In the week leading to the game in Detroit, with a No. 1 defensive ranking to protect and memories of last season's humiliation still fresh, Wannstedt went to the drawing board, cast a glance at the chart of his beloved '76 Steelers and devised an exotic set of schemes to bring the Lions' run-and-shoot down to earth. Some 19 players would be interchanged—seven linemen, four linebackers, eight defensive backs. The base defense would be a dime package, with four linemen, one linebacker and six men in the secondary.
In certain situations Wannstedt would switch to a regular 4-3, or to a 4-2 nickel. He would bring in 242-pound Godfrey Myles, who swears that he ran a 4.36 40 in college at Florida, as a special-coverage linebacker. And on long-yardage downs he would go to a speed package, featuring four cornerbacks strung across the field in coverage, the regular free safety, James Washington, at middle linebacker, and two more safeties blitzing from the outside. There would be no 341-yard passing performance this Sunday.
To combat this marvel of space-age defensive football, the Lions, with a patchwork line and the league's 26th-ranked rushing attack, came out running. They made things interesting for a while, putting together a first-quarter drive that Everett stopped with an interception at the Dallas 25 and another march that ended with a 36-yard field goal early in the second quarter. After that the Cowboys shut Detroit down.
With Troy Aikman working a neat, ball-control offense and occasionally popping a big gainer to a wideout, Dallas scored on five consecutive possessions, which included three touchdown runs by Emmitt Smith, to go up 27-3 early in the third quarter. The Lions were forced into a catch-up game, and that played right into the hands of Wannstedt's exotic schemes. Casillas got a sack; Haley pressured the outside; rookie safety Darren Woodson, a 215-pounder with 4.44 speed, created all sorts of havoc with blitzes.
After their second-quarter field goal, the Lions ran only one play in Cowboy territory. On that play, left end Tony Tolbert and right tackle Russell Maryland knocked quarterback Rodney Peete out of the game with a nasty high-low sandwich as he released a pass, and Everett picked off the ball for his second interception. Kramer took over on Detroit's next series, but the game was over by then.
Sanders gained 108 of the Lions' 124 yards on the ground, while the Detroit passing attack produced only 77 net yards. The total yardage (201) allowed by the Dallas defense kept it ranked No. 1 for another week, thanks to the Kansas City Chiefs' last-minute 49-yard drive against the San Diego Chargers, who are the Cowboys' closest pursuers.
"If you want to capsule our defense, you could say it's in the same mode as the one we had at the University of Miami," says Wannstedt, who was Johnson's defensive coordinator with the Hurricanes. "Quick tackles, converted linebackers at the ends, hard-hitting DBs who can make quick decisions and linebackers who can run down anything with a heartbeat."
Is this Cowboy defense dominating, the way the ones he had at Miami were? "We'll get to that point," says Wannstedt. "Right now all we care about is making plays and going hard. Don't forget we're awfully young."
Surprisingly so. Of the 19 defenders who saw the most action on Sunday, only two are 30 or older. Ten of them haven't reached their 26th birthday, which is no knock. Twenty years ago a young, opportunistic defense called the No Names helped the Miami Dolphins put an unbeaten season together. "They were no-names for a year," says Johnson, "and a year later they became names. With us it might take two years."
"To become a dominating defense in this league, one that's really feared," said Hank Bullough, a longtime NFL defensive coach who was an observer at the Silverdome, "you need two or more really dominating players to set the tone. Then the other guys have to be damn good."