Cowboys' defense learns margin for error is small

Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee, reaching for Cam Newton, was disappointed in himself for missing tackles. James D. Smith/AP

FRISCO, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli was disappointed Sunday.

He was disappointed even though the Cowboys allowed only 16 points, four third-down conversions in 12 tries, 293 total yards and points on two of five red zone drives, although one included a kneel-down.

“Just can’t beat yourself against good teams,” Marinelli said.

Marinelli’s defense is predicated on takeaways and the Cowboys missed two opportunities that resulted in Carolina points.

Three plays before Cam Newton’s 4-yard touchdown run, Jeff Heath couldn’t hold on to an interception of a pass deflected by Sean Lee. Later in the second quarter, Chidobe Awuzie stripped wide receiver Jarius Wright of the ball, but the Cowboys could not recover. The drive ended with a 27-yard field goal by Graham Gano to give the Panthers a 10-0 lead at halftime.

“It’s a good football team we played so you have to take advantage of those opportunities," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "I thought our guys fought hard and battled and created some of those opportunities, like the [balls] getting tipped up in the air because we’re around the quarterback, all those things. We’ll continue to work on those things because they are difference-makers in the game.”

The Cowboys will need the defense to do more as their offense tries to figure itself out with new players in new roles. It is a role reversal of sorts in the Garrett era, where often the offense knew it would have to carry the load for a defense that did not have the talent to measure up against the top offenses in the NFL.

The Cowboys got a critical takeaway on Carolina's first drive. With the Panthers on Dallas' 5-yard line, Daniel Ross poked the ball free from Christian McCaffrey and DeMarcus Lawrence recovered. It stopped a scoring drive and gave the Cowboys some momentum.

“We have to get takeaways,” defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford said. “We definitely need more. One is not enough. And we know we can. Our expectations are higher and we have to do better than that.”

Allowing 16 points is a quality outing, but there were other miscues.

Newton had 59 rushing yards in the first quarter on five carries, taking advantage of the Cowboys’ aggressiveness in the read-option. They improved greatly in the second half, with Newton finishing the game with 58 yards on the ground on 13 carries.

Sean Lee missed too many tackles.

“I just look at myself and the plays that I had made or was in position to make and normally make, but did not make,” Lee said. “No excuses for that. Those are plays that I have to make and a lot of times it will change the game if I make those.”

Lawrence had a sack and three tackles for loss, but also had two penalties.

“Plays don’t matter if you don’t win," Lawrence said. “Sacks don’t add up if you don’t win. It don’t matter. I don’t play just to get sacks, I play to win. That’s how I feel.”

The Cowboys will face an offense with better skill players this week in the New York Giants. Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., running back Saquon Barkley and tight end Evan Engram all have potential for big plays even if the Giants scored just 15 points in their season-opening loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The margin for error is too small for the Cowboys, which is why missing two takeaways matters.

“The mark of greatness is consistency,” linebacker Jaylon Smith said, “and when those big opportunities come, you have to take advantage of them because you don’t know when they’re going to come but they are. So it didn’t go our way, but the great thing is we got an opportunity next week to make it right.”