Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee made it a point to stop Dak Prescott coming off the field late in the third quarter Sunday, moments after Prescott had tossed his first NFL interception.
The Green Bay Packers were taking over at the Dallas 16 and were in seemingly great position to make it a one-score game. But Lee wanted to assure the rookie quarterback not to sweat it.
“We’ve got you. We are good, man,” Lee told Prescott. “We are going to get this ball back.”
Yes, the defense stepped up in that situation and forced the Packers to settle for a field goal. That was part of the Packers getting only three field goals in their first nine drives before scoring a late touchdown in the Cowboys’ 30-16 victory at Lambeau Field.
It’s a stark contrast to a season ago and is a significant reason why the team is off to a surprising 5-1 start.
The strides the Cowboys have made on defense may be the most overlooked part of this surprise start. They are forcing more turnovers. They are making teams settle for field goals. And they’re playing much more physical.
All of this from a unit that defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli nicknamed the “Mighty Orphans,” a play off the legendary Fort Worth high school football team known as the Masonic Home Mighty Mites in the 1930s and 1940s.
“The rush has improved from last year and our coverage on the back end has improved a lot from last year,” safety Barry Church said. “We’re forcing teams to give us the ball and we’re taking advantage of it.”
The Cowboys didn’t get much pressure on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but they found ways to get timely takeaways. And, when one of their better players such as Morris Claiborne exited with a concussion, others stepped up.
That couldn’t be said a season ago when the Cowboys ranked last in the NFL with 11 takeaways.
Church forced a fumble in the first half and intercepted Rodgers in the second half. Defensive end David Irving, though, bettered that.
Irving deflected a pass and forced three fumbles, two of which the Cowboys recovered. The three forced fumbles are tied for third-most in NFL history, and Irving is now tied for that in team history (DeMarcus Ware forced three fumbles in a 2005 game). None were bigger than when Irving stripped Rodgers in the third quarter.
The Packers were in position to score with a first-and-goal from the 1, and Irving knocked the ball loose and recovered it.
“They were driving on us pretty good, but you’ve got to drive the whole field, not just 98 yards,” Irving said.
Irving then forced fumbles on consecutive plays on what proved to be the Packers’ final drive in the fourth quarter. He had a strip sack of Rodgers that the Packers recovered, and then pried the ball loose from receiver Ty Montgomery on a run the next play that Ryan Davis recovered.
That capped off a signature performance by the defense to date.
“We’re a new team,” cornerback Brandon Carr said. “Confidence is different from any other year.”
That showed when Claiborne was knocked out with a concussion in the second quarter after colliding with Lee. The Cowboys were short on defensive backs, but managed to get by.
Safety Byron Jones stepped in as the nickel cornerback with rookie Anthony Brown taking over for Claiborne, and Jeff Heath got his most game action in Jones’ spot.
“It was a real challenge,” coach Jason Garrett said. “They are in the mode where they are playing with four receivers and five receivers. They are in empty sets. For a couple of series there we called a lot of defenses that we couldn’t run. We had to say, ‘We can’t run that. We can’t run that.’ We had to get to some things we could run with the personnel we had out there.
“Again, a really good response by our coaches and a really good response by our players to handle that. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but they hung in there.”