The last month is about Monte Kiffin, too

IRVING, Texas -- Following a cold Wednesday afternoon practice, Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin leaned against a wall and met with reporters looking like he just had a cup of warm milk.

After a nearly two-minute soliloquy on defensive-line coach and close friend Rod Marinelli, in which he talked about how the Detroit Lions didn't give his buddy a fair shake, Kiffin talked about his defense.

As much as December is about Tony Romo's ability to push his team into the playoffs and the franchise's past failings to finish the season with a playoff-clinching victory, things are also about Kiffin.

His defense has dealt with injuries to every projected starter of the defensive line, allowed four quarterbacks to throw for 400 yards, given up a NFL-record 40 first downs in one game and surrendered 329 receiving yards to Calvin Johnson, and we haven't even told you about the rankings.

Kiffin was hired in the offseason to simplify the defense and change the alignment from a 3-4 to a 4-3. Rob Ryan's defense was too complex, according to Cowboys officials, unlike Kiffin's tried-but-true Tampa 2 scheme.

But a funny thing happened along the way to the Tampa 2: we haven't seen all that much of it. Instead the Cowboys have relied on more man-to-man coverage to utilize the skills of cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne.

The Cowboys didn't even employ a dime package until two weeks ago, and that was out of necessity because of the injury to middle linebacker Sean Lee, who returns for Monday's game at Chicago. The dime package allowed Kiffin to move safety Barry Church closer to the line of scrimmage and change his position to a linebacker because Church is a good tackler.

The changes, injuries and a new scheme have the Cowboys no better -- indeed, worse -- than they were last season from a statistical standpoint. As a total defense, the Cowboys rank last in the NFL with four weeks left in the season. With four weeks left last season, the Cowboys had the 11th-best defense in the league.

The Cowboys rank 31st against the pass. When Ryan was running things, they had the 10th-best pass defense after 12 games. Defending the run is bad, too. The Cowboys this season have allowed three teams to run for more than 200 yards and overall have the 27th-worst rushing defense in the NFL. At this point last season, they were 17th.

Yet, there are some positive things for the defense.

Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher leads the team with nine sacks and will receive consideration for the Pro Bowl. The defense has forced 25 turnovers, a significant increase over the 13 they had at this point last season. Scandrick has played so well this season that he's taken Claiborne's starting job, and Marinelli has done wonders with no-name players along the defensive line.

But the Cowboys' defense has struggled too much this season, and over the next four weeks, the man who speaks in a whisper will have to fix things.

While it's about what Romo can do in December, it's also about Kiffin.