The Dallas Cowboys have spent the past few years building a pipeline of talented young players on the offensive side of the football, most notably on the offensive line. But they’re desperate for some of the young defensive players they’ve drafted the past few years to emerge as playmakers.
Second-year safety J.J. Wilcox may be getting there. Wilcox probably had the biggest game of his career in the Cowboys’ 38-27 win over the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday night as they took over first place in the NFC East.
Wilcox made such an impact that the folks at NBC’s Sunday Night Football awarded Wilcox a game ball, given to the game’s top players. They also gave one to quarterback Tony Romo, who threw three touchdown passes, all of which went to wide receiver Dez Bryant.
Wilcox forced two turnovers, and the Cowboys turned them into 10 points.
For the game Wilcox ended up with four tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. Both of those turnovers helped propel the Cowboys to victory.
The first turnover, the interception, came late in the third quarter after Dallas had regained the lead, 28-24. The Eagles faced third-and-7 at their own 24. After going three-and-out on their first two drives, they had been nearly lights out on converting third downs, part of the Eagles’ scoring 24 unanswered points.
But on this play Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez missed tight end Zach Ertz by just a bit. Ertz couldn’t hang onto the pass, and the tipped ball flew back to Wilcox, who caught it for his second career interception.
The pick gave the Cowboys great field position, and they made the Eagles pay early in the fourth quarter as Romo hit Bryant for a 25-yard touchdown pass to make it 35-24.
“It was really needed, and it was time for me to step up and make a play,” Wilcox told NBC 5 after the game.
The second turnover was just as big. The Eagles were still in the game, having cut the lead to 35-27 and having forced the Cowboys three-and-out with 8:27 left. This time Sanchez threw the ball to tight end Brent Celek, who managed to gain 14 yards and the first down.
But as he went to the ground, Wilcox jarred the ball loose for a turnover. The play had to be reviewed because, at first, it looked like Celek was down. But the replay showed that Wilcox was under Celek when he lost the ball, and no part of Celek’s body was on the ground.
The turnover, which came in Eagles territory, allowed the Cowboys to build a two-score lead again, courtesy of a Dan Bailey field goal.
So Wilcox forced two turnovers, and the Cowboys turned them into 10 points. Throw in the bizarre “onside” kick to start the game, in which the Cowboys kicked it short and the Eagles blew the return and gave up the ball, and the Cowboys turned three Eagles miscues into 17 points.
That’s a perfect formula to win on the road.
Wilcox, a fourth-round pick last year, was thrown into the fire a month into his rookie season and struggled. He clearly made progress during the offseason as he’s become less of a liability in coverage.
He’s picked off two passes this season, and he’s made getting burned on routes up the middle with much less regularity than he was a year ago. He’s also nearly doubled his tackle total from a year ago.
The Cowboys are not out of the woods yet. They could end up tied for the NFC East with the Eagles, and if that’s the case, the Cowboys might miss the playoffs. The entire NFC playoff race is exceptionally tight.
So if young defensive players like Wilcox can continue to make game-changing plays, that would make the Cowboys’ path to the playoffs a little bit easier and the future a little bit brighter.