Everything's On the Line for Cowboys Defense

It's very easy to say that the Cowboys need to do a better job defensively this weekend than they did against the Giants in the first matchup between the teams.

There's no doubt that Rob Ryan's unit was the reason why the Giants were able to erase a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter and walk away with a win that helped set up this weekend's do-or-die scenario. Saying that the defense needs to be better is easy, but actually figuring out a way that they can be better is difficult.

At this point, the Cowboys defense is what it is. They have a few talented players -- DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee, Jay Ratliff -- and a slew of mediocrities who aren't good enough to keep the opposition out of the end zone often enough to win consistently. Ryan's schemes hid that early in the season, but teams have figured out how to attack the Cowboys defense and the defense hasn't responded.

Maybe things will be different with a full offseason to assess the talent and teach the schemes, but that's a question for 2012. The question for 2011 is how to get the team to come up with an effort good enough to send Dallas to the postseason.

Having backs against the wall hasn't done the trick and there aren't a bunch of talented reserves to slot into the lineup instead of underperforming starters. You could try Orlando Scandrick in place of Terrence Newman, perhaps, but that's not going to make for a sea change that carries the Cowboys to the promised land.

Perhaps they should try a motivation as old as time itself and challenge the players to earn paychecks beyond Sunday. We know there are going to be changes on the Cowboys defense before the start of next season. We'll start finding out just how many changes against the Giants.

Anthony Spencer, Abe Elam, Bradie James, Keith Brooking and Alan Ball are all free agents when the year comes to an end, while Newman and Kenyon Coleman haven't done nearly enough to guarantee them another year in Big D. Whether those players want to play for Dallas or not, Sunday night's game gives them a big stage to use for making their case that they deserve a contract for the 2012 season.

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Continued employment is a pretty good motivator for 60 minutes of maximum effort. It's time for the players who want to make it known that they are better than they've shown thus far to step up and state their cases. You'll know by the end of Sunday night which guys should have a chance of sticking around and which spots are in need of immediate attention.

It's desperation time and the Cowboys should make sure that every player on their defense knows that desperation extends well beyond simply making the playoffs.

Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter and he is also a contributor to Pro Football Talk.

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