They were solid against the pass, weak against the run in the opener. Then the roles were reversed in the second game.
So Game 3 was a biggie for the Dallas Cowboys defense. Would they manage to stop both _ or neither?
To the delight of Wade Phillips, their head coach and defensive coordinator, it was a very definitive both, especially in the second half of a 21-7 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
The Cowboys kept Jake Delhomme and the Panthers without a first down their first four drives of the second half, keeping things quiet while the offense turned a 7-0 deficit into a 13-7 lead. With Carolina still one big play from taking the lead, cornerback Terence Newman put the game out of reach by intercepting a pass and returning it 27 yards for a touchdown with 5:07 to go. The Panthers' next series ended with rookie linebacker Victor Butler sacking Delhomme and causing a fumble.
Just like that, a unit ridiculed for not having any sacks or turnovers the first two games was drawing praise for coming through when their club needed it most. And Phillips came away reminding everyone the slow start was merely the time needed for his unit to snap into place.
"You know, we do have five new starters on defense," Phillips said Tuesday. "I really do think they're starting to be comfortable with where everybody is. We have the coverages, we have the fronts, we have all those things, but I think everyone is getting a better feel for what we're doing and where we are."
With three sacks and three turnovers, the defense is clawing its way to respectability. The low sack totals are puzzling considering this club led the NFL in that category last season. Reigning sack leader DeMarcus Ware has gone from 20 last season to zilch so far this season.
Part of the problem could be having Anthony Spencer opposite him instead of Greg Ellis. Maybe Butler will help open things up. In just five snaps in place of Spencer, he had a pair of sacks, forcing the fumble on the second one.
"You just have to get behind guys and look for your opportunities," Butler said. "You create opportunities and when you get opportunities you take advantage of them and that's what we did."
Phillips isn't getting too carried away with it, noting that Butler was coming in fresh against winded players. But the coach also acknowledged that Butler's performance should earn him more playing time. He earned this chance by performing well in practice.
Another likely change is Mike Jenkins starting again at right cornerback.
The Cowboys have been rotating starters, with Jenkins getting the nod in the opener and in Game 3, while Orlando Scandrick started Game 2. Asked Tuesday if Scandrick would get his turn again this Sunday against Denver, Phillips balked _ a clear sign that Jenkins earned another start with an interception and mostly solid play against Carolina.
"I thought he played real well," Phillips said. "He did miss a tackle but he did make a lot of tackles. Of course he made our first interception, which everybody was relieved."
Phillips indicated that he wants to stick with using Scandrick against inside receivers on obvious passing downs. When he starts, Scandrick plays on outside receivers some plays, then moves inside when extra receivers are added, with Jenkins replacing him on the outside.
"I think that made it harder for him than we thought it originally would," Phillips said. "It's two different positions and you have to play two different techniques. It's harder to hone in on `I've got to play this way all the time here, but all the of the sudden, I've got to go out here and I've got to play differently, whether it's inside or outside, or where my help is or all those things.' Footwork. It's a lot different. So it made it more difficult. But he's a talented guy who works hard at it, so we'll see."
Newman's clutch performance settles any fears at the other cornerback spot.
Although he had several busts in coverage the first two games, coaches trusted him enough to cover Steve Smith all over the field in this game, something they rarely do. Smith caught three passes on the first drive, then had only one more catch the rest of the game. Newman had one, too, and his was the game-breaker.
"We can't worry about what everyone else thinks and what everybody else does," Newman said. "We have to go out and make plays when they're available to us. If we don't make them, we have to sustain the drive and make the stop."