Cowboys' defense raises expectations: One touchdown is too much

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Stephen A. praises Cowboys' defense in win over Giants (1:01)

Stephen A. Smith highlights the performance of Dallas' defense after a victory Sunday night over New York. (1:01)

FRISCO, Texas -- When Eli Manning found a wide-open Evan Engram in the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown with 1:27 to play on Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys' defense was livid.

Leading 20-3 at the time, the Cowboys weren’t really in danger of losing to the New York Giants, but the defense wanted to keep their NFC East rivals out of the end zone. The defense gave up a third-quarter field goal, but the players wanted to finish the game in style.

“That’s all on me, 100 percent my fault on that touchdown,” Cowboys safety Jeff Heath said. “I kick myself for that. Have to learn from it.”

It did not matter that Sean Lee was on the sideline with a hamstring cramp.

“When we get into games, we want to put no points on the board, and we weren’t able to stop them,” Lee said. “We feel we have that ability.”

That the expectations of the Cowboys' defense is that high speaks to the evolution of a unit that was once thought of as the weak link.

Through two games, the Cowboys have allowed 29 points. The Los Angeles Rams have given up 13. The Washington Redskins have yielded 27.

In team history, the Cowboys have given up fewer than 30 points in their first two games 15 times. Prior to this season, the last time it happened came in 1996.

“That’s just how we want to play,” Dallas defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford said. “I mean, we want to hold offenses to the minimum, so we go out there with that expectation -- and when we fall short, it’s upsetting. Obviously, we’re going to get in there and look at it and take it hard on ourselves, because that’s what we do -- and we’ll just come out better next time.”

Six different defenders sacked Manning on Sunday. Saquon Barkley gained 10 of his 28 rushing yards on one of his 11 carries. Barkley caught 14 passes but only for 80 yards. Odell Beckham Jr. was held in check with four catches for 51 yards.

In the Cowboys' season-opening loss to the Carolina Panthers, Cam Newton ran for 59 rushing yards in the first quarter but was held in check after that. Newton threw for 146 yards and was sacked three times. The Panthers converted 4 of 12 third-down opportunities.

Through three quarters on Sunday, the Giants converted 3 of 12 third-down opportunities.

Up three scores, the Cowboys’ defensive mentality changed. On the Giants’ final two drives, the Cowboys allowed 110 yards. On New York’s first eight drives, the Cowboys allowed 145 yards on 51 plays.

“That’s not the way we want to finish the game, but the most important thing is to win the game,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said, “so you’re really handling that situation as much as anything else to make sure you come out with more points than they do at the end. But having said that, you want to make sure you execute each of those individual plays to keep them out of the end zone.”

Quarterback Dak Prescott had an idea the Cowboys’ defense would be good during training camp in California.

“It wasn’t always fun going against this defense in Oxnard,” Prescott said. “There were some days that weren’t pretty, and I’m sure y’all saw it. They destroyed practices. We’d go after them and it was back and forth.

"Give them credit. They got after me in training camp, and I knew they would get after the opposing quarterback.”

Lee’s belief in the defense goes back to the end of last season.

In the final five games of 2017, the defense gave up more than 14 points once. (The Seattle Seahawks had an interception return for a touchdown in their 21-12 win against the Cowboys.) Dallas gave up more than 20 first downs just once (21 to the Giants). The D allowed more than 300 yards just once.

Through two games so far in 2018, the Cowboys have yet to allow 300 yards. They haven’t given up more than 20 first downs. They have given up just three touchdowns.

“When we had everybody, when we were healthy, when some of the young guys got back and got experience, I think it was really last year and then the offseason. We saw we could be a good defense,” Lee said. “We still have room to work. It’s two games. We have to play an entire season. And we have room for improvement. That’s what we need to concentrate on.”