So what if the star power is gone from the Dallas Cowboys defence? The stopping power is up — way up — from the league’s worst unit in 2013.
At 5-1, the surprising Cowboys are off to their best start in seven years, tied atop the NFC East with the Philadelphia Eagles heading into Sunday’s home game against the 3-3 New York Giants (4:25 p.m. EDT, CTV).
In a telephone interview on Tuesday afternoon, third-year defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford — from Windsor, Ont. — said the defenders in Big D realize they’re confounding all the experts who predicted they’d be downright dreadful again.
And they’re just fine with that.
Low expectations were understandable considering Dallas not only lost its two top defensive linemen in March (edge rusher DeMarcus Ware, who signed with Denver after he was cut in a cap move, and free agent Jason Hatcher who signed in Washington) but also top linebacker Sean Lee, who was lost for the season after blowing out an ACL in the spring.
“We have guys now who aren’t huge names in the NFL, so people aren’t looking at us like, ‘Oh, they have this guy and that guy,’” Crawford said. “But we’ve got guys who should be names in the NFL. Our whole defensive squad is looking great right now.”
Well, if not great, then at least adequate — trending toward good. With Tony Romo passing efficiently and running back DeMarco Murray off to a historically prolific start — a record-tying six games of 100+ yards to start the season — the Dallas D hasn’t had to be great.
If you’ve forgotten, the Cowboys ended 2013 with one of the most worst defences on NFL record. The unit surrendered 6,645 total yards, worst in the league last year and third worst in NFL history. Dallas was equal-opportunity awful: almost as bad against the run (ranking 27th) as the pass (30th).
Rod Marinelli had taken over for Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator last year, and the transition from Ryan’s 3-4 to a more traditional 4-3 employing conservative pass coverage proved a huge flop. Proficient offences shredded the Cowboys. Marinelli, though, was retained.
This year he has taken the leftover no-names, worked in the additions provided by owner/GM Jerry Jones, trashed the conservative cover-2 he learned to love under Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay and Lovie Smith in Chicago, and has produced a defence that, entering Week 7, ranks 15th in total yards per game allowed, 17th against the run, 12th against the pass, 16th in third-down efficiency, tied for eighth in points allowed per game and second in first downs allowed.
“Even before (Lee’s injury) there were people saying we weren’t going to do much on the defensive side this year,” Crawford said. “They were going off what we did last year.
“We definitely try to make it our goal to play our best, stick to the plan and good things will happen. And it’s been working out.”
Not that it did in the first half of the first game. The visiting San Francisco 49ers carved the Dallas defence in jumping out to a 28-3 halftime lead. Looked like the same old same-old.
But Colin Kaepernick and the Niners couldn’t score another point in a 28-17 win.
Dallas then defeated Tennessee 26-10. In Week 3, regression: St. Louis burst out to a 21-10 lead behind little-regarded quarterback Austin Davis in only his second career start. But Romo, Murray and the offence found a groove and Dallas roared back to win a wild one, 34-31.
Since then the Cowboys have won three games in which the defence has played progressively, impressively better: in a 38-17 Sunday night blowout of New Orleans, in a 20-17 overtime win against cross-state rival Houston and, this past Sunday, in perhaps the No. 1 statement victory of the young NFL season: 30-23 over the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks, in Seattle no less.
Just as impressive as winning at ear-blasting CenturyLink Field was the way in which Marinelli’s defence shut down the smashmouth Seattle attack. The Cowboys held Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks to only 80 yards on the ground, 126 through the air and just nine first downs.
A key player for the Cowboys has been linebacker Rolando McClain, acquired in July in a trade with Baltimore after he’d announced his retirement last year.
Few linebackers in the league this season have made as many big plays as McClain. His interception of Wilson in the final minute last Sunday sealed the victory that shocked everyone in America but America’s Team.
“We proved what we wanted to prove,” Crawford said, before correcting himself. “I mean, we haven’t proved anything yet. But it was a big win for us.”
Just two days after that win, maybe it was understandable that Crawford would add that he and his defensive teammates are having a blast this season; that personalities really are meshing.
“It’s a great vibe right now,” he said.
“We’ve got guys like Rolando, who will wake you up at 4 o’clock in the morning on Sunday and already be ready for the game. I just love to be around guys who love football like this.”
Four o’clock? Seriously?
“Yup,” Crawford said. “It’s like Christmas morning for him. He just can’t wait to play the game.”
The question asked around the NFL this week is whether the Cowboys are for real — whether they’re a legit threat to win their division, or even the NFC championship.
Wariness is justified. With this team, this century, every short stretch of success usually starts dissolving the nanosecond Jerry Jones start crowing about it.
That said, and that understood, it’s undeniable what these Cowboys have done since halftime of the opener against the Niners. In the five-and-a-half games since, they’ve outscored opponents 162-98 and tallied 18 touchdowns, and allowed only 11 — two per game.
Next up for the Cowboys are the Giants, a divisional nemesis that got walloped 27-0 in Philadelphia last Sunday night. Under head coach Tom Coughlin, and behind quarterback Eli Manning, the Giants always seem to bust out of a slump when they visit the Big D; they’re 4-1 at AT&T Stadium.
Can the Cowboys avoid the natural letdown after Sunday’s big win? Yes, Crawford said. And beyond.
“I feel like we’ll be pumped every Sunday for the rest of the season.”
- – -
The Cowboys’ unheralded defence:
LDE: George Selvie, Jack Crawford
DT: Tyrone Crawford, Nick Hayden
DT: Henry Melton, Terrell McClain
RDE: Jeremy Mincey, Anthony Spencer
LB, strong side: Bruce Carter, Kyle Wilber
LB, middle: Rolando McClain
LB, weak side: Justin Durant, Korey Toomer
LCB: Brandon Carr
RCB: Orlando Scandrick
FS: Barry Church
SS: J.J. Wilcox
After move to DT, Canada’s Crawford still effective
Three games into this season, Tyrone Crawford switched positions.
Born and raised in Windsor, Ont., Crawford felt he was just beginning to flourish as a pass-rushing 4-3 defensive end in his third year with the Dallas Cowboys.
But Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli felt Crawford had enough power and talent — if not enough weight at 275 pounds– to still be effective inside, at defensive tackle. Crawford bought in.
Three games later, the move appears to be a success.
“At first it was going a little slow,” the 6-foot-4 Crawford said in a telephone interview from Dallas on Tuesday. “But I’m growing into it now, and I’m improving daily. I just need to continue getting coached up, and keep doing the things they ask — reading blocks and things like that. It’s working out pretty well for me.”
The Cowboys selected Crawford in the third round of the 2012 draft. He proved an ill fit in Rob Ryan’s 3-4 defence. He progressed slowly and mostly watched from the sideline.
Last year, he figured to be more impactful as an edge rusher in the switch to Marinelli’s 4-3. But early in training camp Crawford tore an Achilles and missed the 2013 season.
“I feel like I learned a lot last year,” he said. “I had a lot of time on my hands. I learned the game of football more. I talked to coaches I’ve had in the past, not just about football but about life, too. It helped me out a great amount. And then in the weight room too. As soon as I could start lifting, I did. I got stronger.”
Crawford started the first game of his career in the opener last month against San Francisco (That’s him smacking Colin Kaepernick, above, courtesy AFP). A week later at Tennessee he was credited with five quarterback hurries, and logged three more the following week at St. Louis.
Then the position switch.
As a defensive tackle for the first time, he hurried Drew Brees twice and knocked down one of his passes in a big win over New Orleans.
A week later against Houston he led all Cowboys defensive linemen with four tackles, a tackle-for-loss and a quarterback hurry.
And in last Sunday’s enormous win in Seattle, Crawford officially was credited with hurrying quarterback Russell Wilson three times, but ProFootballFocus.com — probably the most respected NFL analytics website — listed him with two hurries and one sack.
So three games into his new career, not only has the 24-year-old Crawford been effective but ProFootballFocus.com ranks him as the 28th most productive player defensive tackle in the league.
Crawford said the move looks permanent.
“They may move me outside sometimes in different packages, but that’s not because we’re moving back in another direction,” he said. “It’s just that we have a different scheme going on.”
How is a 275-pounder standing up to the pounding from all those 300+ pound interior offensive linemen, especially that of the tough-as-nails Seahawks?
“Yeah, I probably should start to put on more pounds,” Crawford said, chuckling. “I was trying to wait to see if it was going to be permanent or not. I’ll probably jump up 10 pounds, to 285 or something.”
Even so, Crawford has not been overmatched physically.
“Other teams probably are figuring because I’m smaller for a (4-3 defensive tackle) that I’ll use a little bit speed more than power to move guys,” he said. “But I’ve been pretty effective with the bull rush.”