Depleted Dallas defense finally falls short

ARLINGTON, Texas — The Cowboys’ “Name Tag” defense got its nickname this season because you can’t tell the injury replacements without name tags.

On Sunday against the Saints, the defense really did play like a bunch of guys just introduced to each other.

The Cowboys lost, 34-31, in overtime mainly because they couldn’t stop Drew Brees and the Saints’ offense, especially on third down. All that was missing from the defense was their names written in masking tape on the front of their helmets.

At the end, however, it looked like the game officials needed an ID tag, since they can’t seem to identify what’s a valid catch and what isn’t.

The play that sank the Cowboys came when Brees hit Marques Colston over the middle. Colston had trouble getting the ball under control and, after contact by cornerback Morris Claiborne, fumbled it forward.

Saints tight end Jimmy Graham recovered the ball at the two. After a short review, the play was ruled a catch and fumble and the Saints won with a 20-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley on the next play.

The Cowboys, and especially head coach Jason Garrett, were incredulous. Just the week before, the Steelers’ Emmanuel Sanders made almost the identical play on a questionable catch-and-fumble, which the Cowboys recovered.

That play was ruled an incomplete pass. This time, it was ruled a catch. Both times, the Cowboys were on the wrong end of what amounts to a judgment call.

“It was eerily similar to last week and both of them went against us,” said Garrett, who was hesitant to discuss officiating. “That’s just the way it is.”

The way it is now for the Cowboys is that they still have a shot at the playoffs, even with the Name Tag Defense.

This is not to be confused with the 1972 Dolphins’ No-Name Defense, which excelled despite being overshadowed by a star-filled offense.

The Name Tag Defense has hung on by its fingernails as the Cowboys climbed into playoff contention while winning five of its last six coming into Sunday’s showdown with the Saints.

New Orleans, despite slumping to 7-8 in the wake of Bountygate, still possesses a high-powered offense. Basically, any offense with the wizardry of Brees has a chance to put up big numbers, like the 41 points scored on Tampa Bay the week before.

During the Cowboys’ recent improvement, the few defensive stars left on the active roster had continued to make big plays. Not so against the Saints.

There were no momentum-changing sacks by DeMarcus Ware or Anthony Spencer. In fact, Brees never got sacked. And Ware missed most of the second half with an arm injury, further depleting the defense.

There was no game-saving interception by Brandon Carr. In fact, the Cowboys didn’t get a single turnover.

The Name Tag Defense did one thing well in slowing down the Saints’ offense. But making the Saints work for first downs merely wound up limiting opportunities for the Cowboys’ offense.

The Saints ran 91 offensive plays to the Cowboys’ 56. The disparity was 48-17 in the first half.

In the fourth quarter, the Saints had the ball for 11:05 to the Cowboys’ 3:55. And somehow the Cowboys managed to overcome a 14-point deficit and send the game to overtime.

The Saints converted 11 of 19 third down opportunities, the Cowboys just 2 of 10.

The Name Tag Defense can be blamed for this loss, although it’s hard to point the finger at a group playing backups and guys signed off the street in significant roles.

“I thought the defense really just fought their ass off all day long, just to be honest with you,” said the normally buttoned-up Garrett. “Our defense just battled, battled, battled as best they could and in the end they [the Saints] made more plays than we did.”

This is a defense that lost both of its starting inside linebackers, including coach-on-the-field Sean Lee who was on his way to a Pro Bowl season. It’s lost a starting corner in Orlando Scandrick, a starting safety in Barry Church, a starting nose tackle in Jay Ratliff and a starting tackle in Kenyon Coleman.

And those are just the headliners.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan isn’t making excuses with all the injuries, but it’s obvious the substitutions have had an effect. At one point Sunday, the defense was saved when the Saints called a timeout, otherwise the Cowboys would have been caught with nine men on the field.

Somehow, this group walked off the field Sunday with its playoff hopes still alive.

“I think a lot of guys are just playing for each other,” defensive tackle Marcus Spears said. “Even with the new guys, as soon as they come in, they see what type of guys they’re around and buy in.”

For once, “Name Tag” looked a little more like “Rag-Tag” against the Saints. But if the defense can hold it together for one more game, it will be playoff-bound.

Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire