The Cowboys have one of the NFL’s best defenses - and they proved it last week with a dominant performance against New Orleans.
They limited the Saints, who entered the game with NFL’s highest scoring offense (37.6), to 10 points and 176 total yards in a three-point win.
It was beyond impressive.
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Heck, Drew Brees, the future Hall of Fame quarterback, had 39 yards passing at halftime, which just happened to be his lowest passing total in more than a decade.
The performance was no fluke. Dallas ranks second in the NFL in points allowed (18.9), fourth in run defense (91.3), fifth in yards allowed (318.2) and seventh in passing defense (226.9).
They’re second in yards per carry (3.67) and seventh in yards per play (5.27).
If they can put another dominant performance together, the Cowboys should sweep Philadelphia for the first time since 2012 and virtually clinch the NFC East with three games left.
Now, you could credit defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence for the Cowboys’ defensive success, or you could heap praise on linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. Perhaps, you think cornerback Byron Jones’ development is the key to the defense.
All of those answers would be correct, but there’s another reason for the Cowboys’ defensive prowess we never discuss: Rod Marinelli’s lack of ego.
Understand, everybody has an ego. Some are simply larger than others. Marinelli, the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator since 2014, has an ego that’s smaller than most small.
When the Cowboys hired 39-year-old Kris Richard to coach their secondary, it didn’t take long to figure out the former Seattle Seahawks’ defensive coordinator has a passion for the game and a unique charisma that resonated with his players.
And it didn’t take long to figure out Marinelli was going to let Richard run as much of the defense as he wanted. Not every coordinator would give up that kind of control.
But Marinelli earned a Super Bowl ring with Tampa Bay in 2003. He’s widely acknowledged as one of the NFL’s best defensive line coaches, so he doesn’t need to call the Cowboys’ defensive signals for validation.
He’s secure in his ability, and his legacy.
Besides, the Cover 3 scheme Richard brought with him from Seattle, and the Cover 2 scheme Marinelli helped make famous with Tampa Bay are philosophically aligned.
Both schemes are designed to prevent big plays. In Cover 2, each safety takes half the field and no one is supposed to get behind them. In Cover 3, three defensive backs each take one-third of the field and the linebackers handle the area in front of them.
The Cowboys have allowed 30 passes for more than 20 yards this season. Only Buffalo (27), has allowed fewer. Dallas has allowed five passes of more than 40 yards; only three teams have allowed fewer.
Marinelli and Richard also have similar personalities. Each would be described as fiery and competitive.
Marinelli, a Vietnam vet, demands extreme effort on every play, which is why you often see the Cowboys’ defensive linemen rush the passer and sprint toward the receiver after the pass is thrown.
It’s why one veteran starter said, “Playing for Marinelli literally takes a couple of years off your career because you have to practice so hard every day.”
Richard is equally competitive. After all, it’s not often a coach gets involved in a pre-game fight but that’s exactly what happened against Philadelphia when the teams met last month.
“They have the same beliefs and values as coaches and what they want to instill in players and what they want to instill in the defense,” coach Jason Garrett said. “From a personality standpoint, to hear two defensive voices emphasize the same kinds of things, I think, is a really important dynamic to have.
“You try to touch players, inspire players, teach and coach players the same message in different ways. Those guys believe in the same things but they go about it in different ways.
“Each of those guys have strong personalities, and they have positive impact on the guys they’re coaching.”