DON’T FORGET THE DALLAS DEFENSE
Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Dak Prescott has become one of the big storylines in the NFL this season and with good reason. Prescott has played at an MVP level in leading the Cowboys to five straight wins, both straight-up and ATS. Three of those wins came as underdog, including last Sunday’s decisive 30-16 win in Green Bay as a (+5) dog. But as the Cowboys take a well-earned bye week, don’t forget that they’re also playing some pretty good defense.
Three short years ago the Dallas defense was one of the worst in the NFL. They made a change at coordinator following the 2013 season and brought in Rod Marinelli. Over the past two seasons the Cowboy D jumped quickly from awful to being around the league average, and this season they’ve taken another jump. Dallas ranks 7th in the NFL in points allowed and is fresh off keeping Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers under wraps in their last two wins.
The success is built on the secondary, a unit whose transformation tracks that of the defense as a whole. During the bad days of 2013, they were frequently torched. Now, the Cowboy defensive backs look ready to stack the Pro Bowl lineups in February.
Cornerback Morris Claiborne is in his fourth year after having been the sixth overall draft choice in the spring of 2012. Brandon Carr on the other corner was a highly regarded free agent, signed away from Kansas City that same year. After repeated disappointments, it looked time to write this duo off. Now they’re each playing some of the best football of their careers.
The same goes for safeties Barry Church and Byron Jones, and when Anthony Jones comes on the field in the nickel package, he looks like someone who could start anywhere else. And in the front seven, Sean Lee has always been as good a linebacker as there is in football when he’s healthy and available.
All of this, along with the play of Prescott and along with the impending return of wide receiver Dez Bryant, has made the Cowboys the odds-on favorite at 5-6 to win the NFC East. They’re price for bigger things has shortened up—13-2 to win the NFC crown and 15-1 to win the Super Bowl.
That’s not to say there are no storm clouds on the horizon. A careful breakdown of the Dallas personnel shows the defense getting remarkably poor play from Anthony Hitchens at linebacker, and across the defensive front, a reason teams have been successful in running the football against the Cowboys. It’s a credit to Marinelli that he’s been able to coach around this and play to his team’s strengths, but the NFL season is a long one and serious weaknesses like these have a way of eventually showing up.
There’s also the lingering question of what happens when Tony Romo is healthy and ready to play again. Do you really bench Dak Prescott? That’s an entirely separate question, but suffice it to say that no matter what head coach Jason Garrett decides, it can disrupt team chemistry.
All of that’s in the future. But for now, when you handicap the Cowboys, don’t get so focused on the quarterback situation that you lose sight of how well they’re playing defense.