PHILADELPHIA — The more receiver Amari Cooper watched the Cowboys defense on Sunday night, the more he began to sense it.
“It almost seemed like they were playing for us,” Cooper said after the 23-9 loss. “I mean, playing to make our lives easy. Make our jobs easier.”
Cowboys defenders, well aware that a seventh-round rookie would make his first start at quarterback in the divisional matchup, confirmed they were.
And for that, among related reasons, head coach Mike McCarthy left the 18 miles-per-hour gusts at Lincoln Financial Field more optimistic that for the Dallas Cowboys, the winds were blowing in the right direction.
Don’t confuse that with false optimism that the 2-6 Cowboys’ woes are suddenly fixed.
“We’re running out of time,” McCarthy said. “We understand that as far as where we are in the season. [But] I thought our defense played with tremendous pride. We knew we needed to stop the run. And I told our guys we needed takeaways.
“I thought clearly that our defense took a huge step.”
MORE: 32 things we learned from Week 8 of the 2020 NFL season
Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy during the first quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. (Photo: Eric Hartline, Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)
Players and coach alike were careful to qualify their boosted spirits, cautious about finding too much solace or joy in what essentially amounted to a moral victory. But consider Dallas’ last two games since they lost franchise quarterback Dak Prescott for the season with an ankle injury. The Cardinals stomped on the Cowboys in North Texas, 38-10, in a nationally televised "Monday Night Football" matchup. Then came a 25-3 blowout divisional loss to a one-win Washington squad.
McCarthy had zero areas of improvement he thought his team had addressed when asked on Oct. 20, as injuries mounted and clean football play disintegrated. Simple fundamentals had come undone, from four-time Pro Bowler Ezekiel Elliott losing four fumbles in fives games to previously stout defenders tackling from bad angles and failing to uphold gap integrity.
The Cowboys arrived in Philadelphia allowing a league-worst 34.7 points per game. They left ceding to the Eagles 23 total points, only 15 of which were scored by the offense. The Cowboys defense stepped onto Lincoln Financial Field with a resume boasting a league-worst three takeaways in seven games. They then demoralized Carson Wentz to more than double that number, as they recovered fumbles on each of two strip sacks and paraded end-zone interceptions by rookie cornerback Trevon Diggs.
Hello and welcome back to the second episode of…Trevon Diggs career INTs
“That’s the brand of football and identity we’re focused on playing,” McCarthy said.
And the energy was contagious among defenders, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch explained when asked about his own head-on strip sack of Wentz.
“Honestly I was hyped that we were all making plays out there,” said Vander Esch, who missed a month of the season with a broken collarbone. “It wasn't just me going in and getting in there and getting a strip sack. It was the defense taking it one play at a time, focusing on doing their jobs and that's what created that opportunity. So I mean, it's the guys around me. I think, like I said, where we're making strides and most importantly I think we're sticking together through it.”
The Cowboys’ only wins have come on last-minute field goals against the 2-6 Falcons and 1-6 Giants. The franchise has been hobbled not only by injuries but also by blatantly obvious growing pains in adjusting to a staff led by the first new head coach in Dallas since 2010. Discord had marred early weeks, particularly on defense, as multiple players first mildly criticized coordinator Mike Nolan’s scheme on the record and then took to anonymous reports to apparently blame the staff for failing to adjust. Even without names attached, McCarthy deemed anonymous quotes reported by NFL Network substance substantial enough to address in a team setting.
Sunday night in Philadelphia, coaches and players appeared more in sync than they had all season.
On offense, coaches understood they were about to start a quarterback who was intended as purely a developmental asset through at least 2020. The staff curated the playbook for Ben DiNucci to emphasize more trickery and fewer advanced passing concepts. Cue running backs and receivers fielding wildcat snaps and reverses to offset what DiNucci says was a roughly 25% reduction of the usual play selection.
First series of Ben DiNucci: Cowboys log 47 yards on 9 plays, including this fun one. Greg Zuerlein then good from 49.
Cowboys 3, Eagles 0pic.twitter.com/VkCmhXB4Gc
On defense, coaches understood personnel was recalibrating after a week in which the club traded veteran pass rusher Everson Griffen, in addition to cutting veterans in defensive tackle Dontari Poe and cornerback Daryl Worley. All three had played more than 50% of defensive snaps through seven weeks. No matter: In Philadelphia, impact players emerged meaningfully from young players including Diggs and Vander Esch. The rush and coverage worked more in tandem than it had all season.
“I feel like we are doing a better job understanding our coaches, understanding each other, and just playing together all as one,” said defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who finished with six tackles including a sack, two quarterback hits and a fumble recovery. “We showcased that tonight and I feel like we are getting better and better each and every week.”
One week earlier, Lawrence railed about his perception that Dallas lacked a backbone and fight.
Vegas will still crown the Cowboys substantial underdogs next week when they host the 7-0 Steelers. Pending a setback, Cowboys management expects Andy Dalton to return from concussion protocol and again start. They hope to combine Dalton’s ability to utilize offensive weapons with the energy and playmaking the defense displayed Sunday. The combination would undoubtedly constitute collective improvement.
“We’re definitely moving in the right direction as far as play style and some of the things we are focused on,” McCarthy said. “I clearly understand what this loss does to us, but we need to rally and get together here and move on for Pittsburgh.
“It was just a tough ballgame. We had some really fine individual performances and things we can build off of. We took a step in the right direction in a number of areas and I felt a number of components of our football team also improved.”
“I clearly believe that we will be better off in the future because of these hard times.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein
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