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Sunday, December 16, 2012
Updated: December 17, 3:45 PM ET
Cowboys' defense makes pieces fit

By Calvin Watkins
ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- From an emotional standpoint the soul of the Dallas Cowboys -- the defense -- somehow continues to carry this team.

Marcus Spears
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is plugging in players such as Marcus Spears (right) to cover the absence of nose tackle Jay Ratliff.
Jay Ratliff is sitting at home recovering from sports hernia surgery. Sean Lee is walking around with a boot on his foot. Bruce Carter is wearing an elbow brace. Orlando Scandrick has a small cast on his hand.

In their places are players such as Dan Connor, Brady Poppinga, Alex Albright, Michael Coe, Eric Frampton, Sterling Moore, Sean Lissemore, Rob Callaway and Brian Schaefering.

Rob Ryan, the defensive coordinator in charge of trying to make this work, did it again Sunday as the Cowboys beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime 27-24.

"I thought Rob did an outstanding job," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "He has done an outstanding job all year long. Injuries are a part of the game and 32 cities are dealing with injuries. That's just part of what we do. Rob has done a good job of putting the pieces together. A lot of new guys, guys who weren't on our team a few weeks ago, are now playing."

Ryan handed the task of covering Steelers tight end Heath Miller to Moore. Miller had six catches in the first half but was held to just one in the second.

Ryan is starting Poppinga at one of the inside linebacker spots. When Ernie Sims went out with a concussion in the first quarter, Ryan used Connor and Albright at inside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme. He is without Ratliff at nose tackle, so Ryan has Marcus Spears, Lissemore and Callaway at the position.

Danny McCray is struggling in pass coverage, so Ryan plays more dime and places Frampton in at deep safety and pushes the other safety, Gerald Sensabaugh, closer to the line of scrimmage. Ryan is not afraid to put Coe on the field in three-receiver sets.

Ryan has no choice but to do this at this stage of the season.

Rob, he's a unique guy, man. You come in, he going to find a role for you within the system. I don't know those guys' names that just got here, but they played their butt off tonight.

-- Cowboys DE Jason Hatcher
on defensive coordinator Rob Ryan
With the game on the line Sunday, what's left of the old guard made plays. Anthony Spencer beat two blockers to sack Ben Roethlisberger as the Steelers quarterback avoided Lissemore's pressure late in the fourth quarter.

In the first quarter, Roethlisberger tried testing veteran cornerback Brandon Carr as if he was a rookie but watched two of his passes broken up.

Roethlisberger went back to Carr in overtime and was beaten badly. Carr's interception on a pass to Mike Wallace clinched the game for the Cowboys, as the 36-yard return set up the game-winning field goal.

"It came at the right time," Carr said of picking off Roethlisberger for the first time. "Ben is a big quarterback, he's a load to bring down. You saw him breaking tackles, extending plays. It's hard for a secondary to cover that long, but the guys are trying to get to him, and it's going to take an army to bring him down."

The Cowboys' defense is a close group, from the line leading the way for Josh Brent to be embraced at Valley Ranch after being charged with intoxication manslaughter, to Carr mentoring rookie Morris Claiborne, to Ratliff texting Callaway about how to get better.

This defense is not allowing anybody to steal its season away.

"Rob, he's a unique guy, man," defensive end Jason Hatcher said. "You come in, he going to find a role for you within the system. I don't know those guys' names that just got here, but they played their butt off tonight. I'm happy to be on this team."

The Cowboys are now in a three-way tie for first place in the NFC East, but the remaining two opponents can put up points. The New Orleans Saints, who visit Cowboys Stadium next Sunday, scored 41 points against Tampa Bay on Sunday. You think Drew Brees is a little ticked off that his season has gone awry?

The regular-season finale is against the Washington Redskins. The division title, or quite possibly a wild-card berth, is on the line.

And don't believe that the Cowboys didn't know about the New York Giants' struggles against the Atlanta Falcons. Garrett said he was aware of the division rival's loss but maintained a one-game-at-a-time mantra.

The defense is buying into it because that's what's working.

"We're banging away," Garrett said. "That's all we're doing."