(SportsNetwork.com) - The Dallas Cowboys haven't received much credit for their defense this season and now it's time.
The Cowboys hope to maintain a defensive edge when they face another difficult test Sunday against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field.
For the time being, the Cowboys conquered their demons on defense with an important 17-3 win over the NFC East-rival Philadelphia Eagles last weekend and kept one of the most potent offenses out of the end zone. Dallas, which has sole possession of first place in the division, had a 10-0 lead before pulling away for its second straight win after back-to-back losses.
Dallas created turnovers (3 INTs) and limited the high-powered Eagles to 278 total yards. The Eagles entered last Sunday third in the NFL with 449.8 total yards per game and were also first in rushing yards (178.5). That didn't seem to phase the Cowboys, as they gave up 84 yards on the ground, including 55 on 18 carries by LeSean McCoy. McCoy still leads the NFL with 685 rushing yards.
Give credit to a Dallas defense playing without All-Pro linebacker DeMarcus Ware because of a thigh injury. Dallas used a patched-up front line around Jason Hatcher and registered three sacks while knocking Eagles quarterback Nick Foles out of the game with a concussion. Eagles rookie QB Matt Barkley relieved Foles and was picked off three times in his NFL debut.
Hatcher talked about bonding with some unfamiliar faces such George Selvie and Jarius Wynn before the game.
"I took them out on Thursday, a lot of guys have just got here, and I just talked to them, getting to know each other as men, off the field," Hatcher said Sunday. "It carried on to this game, man. We just played our hearts out for each other, and I'm proud of each and every one of them tonight."
The Cowboys have been able to get pressure up front the last two games and have also played well in this stretch against high-octane offenses in San Diego, Denver, Washington and Philadelphia. In order to keep legs fresh and stay competitive, the Cowboys brought in defensive tackle Marvin Austin. Whether he plays Sunday against the Lions is unknown.
But what's more important is the health status of Ware, who missed the first game of his career against Philadelphia. Ware tweaked a thigh muscle in the win over the Washington Redskins and saw his streak of 134 consecutive games played come to an end. He was back at practice Wednesday.
"It's all about being healthy," Ware said. "When you have guys coming and still being effective, that's what you want."
Dallas will err on the side of caution with its star defender and doesn't want to rush the sack master back too soon. But Ware will be chomping at the bit to get back on the field because he said "it was different" standing on the sidelines wearing his "coach's hat" so to speak.
The Cowboys' secondary was 30th in both passing yards allowed (308.2) and total yards (413.2) before beating the Eagles to improve to 4-3, but held Philadelphia's pass attack to 194 yards. Eagles dangerous wide receiver DeSean Jackson was taken out of his game to the tune of 21 yards on three receptions. Dallas linebacker Sean Lee, safety Barry Church and cornerback Brandon Carr each had an interception to stall Philly drives.
In order to stop Detroit and it's dangerous offense, the Cowboys will have to take the one more commonly known as "Megatron" off his game. Lions all-world receiver Calvin Johnson was targeted a season-high 15 times in Sunday's difficult 27-24 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals and hauled in a season-best 155 yards and two touchdowns on nine receptions. Johnson is a nightmare for any defense, but wins are what matters.
Now that the Detroit Tigers are out of major league baseball's playoffs, fans in the Motor City are relegated to watching the Red Wings and Lions. The Pistons' season is around the corner, but the Lions, who have lost two of three games since a 3-1 start and sit behind Green Bay for the NFC North lead, take center stage.
Bengals kicker Mike Nugent's 54-yard field goal as time expired sent the Lions back to the loss column. The Bengals' field position was set up when Lions punter Sam Martin muffed a punt for 28 yards.
"We didn't do a good enough job of executing at the end," said Lions head coach Jim Schwartz. "We couldn't make plays, we got a bad punt and they got the long field goal. We didn't make plays and they did, that about sums it up."
Lions defensive tackle and penalty magnet Ndamukong Suh agreed.
"We had our opportunities to make plays, and we were in the game the whole time. We made plays when we needed to make plays and we just had to make sure that we had an opportunity to win the game and we just didn't capitalize on it" Suh said. "When we were in some situations we didn't make the best out of it and that's something we have to correct and get back to work on Tuesday."
Suh had the only sack of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.
The Lions hope they have righted their errors this week and will head into the bye after hosting the Cowboys. Detroit has prevailed in nine of the last 16 regular season meetings against the Cowboys, who hold a 12-10-0 edge in the series.
Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has thrown for more than 300 yards and at least two touchdowns in the past three matchups with Detroit. He has 954 passing yards, seven TD strikes and four INTs in three starts against the Lions.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Dallas played very well defensively against the Eagles and took all of their weapons out of the game. Now they have to try and slow down Johnson, a physical specimen who can beat double and triple coverage at times. He did it Sunday on a 50-yard heave from Matthew Stafford.
Schwartz has seen Johnson perform at a high level for quite some time and is still amazed at what "Megatron" can do.
"He was Megatron (on Sunday). He wasn't Calvin, he was Megatron," Schwartz said. "He did everything he could to get us in position to win that game."
The Lions are fifth in passing with 294.7 yards per game and seventh in total yards (386.4). They don't have much of a running game, as Reggie Bush burns defenses more catching passes out of the backfield. Johnson, though, is the center of the offense and set a new franchise record with his 35th career 100- yard receiving performance, besting Herman Moore's mark of 34. Johnson leads the NFL with 4,137 yards and 108.9 receiving yards per game since 2011.
Johnson has 60 career touchdown catches, two shy of matching Moore's franchise record of 62. It could be a long afternoon for Cowboys defensive backs Church, Carr and Morris Claiborne, but at least they're confident after playing well the last two games since that Denver debacle.
The Cowboys' defense is 29th in yards allowed (393.9) and passing yards (291.9).
If Dallas running back DeMarco Murray misses his second straight game because of a sprained knee, receiver Dez Bryant will have another busy afternoon. Bryant posted 110 yards on eight catches against the Eagles, but hasn't scored the last two games. Dallas needs him in the end zone to have a chance on Sunday, while Bryant has six TD receptions on the season and three 100-yard games. Bryant has three TD catches in two meetings with the Lions, who are 31st in yards allowed (397.1).
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett knows Detroit's defense, which is just as porous as Dallas' is, will be keying on Bryant.
"He's been dealing with that since he was in fourth grade in Lufkin, Texas," Garrett said of Bryant. "This is a guy, who gets a lot of attention. Again, has gotten a lot of attention for a long, long time in his life. He has to get used to that, and he has to understand how to play through that ... whether it's a coverage that rolls to him or whether it's guys being physical with him during the play."
The Eagles harassed Bryant, but he still got his 100 yards.
Both the Lions and Cowboys can move the chains passing the football, rack up yards and score points, which leads many to believe this will be a see-saw battle from the jump. Stafford, who has seven TD passes in his last two games, and Romo are fine quarterbacks in this league blessed with talent around them. Romo has thrown a touchdown pass in every game this season (15 total).
One way for Detroit to get Dallas on its heels is to have a balanced attack. It is only averaging 91.7 rushing yards per game and that means Bush must be involved in the game plan in the early going. Bush's career seems to have been re-energized with the Lions and he ranks third in the NFL with 121.8 scrimmage yards per game, while being the only NFC player with at least 400-plus rushing yards and 300 or more receiving yards.
Not much is expected from either defense, so big plays and turnovers will dictate the outcome of this game.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Lions 32, Cowboys 27