FRISCO, Texas -- Coming into the season, expectations were high for the Dallas Cowboys defense.
They re-signed defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence to a five-year, $105 million deal. They extended the contract of up-and-coming linebacker Jaylon Smith. Leighton Vander Esch was a Pro Bowler and second-team All Pro as a rookie in 2018. They added pass-rusher Robert Quinn in a trade with the Miami Dolphins.
Except for the suspended Randy Gregory, the unit returned every key figure from a defense that finished ranked seventh in yards per game and sixth in points per game in 2018.
So why isn't the Cowboys' defense playing up to expectations through the first six games?
"Because we're a work in progress," passing game coordinator Kris Richard said. "Everyone who has been around, the one thing you can never do for any coach, any player, any person, is to believe that you are exactly the same each and every single year. So this year presents itself with a whole new set of circumstances and challenges that we have to rise up to. We certainly accept it, but it's our responsibility to go out there and make sure that we're getting the job done."
Of the key contributors, perhaps only Quinn, who leads the Cowboys with five sacks despite missing the first two games because of a suspension, is meeting expectations.
Lawrence's sacks and quarterback hurries are down from a year ago, although he is seeing constant double teams. Smith has two sacks but has seen his playing time cut the past few games and had a season-low six tackles last week. Vander Esch leads the Cowboys with 60 tackles, according to the coaches' count, but he had an admittedly poor game in the Week 5 loss to the Green Bay Packers.
"I don't like comparing teams in general, but the idea that we were this perfect defense last year is just not true," safety Jeff Heath said. "I think it's something you're always trying to get better. You always have work to do, and the results of the last three games haven't been what we wanted them to be."
In some categories the Cowboys have exceeded what they did through six games in 2018. On third downs, they are allowing a ridiculously low 25.4% conversion rate. Through six games last season, it was 41.5%. The opposing quarterbacks' completion percentage is lower this season than last year (66.2% to 70.4%). Quarterback pressures are up, too: 76 to 73.
But sacks are down (just 14, compared to 18) and interceptions are the same (two), and they are giving up more points per game, although not a staggering amount (19 compared to 17.2). The number of big plays allowed are up, too. So far, they have given up 19 pass plays of 20 yards or more and 14 runs of 10 yards or more. A season ago through six games, they allowed 13 such passes and 17 such runs.
The lack of turnovers, however, is not a 2019 problem. It's been an issue for years. The Cowboys' leader in interceptions since 2015 has not had more than three in a season. Six players have at least three interceptions across the league already this season.
"We just have to create more of them, and there's a lot of different reasons for that," coach Jason Garrett said. "We have to do a better job being disruptive in the pocket and sack the quarterback a fair amount of times. We've been around him but we have to do more of that. We have to cash in on opportunities when we get them on the back end and just simply make the plays."
It's not as if the Cowboys don't work on those things daily, but Garrett believes players might be trying too hard to make the big plays, causing them to miss the little plays.
"We call it the cycle of the snap," Heath said. "Take one snap at a time. Just really focus on what your job is. If 11 guys just do their job, for offenses, it's really tough on them because there's nowhere to go. As simple as that sounds, it's really hard to do."
It has been harder to do this season, for sure. Richard said the defense has not put together a whole game of "our style, what we are, from what we know to be true to what we believe to be true. When we do it, the proof is there, but there isn't enough consistency."
The test this week is a Philadelphia offense that might be the best the Cowboys have seen this season, which is a sign the opposing offenses of the New York Giants and Jets, Washington, Miami, Green Bay and New Orleans have all had issues.
The Eagles are ninth in points per game (26.8) and 20th in yards (349.3). So far the Cowboys have played the 24th, 30th, 32nd, 18th, 14th and 31st ranked offenses in points and the 24th, 28th, 31st, 22nd, 17th and 32nd ranked offenses in yards.
"Coach Richard always says, 'How would you prepare in the Super Bowl? Would you take a rep off? Would you not watch film Wednesday night? What would you do if you were preparing for the Super Bowl?'" cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. "That's every week now. Every week for these 10 weeks on, it's a championship opportunity. That's how we're going to prepare and put out great film on Sunday."