Commentary

Cowboys defense can't make key stop

Were injuries an excuse or a reason for defensive performance this season?

Updated: December 31, 2012, 9:15 AM ET
By Todd Archer | ESPNDallas.com

LANDOVER, Md. -- Rob Ryan knows it does him no good to muse about what could have been for the Dallas Cowboys' defense if not for all the injuries it suffered this season.

[+] EnlargeAlfred Morris
Brad Mills/USA Today SportsRedskins running back Alfred Morris ran for three touchdowns and 200 yards against the Cowboys' injury-riddled defense.

There is a fine line between excuses and reasons, and if Ryan, the Cowboys' defensive coordinator, complains too much about not having Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Jay Ratliff, Kenyon Coleman, Barry Church and Orlando Scandrick play in a game together this season, he will look weak.

Maybe next year he will get the chance.

"I'd like to do that," Ryan said. "That'd be fun. It's disappointing. I think we were one of the top defenses in football but that changed a little bit obviously by the end. But these guys played hard. They gave us everything they had, but yet still there's a helluva football team over there that's banged up. I know with our offense and with Jason [Garrett] running this thing, we're right there, guys. Everybody can see it. We want another chance to do that, but, hey, we'll see what happens."

In Sunday's 28-18 loss to the Washington Redskins for the NFC East title at FedEx Field, the Cowboys just ran out of players.

The varsity was on the bench or at home. And the two biggest players on defense -- DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer -- were limited by injury to varying degrees.

Ware played with one arm and will need surgeries on his elbow and shoulder in the offseason. Spencer missed a handful of plays on the Redskins' go-ahead touchdown drive in the third quarter with what looked like an ankle injury.

The Cowboys had five players signed after Sept. 25 playing in vital roles. Safety Eric Frampton signed Sept. 25 to be a special teams' contributor and started the last two games. Linebacker Ernie Sims signed on the same day Lee went on injured reserve (Oct. 24) and started six games. Linebacker Brady Poppinga signed Nov. 26 and played a larger role Sunday because of Ware's health. Cornerback Sterling Moore (Dec. 1) and defensive end Brian Schaefering (Dec. 12) were key subs.

Alex Albright saw significant playing time at inside linebacker, a spot he never played before this year, and he could barely stand at his locker after the game. When Scandrick was lost for the season to a wrist injury, Mike Jenkins played the slot for the first time in his life.

As late as Week 6, the Cowboys had the NFL's second-ranked defense, at least in terms of yardage, but even when close to full strength, it did not make enough game-changing plays to be considered elite. Ryan had too many substitution issues and his emotions got the best of him at times.

Slowly, the Cowboys' defense slid down the league rankings, falling out of the top 10 after the Thanksgiving Day loss to the Redskins in which Robert Griffin III lit Dallas up for four touchdown passes. The Cowboys entered Sunday ranked No. 19 after giving up 562 yards and 34 points to New Orleans.

And yet the Cowboys were within a roughing-the-passer penalty on Jason Hatcher, who was playing with a thigh bruise, from forcing the Redskins to try a field goal attempt to take a six-point lead with 2:35 to play.

"I would've liked to have seen our offense with the ball, down six, with a chance to win it," Ryan said.

Instead, Alfred Morris was able to grind out six more yards and a Redskins' game-sealing touchdown with 1:09 left to play.

It was Morris' third touchdown run of the game on 33 carries and gave him 200 yards on the day.

St. Louis' Steven Jackson was the last opponent to have three rushing touchdowns against the Cowboys on Oct. 19, 2008. Morris was the first runner to reach 200 yards against the Cowboys since Tampa Bay's Warrick Dunn had 210 on Dec. 3, 2000.

"We wanted to stop their play-action and make them go the long, hard way, which they were doing, but the game was still in our favor," Ryan said. "It wasn't pretty, but it wasn't going to be. The front seven is a little hanged up, if you didn't notice. But, [expletive], they're a good football team. They're the No. 1 running team in football for a reason."

And there's a reason why the Cowboys' defense could not make a play when it mattered most Sunday. Or an excuse. It all depends on how you want to look at it.

Todd Archer

ESPN Dallas Cowboys reporter

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