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Thursday, September 6, 2012
Cowboys' D delivers for Rob Ryan

By Tim MacMahon
ESPNDallas.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It took a year, but Rob Ryan's defense finally had a performance against a playoff-caliber division rival worth boasting about.

His players had a told-you-so type of game against a team that embarrassed the Dallas Cowboys twice last season. The Dallas front seven whipped the New York Giants' offensive line. The revamped secondary smothered the defending Super Bowl champions' star receivers.

But the mouth that has roared so often didn't have much to say after Wednesday night's 24-17 win at MetLife Stadium.

"We're just getting ready for Seattle," Ryan said as he left the locker room, referring to Dallas' Week 2 opponent. "That's all you're getting. That's it. That's all I'm thinking about."

What?!

No talk of redemption about returning to the scene of the crime a little more than nine months after Eli Manning and Co. carved up the Cowboys with the NFC East title at stake on New Year's Day? No raving about DeMarcus Ware's dominance, the splendid play of Sean Lee and Anthony Spencer or Brandon Carr's brilliance?

Nope.

Ryan talked big all of last season, when his defense had disastrous results down the stretch. Then he owned the blame for the Cowboys spending the playoffs on the couch after starting December in the driver's seat of the division.

One good game doesn't mean much if the defense doesn't keep this kind of performance coming.

Then again, this game means a ton if it sets the tone for the season.

"It was important for us to set the bar high for ourselves," said Carr, the Cowboys' new $50 million corner who spent most of the night getting in Giants star receiver Victor Cruz's grill. "We knew our capabilities, our potential, but potential isn't anything unless you go out there and execute and show what you can do."

The Cowboys showed they can be the kind of aggressive, attacking defense Ryan promised when he arrived at Valley Ranch with his goateed jaw flapping, guaranteeing all kinds of great things his personnel wasn't good enough to deliver.

Isn't it amazing how much smarter a defensive coordinator gets when he has capable cornerbacks?

Ryan won't say this, but there's not a defense in the world that works with a corner playing as terribly as Terence Newman did at the end of his time with the Cowboys.

The Cowboys made major investments in corners -- paying Carr big money and trading up to draft Morris Claiborne with the sixth overall pick -- in large part because Manning made the Dallas secondary look so sorry. Manning had 746 passing yards and five touchdowns in the Giants' two wins over the Cowboys last season.

The Cowboys made the two-time Super Bowl MVP look mortal in the season opener, sacking him three times and allowing only one touchdown, a too-little, too-late score by Dallas draft bust Martellus Bennett. Manning's numbers (21-of-32 for 213 yards) were decent, but the Giants converted only 33 percent of their third downs.

Carr gave up a big play to Domenik Hixon because he mistimed his jump, but he kept Cruz from being a factor and backed up his offseason vow that there wouldn't be any salsa dancing on his watch. ("Told you," Carr said, cracking a huge smile and laughing. "Nah, just playing.")

Claiborne didn't look like a rookie corner. He held Hakeem Nicks, one of the NFL's most physically imposing receivers, to 38 yards on four receptions.

Suddenly, the blitz packages that Manning picked apart last season created big problems for Big Blue.

According to numbers crunched by ESPN Stats and Information, Manning averaged 10.8 yards per attempt and threw for three touchdowns against Dallas blitzes last season, none of which accomplished the goal of sacking him.

The results of the Cowboys' 10 blitzes Wednesday night: three completions for 24 yards, four incompletions and three sacks.

The 17 points allowed, of course, is the most important stat. The Giants riddled Ryan's defense for 37 and 31 points in the two meetings that ultimately decided the division last season.

"That lets us know what we can be as a defense," said Ware, who had two sacks, becoming the second-fastest pass rusher to 100 career sacks in NFL history. "Now it's like, can we be consistent each week?"

Added Lee, who was credited with 12 tackles and a forced fumble: "It's a step forward. We need to play like this every week. We still gave up some plays that we shouldn't give up, but it's a step forward. It's not a final tone-setting thing. We need to set the tone every week."

If the Cowboys can keep this up, Ryan will have plenty to talk about at the end of the season. He actually has the personnel to give him a chance to prove he's the defensive genius that he has claimed to be.

In the meantime, Ryan isn't going to say anything dumb.