Commentary

Trust in Cowboys' defense shaky

Rob Ryan's group adjusts but fails to inspire in overtime win over Browns

Updated: November 19, 2012, 12:23 PM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- It's hard to be happy with the Dallas Cowboys' defense after a game like this.

[+] EnlargeJay Ratliff
AP Photo/Brandon WadeIt's hard to believe in a defense when a veteran such as Jay Ratliff is flagged for taunting a rookie quarterback.
It's hard to smile when you see nose tackle Jay Ratliff flagged for a silly taunting penalty on rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden in the fourth quarter.

It's hard to smile when you see that defense without sacks or quarterback pressures in the first half.

It's hard to smile when you see that defense give up a go-ahead touchdown with ease in the fourth quarter, to a team with just two wins in three months.

Yet the Cowboys can smile. They survived for a 23-20 overtime victory Sunday afternoon over the Cleveland Browns.

Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said he took this game against the Browns personally because of how the team treated him and his buddy, former coach Eric Mangini.

Ryan wanted to beat the Browns badly, and he did win. But it left you with little confidence going forward that this defense can make enough plays to win important games.

"Whew, it was a long day," Ryan said. "I know one thing, [Cleveland] came out ready to roll and we had to fight like hell to get this. We struggled but the offense and special teams pick us up and we started to get it together in the second half on defense."

Defensively, the Cowboys made big plays. There was a third-and-1 stop in the fourth quarter when Trent Richardson was stopped low by DeMarcus Ware and Dan Connor high on the running back's jump into the end zone. Give safety Gerald Sensabaugh credit for maintaining solid coverage on the next play, a pass by Weeden into the end zone that fell incomplete.

Allow Ryan a little credit for making an adjustment in the second half. He didn't rush more than three defenders in the first half but made changes in the final 30 minutes, especially with the Cowboys down by 13 points.

It was as if Ryan had no choice, but it's interesting that he didn't go after Weeden with tremendous pressure. Orlando Scandrick came off the edge with a corner blitz but was penalized for hitting Weeden in the back of the head.

"We weren't getting much pressure on the quarterback and that was my fault, not the players' [fault,]" Ryan said after his group finished with two sacks and four quarterback hurries. "By the second half we were begging to rush the guy and it was much better."

The good news is there were no defensive offside penalties and Anthony Spencer forced a strip sack and recovered a fumble.

Still, it's hard to be positive. We're trying, but when you see the Browns, with the 29th worst offense in the NFL, rush for 119 yards (their average was 89) and complete 40 percent of their third-down plays (31.5), it's hard to be.

If the Cowboys expect to make something of their season, which is far from over, the defense can't allow some of these things.

And here come the Washington Redskins with all the confidence in the world. On Thanksgiving Day, they visit a Cowboys Stadium that hardly seemed an imposing place to play Sunday.

Cowboys fans were involved in the game against the Browns, but it seemed they were waiting for something bad to happen -- perhaps waiting for the other shoe to drop after a good play.

The Cowboys have to change in the worst way, especially from a defensive standpoint, or their season won't amount to much more than mediocrity.

If the Cowboys had lost to the Browns, their world would've come to an end and nobody would believe in them anymore.

"I expected to win," Ware said. "That's what we did. I wouldn't say the world is coming to an end, but the thing is rough. It would have been really rough if we would have lost this game."

Ryan is the man in charge of fixing this mess. While we've mentioned before how the Cowboys' defense has bailed the offense out a few times, it needed its own bailout program Sunday.

"There are some things we need to correct," Ware said. "We're not where we need to be. The week is so short, but [we] can't harp on this game. We've got another game in three days."

Will they be ready?

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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