NFC East Reporter
Just one hour of football into the NFL season, Micah Parsons declared that the Dallas Cowboys had “the best defense in the National Football League.”
On Thursday night, that defense was lucky the Dallas offense was there to bail it out.
Oh, that defense might have come through when it mattered most, stopping the Seattle Seahawks three times on fourth downs in the final 7:04. But make no mistake: Dallas got away with one against Seattle. Their defense very nearly cost the Cowboys a much-needed win by giving up 406 yards and getting called for 10 penalties.
They can thank Dak Prescott and the offense for saving the day and letting them escape with a 41-35 win.
Prescott, who looks more and more like an MVP candidate every game, led the Cowboys to points on eight of their nine drives. The offense held the ball for more than 36 minutes and racked up 411 yards. But they were constantly left counterpunching, trying to make up for a defense that couldn’t get out of its own way.
To be fair, the defense had its moments — especially late. Those three fourth-down stops were huge. The Cowboys’ go-ahead touchdown was set up by a fourth-down stop by DeMarcus Lawrence with 7:04 to go. And they stopped Seattle again on fourth down with 3:11 and then 1:07 remaining when their heavy pressure forced Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith to throw the ball away both times.
But the defense gave away much more than it took. There is no doubt they have plenty of talent. They have the potential to be as great as they think they are. But the danger for a Cowboys team that has its sights set on the Super Bowl is that their defense is also capable of some pretty terrible things.
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Like in the first half, which was stunningly bad for a defense that had given up just 37 points in the last three games. Seattle started fast against them, taking the first lead any opposing team has held in Dallas all season long midway through the first quarter when D.K. Metcalf got behind cornerback DaRon Bland and turned a short pass into a 73-yard touchdown.
Dak Prescott and the Cowboys’ red-hot offense fought back, of course, but every time they did, the Dallas defense found a way to screw it up. They did most of their damage in the first half by being an undisciplined mess. The Cowboys were called for 11 penalties in the first two quarters — seven of which were accepted for 107 yards. And eight of the flags were thrown at the defense, which kept pushing the Seahawks’ offense along.
Each one seemed more costly than the last, too. After the Cowboys took a 17-7 lead and looked like they might open things up early, the defense gift-wrapped a touchdown for the Seahawks with two huge pass-interference penalties. The first came when linebacker Rashaan Evans ran right into Seattle receiver Tyler Lockett without ever looking back at the ball, drawing a flag that cost Dallas 40 yards. A few plays later, corner Stephon Gilmore was penalized in the end zone, setting the stage for a 1-yard Zach Charbonnet touchdown run that made it 17-14.
The Cowboys weren’t done. Bland, who came in looking like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and then had a miserable half, interfered with Smith-Njigba in the end zone with just a few seconds left in the first half, leading to a 1-yard touchdown pass from Smith that gave Seattle a 21-20 halftime lead. Then, on the first drive of the second half, linebacker Markquese Bell got a 15-yard facemask penalty, helping set up a 5-yard touchdown run by Smith that put Seattle up 28-20.
Maybe that should’ve been expected from the two most penalized teams in the NFL. And they certainly gave referee Clete Blakeman and his crew a workout, combining for 19 penalties for 257 yards.
Regardless, there’s no doubt the eight accepted penalties on the Cowboys defense made an enormous difference. And even when they weren’t being flagged, they weren’t playing well. Only the 49ers, in a 42-10 blowout, have lit up the Cowboys for more than the 406 yards Seattle had. And consider this is a Seahawks team that had lost three of their last four, posted a total of 29 points and 511 yards in their last two games and is struggling to stay afloat in the playoff race. They had topped 24 points just once in their last eight games. Smith hadn’t thrown three touchdown passes in a game all year long and he torched the Cowboys for three touchdowns and 334 yards.
The Cowboys got away with it because Prescott and the offense are just that good. Prescott completed 29 of 41 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns of his own — including one to CeeDee Lamb, who was his usual spectacular self, catching 12 passes for 116 yards. The Cowboys even got their running game going with 136 yards on the ground.
And they needed every inch.
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The Cowboys defense, of course, has been better than this for most games this season. But this was an alarming letdown coming ahead of a very critical stretch of their season. This Cowboys team has a bar far higher than beating the middling Seahawks. They’ve got their sights set on the Super Bowl. And they have to know a weak, undisciplined effort like this just won’t do when they face the 10-1 Philadelphia Eagles next Sunday night. It likely won’t be good enough in the three ensuing weeks when they travel to Buffalo (6-6) and Miami (8-3) before returning home to face the Detroit Lions (8-3), too.
These next three games are the litmus tests for the Cowboys. These are the teams they need to show they’re capable of beating if they really want to be a Super Bowl contender. And they’re just not going to do that if their defense plays like it did on Thursday night.
They ultimately won this game, and that will rightfully be their focus. Their defense knows it will need to get better fast. Because as good as their offense is, they need a great defense to have any chance to win a championship.
They thought they had one. They were sure no defense in the NFL was better.
If they were ever right, they’ll need to very quickly find that championship defense again.
Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.
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