Commentary

Cowboys' defense shows its mettle

After getting hammered last week, Dallas keeps Tampa Bay under pressure

Updated: September 24, 2012, 11:38 AM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Near the end of the fourth quarter, outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware got down in a catcher's stance and slammed both fists to the ground.

His strip sack of Josh Freeman fired up a crowd of more than 80,000 at Cowboys Stadium and sent the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback and the rest of the Bucs' offense staggering off the field.

[+] EnlargeSean Lee
Tim Heitman/US PresswireCowboys linebacker Sean Lee intercepted a pass from Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman at the Buccaneers' 23-yard line in the first quarter.

It was the whipped cream to the Dallas Cowboys' 16-10 victory Sunday.

Dez Bryant's 44-yard punt return was the cherry, but it was the Cowboys' defense -- unlike last week in Seattle -- that had a solid performance against a young and inspired Buccaneers team.

"They just bailed us out, just one of the best days," Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said. "It's a shame (Tampa Bay scored on) that last drive, but that's to their credit. They were still competing. Our defense was just outstanding all day and arguably won the game for us."

When you talk about the Cowboys' offensive struggles -- dropped passes, penalties and lack of a run game -- think about what the defense did Sunday.

Jay Ratliff was out again at nose tackle with a high-ankle sprain. Danny McCray made his first career start at safety with Gerald Sensabaugh out with a calf injury. Defensive end Kenyon Coleman is also gone with a knee injury.

The Cowboys also made a personnel change, moving shutdown cornerback Brandon Carr to free safety so Mike Jenkins, in his second game back from shoulder surgery, could play his normal outside corner spot.

And in the third quarter, starting safety Barry Church suffered a torn Achilles tendon, costing him his 2012 season and forcing defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to make more changes.

At one point, cornerback LeQuan Lewis, who was signed last week, Mana Silva and McCray were in the secondary to defend passes.

"We played everybody on the roster today," Ryan said.

And how did the defense perform against Tampa Bay?

It held the Bucs to a 3-of-15 conversion rate on third down, sacked Freeman twice -- forcing him to fumble twice -- held the run game to just three yards a carry, picked off a pass and knocked the quarterback down five times.

It's hard to say if this was Ryan's best performance from his unit and it's also hard to credit them with an awesome performance because it was against the Buccaneers, after all.

Yet, this was a game the Cowboys' defense was supposed to control, despite the injuries and changes in personnel.

"I think that's what team is about. When somebody is out, you have to have somebody who fills that void," Ware said. "I'm talking about the cornerback core, and those guys, how they played. Starters weren't in, but they played like starters and were able to get the job done. We had a couple guys hurt on the defensive line: Kenyon Coleman, [Marcus] Spears switching positions and those guys being able to be versatile and being able to change."

In the first two games of the season, Ryan sent the blitz 16 times, and while the numbers haven't been officially tallied from Sunday's game against Tampa Bay, it's clear that bodies were flying around.

Sometimes it's not about all the blitzes you throw at quarterbacks, it's the pressures. Freeman was forced to make three-step drops to rid himself of the ball. Ware, who finished with two sacks, knocked the quarterback down. Anthony Spencer, Tyrone Crawford, Sean Lissemore and Jason Hatcher also got hits on Freeman.

"It's always important to get pressure, and the guys really did a good job with that," Ryan said.

The pressures on Freeman messed up what he tried to do downfield. Vincent Jackson, his big-play threat, didn't have a catch until late in the fourth quarter.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Freeman completed 8-of-14 passes for two touchdowns on passes of 15-yards or more in the first two weeks of the season. Sunday, the Cowboys held him to 2-of-6 on long throws.

"We didn't do our job [Sunday]," Tampa Bay receiver Mike Williams said, "as an offense to win the game."

Give credit to the Cowboys' defense. After getting hammered for not being physical enough in the Week 2 loss at Seattle, nobody is thinking about toughness now when it comes to this defense.

"Last week, we were pretty much sick," Carr said. "The whole locker room was disappointed in our performance. [Sunday] it was all about starting fast and playing the whole 60 minutes. As a defense, we tried to start fast and dominate and execute."

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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