The Dallas Cowboys did nothing to help their defense. So instead, the defense helped itself.
A failed onside kick and an Ezekiel Elliott fumble left the Cowboys in precarious spots in the second half. But the defense limited the Redskins to only field goals.
“How appropriate for our defense to be actually, at the end of the day, the difference-maker,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said.
Heroes were everywhere in the fourth quarter for the much-maligned defense.
Safety Barry Church had an interception in the end zone; linebacker Justin Durant knocked away a fourth-down pass; and Tyrone Crawford sacked Kirk Cousins.
The Cowboys allowed no points in the fourth quarter in their 27-23 victory.
“The thing we did well was we finished. We haven’t done that well,” Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “…If you don’t panic and just keep playing, usually the offense will self-destruct, if you just don’t give up the home run and make them keep punching.”
The Cowboys likely fall in total defense after allowing 432 yards. But in six red zone possessions, the Redskins scored only two touchdowns.
“In the red zone last week, we kind of struggled,” Church said. “They went three for three. This week we kind of stepped up in the red zone, forced them into field goals, and we got a takeaway. I think that was the momentum we needed. Going forward if we want to keep winning and play like the defense we need to be, we need to play great in the red zone.”
After the Cowboys took a 20-17 lead late in the third quarter, they tried an onside kick that gave the ball to Washington at the Dallas 38. But the Cowboys held the Redskins to only a field goal.
Only two snaps later, the Cowboys defense was back on the field after Elliott fumbled at the Dallas 34. Washington reached the Dallas 4, but again, the Cowboys limited the damage to only three points.
With a 23-20 lead, the Redskins threatened to put the game away on their next series. They got to the Dallas 6 before Church picked off Cousins on a third-down throw intended for Pierre Garcon.
“That was kind of a hope/prayer on that,” Church said. “Once I saw [tight end] Jordan Reed go out toward the corner, it sort of freed me up, and I was able to read the quarterback’s eyes. He kind of threw it late over the middle, and I was able to capitalize on it.”
Durant and Crawford took over the starring roles to stifle the Redskins’ final two chances after the Cowboys regained the lead.
On the first play after the two-minute warning, Washington faced a fourth and 1. Cousins’ attempt to Garcon was tipped away by Durant.
“I’ve been in the league for a while, and the type of set that they’re in is typically two, maybe three, routes in that situation on fourth-and-short that they’re going to typically run, and they ran one of the ones I guessed – not guessed, but I felt that they were going to run,” Durant said.
The Redskins got the ball back with 1:30 remaining, out of timeouts and needing a touchdown to win. Crawford’s sack of Cousins for an 8-yard loss on the second play put the Redskins in a bad way.
“Definitely something that needed to happen for me after last week,” Crawford said. “I felt like I played one of the worst games of my life last week, a lot of it because I missed training camp and just not being as prepared as I should be going into the game. Just working and jumping into different things. I still need a lot of work.”
The Cowboys defense is a work in progress – still – but they showed improvement Sunday.