Rob Ryan has had a very good first season with the Cowboys.
With the exception of the Eagles game, the defense has improved by leaps and bounds over last year's unit without making significant changes to the personnel. The players are being used in a more effective manner, they're being put in positions to succeed and they are executing at a much higher level.
And yet it still feels like there's work to do. The Cowboys have long stretches where they dominate the opposition and suddenly find themselves chasing Matt Moore and LaRod Stephens-Howling around the field like they were Tecmo Bowl defenders trying to make a play on Bo Jackson before he gets to the end zone.
Breakdowns happen to the best of defenses, obviously, but the frequency of them this season is a reminder of the fact that Ryan's been making lemonade out of lemons this season. The point of most concern is that they are still experiencing these issues 12 games into the season.
Against a lot of teams, playing tough for three quarters with a good offensive effort is enough to get you a win. It won't be enough against the Giants.
The Giants don't blow teams out, but it isn't because they don't have the offense to make it happen. With Eli Manning throwing to Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Jake Ballard, points can come in bunches through the air. The return of Ahmad Bradshaw last week gave the team a semblance of a running game for the first time in ages and they've repeatedly pulled off magic late in games because of their ability to strike quickly.
Put simply, it isn't a team you want to face in a shootout and it isn't a team you want to give a chance to beat you the way the Cowboys did with the Redskins, Dolphins and Cardinals. You need to be sharp every single play, you need maximum contributions from all levels of the defense and you need Ryan to be at his best when it comes to devising looks that will keep Manning from shredding the iffy secondary.
It's a tall order, but we've seen enough signs from the Cowboys defense this year to know it is possible. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer should have no problem getting past a poor Giants line and Sean Lee's athleticism should make Ballard less of a threat than he's been in other weeks.
Should is the key word there because we know the Cowboys don't always pull off what they should be able to do on defense. They have to on Sunday night or that division lead will disappear and all the good things they did leading up to the Arizona loss will be meaningless.
Ryan has moved the defense a long way in the last 12 games. Now he needs to go the distance.