Despite the team’s first 3-0 start since the 2008 season and the added benefit of playing alongside a strong offense, the Dallas Cowboys defense looks to have taken a bit of a step back from the unit that ended last season on the cusp of becoming elite.
While that statement might sound more than a bit crazy with the Cowboys giving up less than 15 points and a paltry 336 yards a game, it’s important to consider the opponents Dallas has had to deal with thus far. Opening the season against the likes of New York Giants, Washington Redskins, and Miami Dolphins, three teams with a combined record of 1-7, makes for ample opportunity, and yet the defense never once feasted on the inferior competition.
Entering the day, the pass rush only managed a pair of sacks despite facing 85 dropbacks from quarterbacks Eli Manning, Daniel Jones, and Case Keenum. So while the three-sack day against Miami was a welcomed improvement, it still falls well short of the kind of pressure the defensive front needs to create on a regular basis to overcome the lack of turnovers. After all, the Dolphins just gave up seven sacks last week against New England, and trotting out a young QB with limited experience in Josh Rosen should’ve provided more than enough opportunity to finally produce some turnovers.
Dallas got close a time or two but could never quite close the deal to flip the field. As a result, Dallas extended its streak of games without an interception to open the season to three. They did manage to strip Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake inside their own 10-yard line to preserve a first-half lead, however.
Coming into the year, the expectation for the Cowboys defense was that they would take that next step toward becoming an elite unit. That belief was bolstered in large part by performances like last year’s 13-9 defensive masterpiece against Drew Brees and the visiting New Orleans Saints. While the defense has still been mostly good since that late November game, it has yet to enjoy any kind of repeat performance or begun to produce turnovers in order to stake its claim as elite.
As such, it seems only fitting that Dallas’s first true test of the season should come next week in the form of that same New Orleans squad. Well, not entirely the same; Drew Brees is still out as he recovers from a torn ligament in his thumb, but New Orleans, even with Teddy Bridgewater at the helm, is still a formidable team. While they were initially flattened by the Los Angeles Rams in the game after Brees’s injury, they turned things around by marching into Seattle this week and dropping 30+ points on the Seahawks on their way to a 33-27 victory.
The best defenses are the ones who can get to the quarterback and produce turnovers, neither of which the Cowboys have been able to accomplish through three games. So unless they can somehow hold every team on the schedule to less than 400 yards of offense and 21 points despite those two necessary ingredients, the numbers still suggest Dallas has a ways to go defensively if it hopes to reach the expectation it set for itself.
Thankfully, it’s a long season, and having an offense that can score 30 points a game should give them every opportunity to put it all together.