Continuity drives unit to excel

Despite none of their individuals being among the league leaders in sacks or INTs, the Cowboys defense is ranked No. 1.

Updated: November 13, 2003, 9:13 AM ET
By Mickey Spagnola | Pro Football Weekly

IRVING, Texas -- Shhhh! Careful now, the secret is getting out, starting to make the rounds.

This Cowboys defense, more than halfway through the season, was playing pretty well. Not bad. In fact, it is ranked No. 1 in the NFL. And that is No. 1 for the fourth consecutive week in the NFL rankings and for the fifth consecutive week in the NFC.

"Nobody is talking about our defense," said Pro Bowl defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, who after five seasons in New Orleans should know a thing or two about good defenses. "We've been carrying this thing a long time, the No. 1 defense."

There is reason no one would notice. First, who is the star?

La'Roi Glover
This Cowboys defense is not littered with Pro Bowlers. Glover went to the Pro Bowl the past three years. Dexter Coakley has been there twice, most recently in 2001. Darren Woodson has been there five times, but the last time was in 1998. That's it. No smoke, no fire.

There is more. Who statistically grabs attention?

Glover and defensive end Greg Ellis are tied for the team lead with three sacks apiece -- hardly the type of numbers that make men pass-rushing legends. Defensive end Eric Ogbogu is the only other Cowboy with more than two sacks -- 2½ at that. Linebacker Al Singleton leads the team with two interceptions. Two! A linebacker! No one else has more than one.

And it's not as if the Cowboys have some Monster of the Midway patrolling the middle of the defense, or some playmaker like Derrick Brooks on the outside.

None of these figures would strike fear in any opponent, although it appears opposing quarterbacks, running backs and receivers are keeping an eye-and-a-half on second-year safety Roy Williams, the Cowboys' one-man wrecking crew.

Still, no matter the numbers or lack of recognizable stars, no one has been gaining yards against the Cowboys' defense, thus the top ranking.

What gives?

"They are playing very sound," said Bills head coach Gregg Williams before having to test the Cowboys' defensive merits in Week 10. "They are attacking people, attacking offenses and not sitting there and waiting on people."

Evidently not, and maybe the only supporting evidence for this No. 1 ranking is the Cowboys' record and points allowed. The Cowboys are 7-2, good enough for first place in the NFC East.

And with an offense scoring no more than 21 points in five of its first nine games -- and more than 24 only twice -- the Cowboys have leaned heavily on their defense in head coach Bill Parcells' first year to already have won two more games at this point of the season than they won in each of the past three years.

Then there is the point of points.

The Cowboys have given up 136 points so far -- fewer than anyone else in the league. Also, it's worth noting the Cowboys' offense had given up 14 points on fumble and interception returns for touchdowns.

Only New England (12) has given up fewer than the Cowboys' 13 defensive touchdowns. (Cleveland has also allowed just 13 defensive touchdowns.) But no team has given up fewer than the Cowboys' three rushing touchdowns.

Maybe that is the key word, "team." You know, the sum of the parts being better than any part.

"This team is more fundamentally sound," Glover said, recalling his days on some of those stud defensive clubs in New Orleans. "We don't have a guy in the top five of any of those (B.S.) categories, but we're fundamentally sound. Guys are holding their gaps. Up front, we're being selfless. Just take one for the team, and let all the safeties get all the love and glory."

Although Parcells is generally hailed for turning around the fortunes of this struggling franchise, he barely touched the defense.

There are only three new starters from last season -- free agent Singleton from Tampa Bay; cornerback Terence Newman, who was selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2003 draft; and nose tackle Willie Blade, who was drafted by the Cowboys in '01, sent packing at the end of camp in '02 and re-signed last winter after a season in Houston. Blade and Newman played their first NFL snaps this season, along with backup nose tackle Daleroy Stewart, a sixth-round pick in '01.

Parcells decided to keep not only the defensive system, but also defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, one of only four position coaches retained from Dave Campo's staff. Three of those coaches -- Zimmer, Gary Gibbs and Jim Jeffcoat -- were on the defensive side of the ball. Although Parcells is used to playing with bigger defenders, especially at linebacker, he has admitted to gaining an appreciation for the playmaking ability of the undersized Coakley and middle linebacker Dat Nguyen.

In fact, just last week he said of Nguyen: "He's a football-playing dude." Parcells also has gained an appreciation for Zimmer, who is in his fourth season as the Cowboys' defensive coordinator, and has encouraged him to be even more aggressive than his already-aggressive nature. No more sitting back trying not to lose. With an inability to get to the quarterback with just the front four, Parcells has encouraged Zimmer to turn the Cowboys loose blitzing.

"Yeah, I like him, I like him a lot; I really do," Parcells said of Zimmer. "He's a diligent guy. You know, when I can't sleep, he's not sleeping either. I like that, you know.

"He's serious about his business; he doesn't leave any stones unturned."

The next few weeks will determine if the Cowboys' defense is for real -- if this team really has turned the corner.

In the Cowboys' first nine games, only three opponents had an offense ranked in the top 20 in the league heading into Week 10 (Giants, Buccaneers and Jets).

But the competition significantly upgrades. The Cowboys must face New England in Foxboro and then Carolina, Miami and Philadelphia all in a row. All have winning records, and two of the teams (New England and Carolina) are division leaders.

For the Cowboys to survive this stretch, their defense must be as good as their ranking seems to indicate.

But is it a playoff-caliber defense?

"No, I wouldn't say that," Parcells predictably said. "That's a word I wouldn't use anyway. We're nowhere near saying that."


"They're playing pretty solid, though," Parcells interjected. "I'll say that."

As quietly as it's kept.

Mickey Spagnola covers the Cowboys for

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