ARLINGTON, Texas -- The story of the 2018 Dallas Cowboys defense started in training camp in Oxnard, California.
“There was training camps in years before where I think the offense has pretty much dominated and this year was not that way,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “We’d leave some training camp days, truly just getting beat on offense, not having any production, not doing anything well. It was a struggle. You don’t want to lose confidence in yourself, so you had to realize that this is just a good defense we’re playing.”
Zack Martin remembers years where the offense “would have our way with them,” especially in 2014 and 2016, the last two seasons the Cowboys made the playoffs.
“This year, any situation, like two-minute, I don’t think we won one the entire camp,” Martin said.
The Cowboys have had a good defense for a few years. They finished eighth in yards allowed per game in 2017. They had the No. 1-ranked run defense in 2016. They were fifth against the pass in 2015. In 2014, they forced 31 takeaways.
This year, the Cowboys have showed signs of being a great defense, with the affirmation coming in a 13-10 win against the New Orleans Saints on Thursday.
In its first 11 games, New Orleans averaged a league-best 37 points per game and was fifth in yards per game (416.6). Quarterback Drew Brees had been nearly unstoppable in his connection with wide receiver Michael Thomas. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram formed the best running back duo in the league.
On Thursday, the Saints were shut out in the first half for just the fourth time since Sean Payton became coach in 2006. They gained 176 yards, the fewest in a game since 2001. They converted just 3-of-11 on third down.
“Oh yeah,” coordinator Rod Marinelli said when asked if this was the best game his defense has played. “Since I’ve been here? Yeah, maybe this and that Seattle game [in 2014]. Those are the two. This one was special. This one here, we overcame a lot of stuff in the game and just kept playing. Just kept playing.”
The Cowboys are allowing 18.6 points per game. Only the Baltimore Ravens (18) are giving up fewer, entering the weekend.
For years, the Cowboys were a team built around their offense with Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and DeMarco Murray, as well as an offensive line that featured Pro Bowlers in Martin, Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick.
Now the Cowboys are a team that can win with defense.
“When you come to camp and you’re starting to build something special with the guys, it starts early,” cornerback Byron Jones said. “You can’t believe in it during the middle of the season. You’ve got to start believing it early. What our issue was [in the past] was being consistent, eliminating long plays but also the turnovers.”
The Cowboys gave up one pass of more than 20 yards to the Saints -- Brees’ 30-yard touchdown pass to Keith Kirkwood in the third quarter. They have allowed 29 plays of at least 20 yards this season. They gave up just one run of more than 10 yards to New Orleans. They have allowed 30 all season.
The Cowboys had one takeaway -- Jourdan Lewis' clinching interception with 2:08 to play -- and sacked Brees twice. In their four-game winning streak, they have nine sacks and six interceptions.
“We didn’t give him a chance to get in his rhythm,” linebacker Jaylon Smith said. “Great quarterbacks, they’re all about rhythm. He knows what we’re doing because he’s been playing this game so long. There’s a reason why he’s so elite, but we kept coming.”
If it wasn’t Smith with a big hit, it was Leighton Vander Esch, who had 10 tackles. Or it was DeMarcus Lawrence affecting every play with a quarterback pressure or a tackle of Kamara on fourth-and-goal from the 1 in the second quarter. Or it was Anthony Brown breaking up two passes and getting a sack.
“Why is it different? Because we’ve got some dogs behind us,” Tyrone Crawford said. “We got some dogs behind us in the secondary and our linebacker corps. I love my defensive line and everything we do, but them dogs behind us? They hunt.”
They also have grown up together. Of the 11 starters, 10 were drafted by the Cowboys. Only nose tackle Antwaun Woods isn’t a homegrown player. He was picked up in May almost as an afterthought but become a dependable run-stopper.
“The thing about it is these guys have been with us for awhile,” Marinelli said. “These are all our guys. We drafted most of them. They have the character we like. The speed obviously. And they hit.”