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Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Updated: December 5, 4:19 PM ET
Cowboys' hesitant D under pressure

By Calvin Watkins
ESPNDallas.com

The Dallas Cowboys' defense is under siege.

Brandon Carr
Brandon Carr and the Cowboys' defense have allowed 11 scores -- eight of them touchdowns -- in the last 22 drives they have faced.
In the last 22 drives it has defended, the unit has allowed 11 scores, including eight touchdowns.

It doesn't matter what quarterback the Cowboys face; defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is not going after him. He's not sending five or six defenders at rookies or veterans. He's going to be conservative with four, maybe five pass rushers.

Whatever he's doing is not working. It doesn't look good when DeMarcus Ware knocks rookie quarterback Nick Foles down on the Philadelphia Eagles' first offensive play of the game but doesn't get to him on a consistent basis thereafter.

The Cowboys' defense is better than this, or so we think.

With four weeks remaining in a regular season that can shape the futures of many players and coaches, Ryan's defense has to perform better than it has been.

The reason Ryan is not sending five or six defenders as rushers on passing downs is because he doesn't want to give up big plays. Opposing teams are making him pay by using more play-action passes to freeze the linebackers and safeties.

"Four guys should be able to get there," said Ware of the pass rush.

With a month to go, Ryan finds himself missing some of his defensive pieces.

Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Kenyon Coleman and Barry Church are lost for the season because of injuries. Orlando Scandrick is probably gone for the rest of the regular season as he recovers from hand surgery. Jay Ratliff is nursing a groin injury; his return is uncertain.

Ryan has players in Sterling Moore, Brady Poppinga and Vince Agnew who need more time on the practice field.

These are not excuses but facts. Ryan was hired last year to make the defense better. Can it become better if he doesn't have all his weapons?

"We have to play better on defense, but we have to play better throughout our whole football team," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "There were some areas [against the Eagles] where they ran the football on us and we need to do a better job from a technical standpoint, from a scheme standpoint, making sure we're in the right alignments and handling things the right way from an X's and O's perspective, and also we have to tackle better."

Maybe veteran cornerback Mike Jenkins summed up what's wrong with the defense this way: "It was ugly, but we've got to do a better job of communication. We have so many new faces, new bodies out there, it's like everybody is thinking and not coming together as one group."

Jenkins believes in what the Cowboys are doing on defense but wants to see it get better over the last month of the season.

If things don't improve for the defense, the season could end before New Year's Day.

Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals are next, followed by the Pittsburgh Steelers, quite possibly with Ben Roethlisberger back in action. Then comes Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, and finally Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins help close the season.

You could say these are winnable games for the Cowboys. If the offense continues to produce points, like the 38 it did Sunday against the Eagles, you might believe that group can carry a few games late.

But you can't believe in a defense that's given up eight touchdown drives to rookie quarterbacks the last two weeks.

"Sometimes communication can be an issue," Garrett said. "I think some other things played a part in it as well. And we have to make sure the communication is right, but also the technique and execution has to be better."

Ryan has four games to fix this defense. It's not the worst defense in the NFL; statistically the Cowboys have the 11th best defense in the league overall. But you want to see more game-changing plays like the one Josh Brent made, when he forced a late fourth-quarter fumble that Morris Claiborne scooped up for a touchdown.

If the offense can start to play better with a month to play, the same can be expected of the defense. The question is whether that can be done.