In our last post about Dez Bryant and his injury status, we finished by saying how much tougher it is to overcome an injury to a guy playing at the top of his game. Not that we'd ever wish injury upon Doug Free or anything, but it'd be a lot easier to compensate for his loss than it would/will be to compensate for Bryant's. The Dallas Cowboys defense in 2012 has suffered a number of these top-tier injuries, and yet has continued to put forth serviceable efforts down the stretch.
Anthony Spencer hasn't gotten much help from his friends, mainly because they're all hurt (Tom Ulman / AP)
First and foremost, the loss of Sean Lee to this defense has been immense. Out of the gate, the Cowboys D had the potential to be as good a unit as we've seen this millenium in big D. Lee was, and still is, the leader of this group. Even though he only played 6 games this season, he's still 4th on the team with 58 tackles. His one interception was also tied for the team lead prior to Brandon Carr's second pick of the season this past Sunday. Without Lee, the Cowboys not only lost their leader, but also their best playmaker. Running plays that should go for 2 or 3 yards have gone for 4 or 5 yards without Lee. His impact is likely greater than even that of the great Demarcus Ware, simply because his magnetic gravitation towards the ball and it's carrier.
Without Lee, the Cowboys really needed 2nd year ILB Bruce Carter to step up and fill some big shoes. Bruce laced up his Nike's and filled them beautifully, until a shoulder injury on Thanksgiving put him on IR for the rest of the year. In the absence of Lee, Carter stepped up as the emotional and physical leader this team needed in the middle. His playmaking ability was beginning to rival that of Lee's. His combination of speed, quickness, and power is rarely matched in the NFL, and the middle of the Dallas defense has suffered mightily without him. Ernie Sims and Dan Connor represent quality depth at the position, but don't represent a formidable pair of NFL starting linebackers. Again, another player playing at the top of his game was relinquished to the pine due to a devastating injury.
While the impacts haven't been as major as Lee's and Carter's, the defensive unit has also endured season ending injuries to other key components. Barry Church was beginning to emerge as a true, reliable safety for this team, and then saw his season end far too prematurely thanks to a torn achilles. Orlando Scandrick, the team's oft-relied upon slot corner, is also on IR thanks to a broken hand. Run-stuffing DE Kenyon Coleman is also out for the year, just another name in the long line of losses for this team.
Amazingly, Dallas still ranks 11th overall in total defense. It's an even more amazing fact when you consider that the team has a dreadful -10 turnover ratio. They held a potent Bengals offense in check, allowing 4 FGs to only one touchdown. They'll be relied upon to do the same this upcoming Sunday against the Steelers, who can score on any play with their big-time receiving threats (especially Mike Wallace). If the defense can continue to only allow FGs, the Cowboys will have a chance. For too long, the offense has been stuck in neutral and relied upon the defense to win games. Now it's time for them to repay the favor.
If the Cowboys expect to get an invitation to the big party happening in January, it'll need to the offense leading the way, with or without Dez Bryant. But, regardless of this, the defense will need to continue to do enough minus some big names to keep them in games. The Steelers, Saints, and Redskins can all move the ball, but the question remains; can the Cowboys stop them?
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