ARLINGTON, Texas – Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory’s path to Jameis Winston on his first-quarter strip sack, a wide right semicircle around left tackle Donovan Smith, was circuitous.
Linebacker Jaylon Smith’s 69-yard sprint, catching the loose ball after two bounces, was even longer.
It was fitting for a pair of Cowboys defenders who, for different reasons, traveled winding roads to their positions as Cowboys impact defenders.
Which is why team owner Jerry Jones, who gambled on each, said the duo’s play is so rewarding to see. Smith was playing “inspired out there, physically,” Jones said.
He told Gregory “I had never been prouder of a plan that has him out there to impact a game like that.”
The Cowboys needed each high-risk, high-reward draft selection in the 27-20 NFC East-clinching win over the Buccaneers on Sunday.
On a day when Dallas’ offense stalled, seven of 10 drives producing 18 or fewer yards, Dallas’ defense stepped up. Quiet was receiver Amari Cooper, for whom Jones traded his 2019 first-round pick last month. Cooper finished with 20 yards on four catches.
Gregory and Smith sent messages loud enough to compensate.
Jones remembered back to the second rounds of the 2015 and 2016 drafts. Substance-abuse and mental-health battles left Gregory available for Jones’ 60th overall pick in 2015; a gruesome bowl-game knee injury that included nerve damage dropped Smith from a projected top-5 pick to joining the Cowboys at the 34th.
Gregory has since missed 30 combined games to suspensions for policy violations, most recently winning a reinstatement appeal in July. Smith spent the entire 2016 season rehabbing before contributing in 2017 and looking like his Notre Dame caliber in 2018.
In at least one respect of his first NFL touchdown Sunday, Smith was actually better.
He thought back, while in pursuit of the end zone as the first-quarter clock ticked down, to one his three collegiate fumble recoveries when an opponent caught and tripped him.
“So immediately as I tucked the ball,” Smith said. “I told myself I wasn’t getting caught.
“I lifted my knees up and ran as fast I could.”
Smith’s first career score – the Cowboys’ longest defensive touchdown since 2010 – was his second fumble recovery of the season. Smith has 117 tackles, four pass deflections, four sacks (six total quarterback hits) and two forced fumbles this season.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said the score was validation for the long road back. His message for Smith now: “Go get another one.”
Gregory did go get another fumble Sunday, following up his first-quarter strip sack with a third-quarter recovery of a ball Winston lost himself to set up Dallas’ offense at the 4-yard line.
Dak Prescott completed the touchdown pass to Michael Gallup that sealed the Cowboys’ NFC East title two plays later.
The Cowboys are 9-6, 7-1 at home with a wildcard matchup at AT&T Stadium clinched, after wallowing at 3-5 in November.
Leave it to Jones to appreciate the storybook drama, to describe the emotions of Dallas clinching not because anyone else lost but because of their own win as “an important emotional thing” for his young roster.
“I don’t recommend it for anybody,” Jones said of the early-season losses, “but one of the neat things is you can dig a big ol’ hole and then dig out of the hole.
“That’s a better story.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
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