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Spagnola: This Defense Becoming The Real Deal

Posted Oct 13, 2014


SEATTLE – Aced it.

         Right?

         This was going to be the big test, finally the game to help define who the Cowboys are, what they might be, where they might be going.

         After all, these were the Seattle Seahawks they were going to play, the 3-1 Seattle Seahawks, the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, and all the hocus pocus that goes along with playing the Seattle Seahawks, all that Legion of Boom stuff, 12th Man stuff, decibel-counting business, and the infallible Richard Sherman, who, hush my mouth, you don’t dare throw at.

         They were playing against the NFL’s fifth-ranked defense, first-ranked rushing defense and the toughest team in the NFL to score against.

         They were playing up here, where water comes out of the sky instead of mostly from the ground like back home in Texas, where the Seahawks had won 17 of the last 18 games at CenturyLink Field, where the Cowboys had lost the last three times, having not won here since 2004, and where visitors wilt in the inhospitable environment surrounding these big ol’ bullies.

         And on top of all that, as we predicted over the weekend, they were going to get their noses tweaked by the Seahawks folks not only replaying on the video board before the opening kickoff the infamous fumbled snap on the likely game-winning field goal attempt in that 2006 postseason game up here the Cowboys lost, 21-20, but also to enhance the memory or throw down some bad karma, the guy tackling Tony Romo from behind on the play, Jordan Babineaux, certainly did do the honors of raising the 12th Man Flag to detonate the crowd.

         Ha, when time expired, and the proctors said put your pencils down, well, all I know from being there was Pete Carroll was caught on the TV screen with the longest, most bewildered face you had ever seen. The 12th Man fell silent, many of the 68,432 people there departing prematurely, mostly leaving those noisy minority fans wearing their Cowboys blue and white jerseys simply beside themselves because …

         Cowboys 30, Seahawks 23.

         No lie.

         This team, despite being tabbed a nine-point underdog, then somehow feeling the benevolent need to even that point-spread up by spotting the Seahawks 10 points right off the bat, just might be for real.

         Certainly the Cowboys record is for real, 5-1, still tied for the NFC East lead with the Eagles and still tied with the Eagles and Chargers for the best record in the NFL. Certainly this winning streak is for real, five straight, the longest since 2007 and in Jason Garrett’s four years as head coach. Certainly DeMarco Murray and this running game is for real, stretching his streak of consecutive 100-yard rushing games to six, tying Jim Brown’s NFL mark for most consecutive 100-yard rushing games to open a season. Certainly this offense is, racking up a 401-yard performance and 162 yards rushing against this bullish defense. Certainly kicker Dan Bailey is for real, going three-for-three on field goals, including a career-high 56-yarder with ease, to become the NFL’s all-time leader in field-goal percentage (91.07) with a minimum of 100 made (102 for 112).

         And now just maybe this defense, the one doubted and bashed before the season ever began, called all sorts of unflattering names by those national types, the one we’ve been tap dancing around when describing just how good it might be, is … for … real.

         There, said it.

         How ’bout ’dem bananas?

         No Ware. No Hatcher. No Lee. No Names.

         No problem.

         “You get challenged every week to see where you stand,” said Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett of life in the NFL. “And sometimes you have to overcome stuff. Mental toughness is a big thing for our team. It was a big thing this week. Be your best regardless of circumstance. We had to overcome stuff today. We had to overcome a good football team, crowd noise and turnovers.

"You keep playing. You don't shy away from it. You don't back down. You just keep going and doing your job."

         Man, oh man, yet again the Cowboys had to overcome themselves, a trend that is not recommended practice in the NFL, but certainly they get extra credit once again for doing so, and against a bunch they found out the hard way last time up here in 2012, turning the ball over the first three times they had it in a 27-7 loss.

         Why, this time they had a punt blocked, Seattle returning the ball for a touchdown. They had a muffed punt, one Seattle recovered at the Cowboys 14, turning that into a thank-you-very-much touchdown. And they had a premature shotgun snap bounce off the knee of an unsuspecting Tony Romo, Seattle recovering that one, too, this time at the Cowboys 20 and turning that into a field goal.

         That’s like saying, hey, here, just have 17 points.

         But not even all that could break their spirit, and certainly not that of the defense, which just might have played its finest game since the third game of the 2012 season when Tampa Bay gained just 166 yards, and that was 36 games ago. Consider some of this:

         The Seahawks totaled only 206 yards of offense.

         The Seahawks ran for only 80 yards, their hammer, Marshawn Lynch, just 61, with 32 of those coming on one of his 10 runs.

         The Seahawks gained only 83 yards in the first half – 53 of those on one completion that should have been called back on a pick – collected just three first downs – one of those by penalty – and just nine for the game.

         The feared Percy Harvin touched the ball six times, three receptions, three runs, and finished with a grand total of … minus-1 yard.

         The equally-feared Seahawks ball-control offense only had the ball for 22 minutes, 21 seconds, and the big reason was the Cowboys defense’s ability to get off the field on third down, Seattle converting just five of 13 and went 0-for-1 on the last-possession, desperation fourth-down try.

         And the Seahawks quarterback was rendered pedestrian, Russell Wilson completing just 14 of 28 passes for but 126 yards – again, 53 of those on that first-possession pick play – no touchdown passes, sacked twice and appropriately finished the game getting intercepted by Cowboys middle linebacker Rolando McClain.

         His passer rating for the game was 47.6, his lowest in the past 30 games and third lowest of his career.

         Consider him whupped, the Cowboys front and blitzes rattling him in the pocket, causing him to throw balls away and generally doing a good job of keeping him in the pocket, except for his 9-yard touchdown run that tied the score at 17.

         That’s some kind of defense.

         “Just felt like every level of our defense was unbelievably physical, and starting with the defensive line,” safety Barry Church said. “One of the best game the defense played in the secondary, too.”

         Surprising to some, but not to them.

         “We felt like in training camp we were a lot better than people thought,” Church continued. “We talk with our pads, not our mouths.”

         Consider those pads were flappin’.

Same from linebacker Justin Durant.

         “I’ve always said we know what we had on defense,” said Durant, who led the team with nine tackles and one pass defensed. “Very physical. Very tiring game. They’re physical and we’re physical, too.”

         This should be a clue. The Cowboys had nine passes defensed, and many of those were broken up with hits on receivers, like the one Church delivered in the end zone on Baldwin on third-and-11 on the Cowboys 15, forcing a field goal instead.

         Holding the Seahawks to just 206 yards means this Cowboys defense has now limited four of their six opponents to no more than the 330 yards Houston gained a week ago, and the Texans needed overtime to do that. And also take into account that if you subtract the Cowboys offensive or special teams turnovers that either directly accounted for opponent points or set up opponent scoring drives, this Cowboys defense has yet to yield, on its own, more than 17 points in any game.

         That includes holding Drew Brees and the Saints to just 17 points, and now Seattle, playing at home, to just six scored without any turnover help.

         Pretty impressive.

         Best of all, the Cowboys grabbed a lead, shut down Lynch – except for that one run – and forced Wilson to play quarterback, having to throw the ball from the pocket, having to throw the ball when the Cowboys knew he had to throw the ball. They turned him into a passer instead of a ball-handling magician, forcing him to stand in the pocket mostly and throw accurately.

         He was 50-50 at best.

         “I thought we really played hard and were very physical,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “That was our plan – how hard and how tough we could be. That’s kind of our calling card, I think. It’s toughness.”

         Go ahead, say it, too.

         For real.
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