Commentary

Cowboys can't rely on defense to win

Injuries, new players at key positions and missed plays too much to overcome

Updated: December 24, 2012, 1:39 PM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys defense can't win games for this franchise right now. Injuries, new players at key positions and missed plays are some of the reasons.

It's asking too much of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to work magic.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsThe Cowboys are missing too many defensive players to stop an elite quarterback like Drew Brees.

The Cowboys' season rests with the offense and we'll see if it can carry the Cowboys into the postseason.

The defense has been hurting badly most of the season, but the Cowboys won in spite of it. At times, the defense has made big fourth-quarter plays -- a sack, interception or forced a turnover on downs -- to secure a victory.

Sunday, the injuries, ineffective play and too many new guys still trying to figure things out caught up to them. New Orleans won in overtime, 34-31, bringing the Cowboys' season down to a play-in game for the NFC East title next Sunday against the Washington Redskins in Landover, Md.

When the Cowboys met the Redskins on Thanksgiving, the defense allowed 437 yards and gave up 28 second-quarter points in a 38-31 loss. When things settled down, the offense was stuck in catch-up mode.

The Cowboys are one loss away from their season ending. They lost control of the game to the Saints, who have an elite quarterback on their side. The Cowboys are missing too many players to compete with Drew Brees.

Yet, it's a testament to what's left of this defense that the Cowboys forced overtime.

Consider who was missing Sunday:

DeMarcus Ware and Ernie Sims, signed in October, were sitting on the bench with injuries.

Bruce Carter, Orlando Scandrick, Jay Ratliff, Barry Church, Sean Lee and Josh Brent were out.

When the Cowboys lost Sims to dizziness, they asked Brady Poppinga, who signed in November, to take over. With Ware gone for the bulk of the second half, Victor Butler was asked to pick up the pass rush.

"We've been out of people," cornerback Mike Jenkins said. "We're running low. Injuries are killing us right now. So many new faces and it's kinda like everybody is out there trying to get themselves right. We have so many people playing so many different positions and somebody stepping up and playing another position, its kinda nerve racking."

Mistakes by both veterans and newly signed backups hurt the Cowboys. Linebacker Dan Connor missed a tackle leading to a 17-yard run by Darren Sproles in the fourth quarter. Charlie Peprah missed an open field tackle on Marques Colston in the same quarter.

In overtime, Jimmy Graham got behind the linebackers and caught a 26-yard reception.

"I just don't think it was matched the right way," Connor said. "If they're going to hit it right, it was a tough combination for that coverage."

Graham later caught a seven-yard reception on Morris Claiborne.

The pass rush needed consistency. Brees was pressured at times but wasn't sacked. It was the first time this season the Cowboys didn't register a sack. The last time the Cowboys didn't record a sack was a a little over a year ago, Dec. 11, against the New York Giants.

Sunday, the Cowboys were credited with just two quarterback hurries. Ryan was sending pressures with three or four defenders. He played more coverage to combat what Brees could do and his defense allowed a season-high 562 of total offense. The Saints converted 11-of-19 third down plays, good for 58 percent.

"A lot of his drives, it felt like he was on the field the whole quarter," cornerback Brandon Carr said. "We got to find a way to get off the field on third down, that's the money down. Too many of those third downs, they keep converting. It wears down a defense."

The good news is that the New York Giants have continued their late season collapse, helping to keep the Cowboys' postseason hopes alive.

But Dallas must find a way to stop the dynamic Robert Griffin III next Sunday.

"I certainly think that's the type of player we're playing against," Jerry Jones said. "But I hope we get a chance to do it for some marbles."

Oh yeah, the marbles are on the line a week from now, but the defense is playing shorthanded and might not be able to help out the offense enough.

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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