IRVING, Texas – Henry Melton can't compare this year's Dallas defense to the NFL-worst unit that visited Chicago last season because he was still with the Bears.
The Cowboys' defensive tackle just knows that right now, his new group doesn't look like the surprising bunch that boosted Dallas during a 6-1 start.
The New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles each scored on their first three possessions the past two games, although the Cowboys made enough stops against the Giants to rally for a 31-28 win. The defense kept Dallas in the Philadelphia game into the second half, but the offense couldn't overcome a quick two-touchdown deficit.
"Once we get going and flowing as a defensive unit, we're tough to get past," said Melton, who leads the Cowboys with five sacks. "But collectively ... obviously the whole game is, I've got to play better and we've got to play better."
Dallas (8-4) visits Chicago (5-7) on Thursday night, with the memory of last year's dismal showing on the minds of the Cowboys who experienced that bitterly cold night.
It wasn't the only bad game Dallas had defensively, which is why expectations couldn't have been much lower going into this season without the three best players in pass rusher DeMarcus Ware (released), tackle Jason Hatcher (free agent) and linebacker Sean Lee (knee injury).
A strong start in 2014 was punctuated by a Week 6 win at Super Bowl champion Seattle, which had just nine first downs and 206 yards.
The slide began two weeks later against Washington, when Colt McCoy essentially went from third-string quarterback to a starter making big plays in the fourth quarter and overtime of the Redskins' 20-17 upset. The latest blow was a season-high 464 yards for the Eagles, including LeSean McCoy's 159 yards rushing in a 33-10 Thanksgiving victory.
"We're still confident," defensive end Jeremy Mincey said. "Sometimes it's good to get ... a good old fashioned butt-kicking to get you going again. It's back to the drawing board."
Mincey said he was "still mad about" letting the Eagles get outside early in the game on a play that he thought could have changed the momentum. McCoy's two longest runs were to the outside, including a 38-yard score that put away the game in the third quarter.
"I can show you consecutive plays where we executed really well and the same guy did not do what he was supposed to do in the same situation and they really hurt us," coach Jason Garrett said. "Whether it's in the beginning of the game, the middle of the game or at the end of the game, you just have to do those things."
Linebacker Rolando McClain was slowed against the Eagles by a right knee injury that's been bothering him for weeks, and cornerback Brandon Carr hasn't had a pass breakup since Seattle, seven games ago.
Dallas' sack totals have improved since the 6-1 start, but so have the completions percentages for opposing quarterbacks. And while the Cowboys are converting fewer third downs on offense, three of the past four opponents have a success rate of more than 50 percent.
"We've had some real good looks on third down and we didn't cash them," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "But some of the third downs are too short right now. That starts with good run defense on first down. Tackling has to be sharp."
Marinelli was Dallas' defensive line coach in last year's 45-28 loss to the Bears, who had 490 yards and 33 first downs a month after the Cowboys gave up an NFL-record 40 first downs at New Orleans.
Chicago starter Jay Cutler had a sprained ankle, and backup Josh McCown set career highs with four touchdown passes and a passer rating of 141.9, the highest of the season against Dallas. The Cowboys didn't trash the video, though.
"I think it can be helpful," Garrett said. "We always go through games like that. The systems are basically the same, and it applies. You want to go through it and see what they did."
And the Cowboys are trying to get back to what they did defensively earlier this season.
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