Commentary

Cowboys' defense puts up a fight

Rob Ryan's unit gives encouraging effort in opener but carries late burden in defeat

Updated: September 12, 2011, 3:58 AM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Dallas Cowboys safety Abram Elam summed up what new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan thought about the night: "He was pissed. He wanted to win."

[+] EnlargeJay Ratliff
AP Photo/Bill KostrounJay Ratliff pressures Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez in the second half. The Cowboys defense had four sacks and one interception while forcing two fumbles.
Sunday was special for so many reasons. The Cowboys' visit to MetLife Stadium was the last NFL game of a long and emotional day honoring the heroes of 9/11 and remembering lives lost.

It was personal for Ryan, who was trying to beat his twin brother Rex -- the New York Jets' head coach. The Cowboys' defense is supposed to have changed from last season's unit, which finished 31st in the NFL in scoring and gave up a franchise-record 436 points.

In the Cowboys' 27-24 loss, the defense had four sacks, one interception, two forced fumbles and held the Jets' running game to an average of 2.8 yards per carry. In five first-half possessions, the Jets had three three-and-outs.

One of the best performances of the night was from second-year linebacker Sean Lee, who got the start over Keith Brooking at inside linebacker and played wonderfully. He led the team with 11 combined tackles and one interception.

Mike Jenkins played a gritty game, leaving with a shoulder injury before returning in the fourth quarter. Orlando Scandrick left the game with a sprained ankle and walked out of the stadium wearing a protective boot. At one point, the Cowboys had two healthy corners, forcing Ryan to mix and match.

"Hell, they fought their ass off," Ryan said. "And [the Jets] had a hard time doing anything and you know we don't have anybody playing their natural position. That happens in this league and we've got to win so it doesn't matter."

The fourth quarter did the Cowboys in. The defense allowed a touchdown, forced a turnover and a punt before allowing the game-winning field goal.

The pass rush, which knocked Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez around in the first half, struggled in the second. Sanchez was sacked twice in the fourth quarter, but the Jets neutralized the middle of the Cowboys' front.

Rob Ryan wasn't buying it.

Anything wrong with pass rush in second half?

"Hell no," he said.

Did they use extra blockers on you guys?

"Oh, [expletive], they never did [expletive]. We had a bunch of injuries. What the [expletive]? We're trying to line up and play a high school defense."

A double-team on nose tackle Jay Ratliff forced outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer to make plays. Sanchez also made shorter and quicker throws to avoid pressure.

Ware was blocked one-on-one most of the evening. He had two first-half sacks and three quarterback pressures but was shut out in the second half.

Give the Cowboys credit for what they did Sunday night. Several players were nicked up, including Bradie James, who finish without any tackles. There was also another late change to the starting lineup when Jason Hatcher moved in for Kenyon Coleman at defensive end.

The Cowboys still had a chance to win. You can place the blame on the offense for its inability to close it out, especially with its turnovers. Point a finger at special teams too, after one guy splits two blockers to knock down a Mat McBriar punt, leading to the tying touchdown.

"You play good enough on defense to win but we didn't pull it out," Ware said. "We made some mistakes at the end in the fourth quarter that we can't make."

Some of the things the Cowboys did were encouraging. Lee played well. The backup corners -- Bryan McCann and Alan Ball -- responded with a scrappy performance. Jenkins showed tremendous heart and toughness. And the deep ball, something the safeties struggled with last season, wasn't much of an issue.

"We didn't finish the game," safety Gerald Sensabaugh said. "But like I said, a lot of guys played really hard. We've just got to finish those games."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.

Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.

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