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The Cowboys Are a Defensive Team Now—and Could Be a Force in the Playoffs

Dallas manhandled the hottest team in the league on Thursday and has pole position in the NFC East. Did the Cowboys lay out a blueprint for defense to still matter during the offensive boom?

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The unofficial mantra of this NFL season has been that the best defense is a good offense. The Cowboys flipped that on its head on Thursday night as Dallas’s defense throttled New Orleans’s offense and secured one of the most impressive Cowboys wins in years, solidified Dallas’s new identity as a defensive team, and—maybe, possibly, potentially, perhaps—laid a blueprint for defense to still matter in 2018.

The Saints entered Thursday’s game 10-1, hadn’t lost since Week 1, had won their previous three games by a combined score of 130-38, and hadn’t even trailed in a game since October 28. The Cowboys responded by holding New Orleans to zero points and just 59 total yards in the first half. The team, which entered Thursday allowing the third-fewest points per game in the league, held (former?) MVP front-runner Drew Brees to just 127 passing yards, one touchdown, and one game-ending interception in the 13-10 loss. Alvin Kamara managed just 72 total yards, and the near-automatic Michael Thomas caught five of his eight targets for 40 yards.

The game began with Dallas forcing two Saints three-and-outs, just the 15th and 16th three-and-outs for the Saints all season. Dallas forced a punt on the Saints’ third drive and then scored to jump out to a 10-0 lead, but an Amari Cooper fumble early in the second quarter gave the Saints the ball in Dallas territory. When the Cowboys stopped the Saints on third down, New Orleans went for the touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 1—unsurprising, considering New Orleans came into the game a mind-boggling 11-of-12 on fourth downs. New Orleans is now 11-of-13.

Dallas’s defensive unit, coordinated by Rod Marinelli and called by Kris Richard, did not flinch all night. The line, led by Demarcus Lawrence (who backed up all of the trash talk), pressured Brees on the edge and the interior of the offensive line to collapse the pocket. When the ball did get out (not often; Brees started a game 0-for-4 for the first time in his career), roving linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith—who already look like the franchise cornerstones they were drafted to be—ensured there would be no yards after the catch for Kamara, Thomas, or any other Saints pass catchers. As early as the second quarter, announcer Troy Aikman noted that the Saints were whispering nervously among themselves on the sidelines at every Cowboys first down, seemingly shocked they could be losing the game.

The Cowboys have gone from a team defined by a road-grading offensive line to one headlined by one of the best defenses in the NFC alongside the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings. Yet not even Chicago has held a serious contender to under 20 points, let alone 10, and the Cowboys showed how to do so. (Hint: It’s the basics.)

Ball control: Dallas held the ball for nearly 37 minutes.

Pass rush: The Cowboys had just two sacks, but they rushed Brees early and often, and from everywhere.

Third-down efficiency: The Saints entered the game converting 46.8 percent of their third downs but were just 3-of-11 on Thursday.

The Cowboys defense has plenty of obstacles preventing it from becoming an elite unit. Dallas allowed just 127 passing yards to Brees and just 65 total rushing yards to one of the most talented backfields in football but gave up 80 yards in penalties. Most of those came on defense, and a few of them nearly cost them the game. New Orleans’s touchdown came after a roughing-the-punter call on Cowboys pass rusher Randy Gregory extended a Saints drive, and on the next Saints series, an offside penalty on Gregory ruined a Lawrence strip sack. If Dallas had lost the game, Gregory would have gotten the lion’s share of the blame. (Plenty would have also gone to the refs. Fans on both sides likely took exception with some the refs’ calls on Thursday, including the offside call against Gregory and a missed Jaylon Smith helmet-to-helmet hit on Kamara, who re-entered the game after appearing to use smelling salts without entering concussion protocol.)

Even if Dallas does fix its penalty issues, the offense is the true problem. Dallas jumped out to a quick 10-0 lead by picking on Saints cornerback Eli Apple, but Dallas’s offense looked stagnant the rest of the game. For all the blame placed on the shoulders of head coach Jason Garrett, quarterback Dak Prescott looked like the bigger problem. Prescott lost 40 yards on seven sacks, many of which could have been avoided with sharper pocket awareness, and he almost lost the game on a late fumble before Brees gave the ball back with an interception on the Saints’ final drive. Even when Prescott had open receivers, he couldn’t hit them.

Still, Dallas took a 13-0 halftime lead against the hottest offense in football, and its defense didn’t need another point to seal the victory. The Cowboys are 7-5 and in first place in the NFC East, and with the Washington Redskins stumbling, they are in control of their playoff hopes. If they make the playoffs, even the best offenses in the league should be wary of facing them. Perhaps the best defense is a good defense.