and keep doing it, young man.
WEEKLY DATA BOX
Everything is great here. All of it. Yardage. Splash plays are high. The YPP number is low. Takeaways and sacks, where had you been?
KIRK COUSINS THROW CHART
As you can see, Kirk Cousins is a real quarterback who uses the whole field and stretches you. It is never easy dealing with him, but his offensive line isn't right and the Cowboys did a nice job of applying lots of pressure.
SEASON TOTALS - SPLASH PLAYS
More noteworthy tape:
I continue to be impressed by Anthony Hitchens. I wanted to show you this run-stuff and tackle for loss because he really attacks the play with good patience. He doesn't charge right in there and get blocked. He picks his angle, sets up the pulling tackle, and then works around him to make the play. This is slowing your pace to make a better play. Very difficult for young linebackers to learn, but very indicative of progress. He is a nice player now.
The thing about DeMarcus Lawrence is that, to me, he is a better defensive end against the run than he is at getting to the quarterback. Not sure the average fan knows how good he is against the run. Now, this is a play where if he doesn't get the legs of the running back, he potentially allows a big play. He is jumping inside the block when he has the edge, so he has to get this guy down or the Redskins are off to the races. But if you are going to gamble, make sure you get him down. He did, but you don't want this to be tried by younger players who don't have the skins. Nice play. Don't learn from that, Taco Charlton.
Here is more of the Lawrence show. This is that play where he is stunting to take out Irving's guy, but once the stunt happens, he sees his clear path to the quarterback. Goodness gracious, these two are good together. So impressive how powerful they both are and look at Lawrence wipe out the right guard and center on his way to Cousins. And the ball comes loose, too. How many times will he do this in 2017? So good.
Here is unintentional comedy as Samaje Perine helps Charlton get a sack and fumble. Watch the Redskins running back impede his tackle from moving as he is trying to stay in front of Charlton around the edge. Sometimes, it is good to have a little luck. There is no question that Charlton can really move for a big guy, and look at how defeated No. 79 is when he realizes what just happened to him.
I know some of you have been waiting for this -- a holding penalty on Washington! Left tackle Trent Williams has his hooks into Benson Mayowa (No. 93) and the flag flies. Holding.
Here is Lawrence again. If you want to see what $60 million looks like, I am guessing this is it. That closing speed off the edge is elite. Pay that man.
Speaking of which, here is Irving. Sometimes you want your quarterback to step up in the pocket. But here, Cousins steps right into the path of a freight train and Irving flattens him. That is a violent way to end your night.
Two snaps later ...
Irving deflects a pass right to the waiting arms of Brown. He is so tall and gets his hands in traffic consistently.
They made the plays and won the game Thursday. Now they need to get on a roll and keep making these game-changing plays to help the offense along through its slump.