Nearly one year ago to the day Morris Claiborne and Bruce Carter looked lost, mentally fried, and embodied much about the state of the Dallas Cowboys defense.
These two are talented, athletic and well-intentioned players, but for whatever the reason it has not been there for most of their respective careers with the Cowboys.
They are more potential than production, leaving fans and coaches wondering exactly what the problem is.
As a result, both players have been favorites in the DFW Tiger Pit.
On Sunday in St. Louis two of the most maligned defensive players on a unit that continually redefines battered made the single two biggest plays in the Cowboys’ 34-31 win against the Rams.
Bruce Carter, welcome back to the world. Mo Claiborne, it would be nice if you stayed a while.
Little the Cowboys defense did against the Rams should give anyone reason to believe they don’t have major issues, but perhaps they won’t be as wretched as last season, or as most of us “experts” predicted.
“For them to say we are going to be the worst defense in the league ever again, we have played better,” Cowboys defensive end George Selvie said. “The first two games, we didn’t make that many mistakes.”
In this, the third game, there were mistakes, beginning with Claiborne.
Before his interception in the game’s final seconds, Claiborne was a mess.
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“I pretty much stunk it up,” Claiborne said. “I don’t want to say I stunk it up, I want to say I left some plays out there I should have made.”
He had it right the first time — Claiborne stunk it up. He allowed touchdowns, long completions, and some guy named Austin Davis — the Rams quarterback — was picking on him.
“I tried to stay positive,” Claiborne said. “They got some big plays early in the game, so why not try it again? I stood up.”
Had Claiborne not been the No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 draft, and had the Cowboys not given up so much to acquire him, he was for the second straight year playing to the bench behind Orlando Scandrick.
“Do I think about he’s not the guy? Well, I don’t think he’s the guy,” said the one man in the Cowboys who can make such a statement — owner/GM Jerry Jones. “As far as the future is concerned, I think he’s going to be a really outstanding player.”
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said he did not think about replacing Claiborne, but what else is he going to say? No one would have blamed him if he did.
“We believe in him,” Marinelli said. “We just have to keep coaching him.”
It only takes one play to change perception, and unlike last year this time Claiborne made that play.
Myself, along with countless others, have buried Mo’ in grief for his Cowboys career. He has not been No. 6 worthy. One interception does not change that, but maybe it’s a start and it does beat the alternative of being burned again.
Claiborne is trying, he is not a bad guy, so you have to feel good for a player who refused to break.
The same can be said for Carter, who two years ago was developing into a top inside linebacker. Last season he looked lost, lost his confidence, and appeared indifferent.
This season, there has been dramatic improvement.
Without middle linebacker Rolando McClain, who was out with a groin injury, some player on the front seven had to make a single play to have a chance. They needed a play at the line of scrimmage, or on the ball from someone on their front seven.
“Everybody wants to be that guy that when plays need to be made to go out there and make them,” Carter said.
Everybody may want that, but not everybody has that ability. Carter has that ability. This is the type of game, and that was the type of play, Bruce Carter can contribute. It’s in there.
Carter had 12 tackles, but it was his 25-yard interception return for a TD that was the type of play this defense needs to be better than it was from a season ago.
A couple of plays can go a long way to help change a perception, but let’s not kid ourselves.
The defensive line has no sacks this season, and the pressure on the quarterbacks has been nonexistent to erratic. Until his big interception, the biggest play Claiborne contributed was on a delayed blitz where he nearly sacked Davis.
“We have to get sacks, period,” Selvie said. “Not just pressures, but sacks.”
Through three games, the Cowboys defense has played three dramatically different games.
They had no chance in Week 1, dominated in Week 2, held on and made a few big plays in the fourth quarter in Week 3. They are allowing 4.5 yards per rush, in Games 1 and 3 opposing offenses completed 15 of 25 third downs, and former rookie free agent Davis ripped them a new one in his second career NFL start.
Considering how bad we feared this unit was going to be, giving up an average of 18 points per game on defense is not the horror show that was 2013.
Nothing we have seen so far says we still should not be braced for the worst, but the types of plays Carter and Claiborne made at least beats the alternative and, for now, help change perception.