It's true. Despite the incredible league-wide lean towards big offense, the Dallas Cowboys have managed to take the New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers to the wire behind a defense that struggled greatly in 2010, but appears to be reborn. Against Alex Smith's 49ers and Mark Sanchez' New York Jets of course, but still. They've been better than expected.
Are the Cowboys actually a good team on defense? In the sense that they are very understaffed, clearly the answer is no. But they can excel at components of defense. The Cowboys, coached on the defensive side of the ball by Rob Ryan, use a defensive front scheme very similar to what the Jets use under Rex Ryan. The result is that the Cowboys now maximize the value of their personnel in their defensive front to stop the opponent from running. What's the trade off? Well if you saw Delanie Walker easily beat Anthony Spencer on an outside release to the end zone for a touchdown in the third quarter of last Sunday's game, you saw an excellent example. Schematically, the Cowboys are trading off early down coverages for the ability to do creative stuff in their fronts.
This actually makes Rob Ryan somewhat dissimilar to Rex Ryan in the way he calls defense. They do similar things up front and they both favor pressure defenses over patience, however, they are fundamentally very different coordinators. For my money, one of Rex Ryan's biggest strengths is that he can put himself in the quarterbacks shoes and take away the comfort level of a quarterback. Over the last 7 plus years of watching Rob Ryan call a defense, rarely does he make a quarterback look uncomfortable. The looks behind the pressures are typically not unexpected. Rex Grossman knows on Thursday what he will see on Monday night. Fundamentally, this isn't at all like facing a Rex Ryan defense. Week 13 will be a different animal entirely.
It's hard to criticize the results, especially considering how low the expecations were. Many of the yards the Cowboys defense has allowed this year was to the Jets after their top three corners were out of the game. Plaxico Burress was held without a catch by the Jaguars in Week 2, and I think he's totally done as a player, but he had a good week against the Cowboys coverages. The inability to cover on the outsides is a major liability, and it's surprising they've not only overcome it, but have managed to protect weak safeties in the process.
The fact that MLB Keith Brooking is just totally done would crush the Cowboys, except for the fact that 2010 second rounder Sean Lee has already emerged as the clear starter and best inside linebacker on the team. Ryan has corrected Anthony Spencer's role to have him playing to his strengths, and not wasting him rushing the passer. DeMarcus Ware may be off to the best two game start of his career. So thanks to Lee's emergence, the Cowboys LBs are a strength of their defense, not a weakness. It's also helping that Jay Ratliff looks a lot stronger than he did last year.
Dallas is doing it up front mostly with no-names, so credit Ryan for a job well done with a quick turnaround. Still, the Redskins OL has to be licking it's chops this week knowing that they will be the toughest match-up the Dallas DL has faced this season and should they win the battle up front, the Cowboys DBs are ripe for the picking behind them. There isn't a greater mismatch on either side of the ball than Santana Moss and Fred Davis vs. the Cowboys secondary. Lee is good enough to limit Davis somewhat, but Dallas' only real chance on defense this week is to put an extra guy in the box, stop the run, and get home to Grossman with pressure on the quarterback.
Kyle Shanahan's biggest concern this week is using enough variations of quarterback protection schemes so that Ryan cannot get a feel for how to get a free rusher on the quarterback. If you really want a referendum on how well Kyle Shanahan understands offense, count the number of free rushers the Cowboys and Jets get on Rex Grossman this season. The Ryans are better than any others in the league at creating free rushers on the quarterback. But some offensive coordinators have the skill of mixing their protections to limit their ability to do so. If Shanahan has this ability, the Redskins could easily go 3-0 against the Cowboys and Jets this year.
The one-on-one matchup to watch: the fact that Trent Williams was drafted 4th overall and paid more than $40 million to block DeMarcus Ware. When Ware is over Williams, Trent should be expected to win and force Ware to the other side. Then if Ware is lined up on Jammal Brown, Trent needs to be a good enough run blocker to move Anthony Spencer off the ball so the Redskins can run to the left.
The Cowboys offense may be a step behind, but it is still where all the talent on this team is.
We can start with Tony Romo's cracked ribs and desire to play. Romo is still a very good NFL quarterback, but it is not a complete coincidence that he had a clavicle fracture at age 30 that ended his season and now at age 31 he broke multiple ribs in the second game. The hits hes taking may be more violent now than ones he was taking five years ago, but as players age they also tend to be less resistant to wear and tear. Romo still plays at a high level, but the prime of his career where over his first four seasons as a starter he had one finger fracture and played in all but three games, those days might now be over.
Romo's backup, Jon Kitna, has actually aged quite well. Kitna was never very good, but he's still has a bit of the skill set that made him one of the leagues best backups and a decent starting option for franchises like Cincinnati and Detroit in the middle of his career. The Redskins can't be too confident if Kitna plays that they have an advantage at the quarterback position. I don't think a whole lot of Kitna, but it would be unfair to him to dismiss him as unconditionally inferior to Rex Grossman after two weeks. A healthy Romo delivers Dallas its best chance to beat the Redskins, but the Redskins are more than aware that they won't be facing a healthy Romo, and as such, quarterback should not be a strength of the Cowboys this week.
Also not a strength: the rushing attack. When evaluating the Cowboys run defense, the statistics were all over the map on their value, but generally were favorable. There's no question on this one after two weeks: the Cowboys are one of the worst rushing teams in football. They have three useful backs, but their offensive line struggles to open up holes for their runners, and their receivers do not block. Furthermore, none of their three backs are the runner that Marion Barber was in his prime (2006-2008). Having depth at the position is one thing, but its not going to prevent the Cowboys from having the 32nd ranked rushing game if the blocking up front doesn't improve. The inability to run the football makes the Cowboys a pass-first, second, and third team. But Romo's injury forces them to lean on the running game to protect him. In fact, the suckitude of the Cowboys rushing attack might be the biggest data point in support of starting Jon Kitna this week: dropping Tony Romo back 50 times in an attempt to beat the Redskins would be insane if not cruel.
The passing attack is going to be very good this year, but with Miles Austin hurt, and Dez Bryant both hurt and very undisciplined, the two best targets the Cowboys have in the passing game will be TE Jason Witten and TE John Phillips. Yes, that's correct: the second most dangerous target the Redskins will have to deal with this week is the third TE on the Dallas depth chart, John Phillips. Dallas used to be a good screen team as well, but that's yet another area where the changes on the OL for Dallas have hurt them.
The Cowboys best offensive lineman is still Kyle Kosier, who now plays RG. Rookie 9th overall pick Tyron Smith appears to be as advertised at right tackle. But the reason the Cowboys line has been a sieve has been the play of LT Doug Free, who just got $32 million from the Cowboys to be their left tackle. If his play last year was a fluke, the Cowboys are in all sorts of trouble. They simply do not have another option for the tackle opposite Smith. If this was the Eagles, they could reshuffle their entire OL to find a solution to the problem. Unfortunately for Jason Garrett's Cowboys, the head coach did not do the grocery shopping and he is absolutely stuck with Free in the starting lineup for two whole seasons. That's 30 more games of Free or bust on the left side of the Cowboys line. And with luminaries such as Bill Nagy, Phil Costa, and former Redskin Derrick Dockery gumming things up in the middle of the line, the Cowboys don't have a choice but to hope for improved performance out of Free, or Romo could eventually meet his end in Dallas sooner than maybe Redskins fans expected.