Cowboys defense seeks more turnovers

OXNARD, Calif. -- At some point, the Dallas Cowboys' offense will score a touchdown. In the meantime, however, few have noticed that the defense has gotten off to a strong start.

The Cowboys' defense has limited its two preseason opponents to just 248 yards per game, allowing the Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders to convert just 16 percent of their third-down opportunities.

Better yet, the first-team defense hasn't allowed a touchdown.

"We're still working, man," inside linebacker Bradie James said. "In order for us to achieve our lofty goals, we have to play better defensively, to get our offense the ball. That's been our MO. Everybody talks about how we get better and getting turnovers, we're talking about being aggressive and we got the guys to do it."

The Cowboys had the NFL's ninth-best defense in 2009 -- fourth against the run and 20th versus the pass. They allowed the fewest points in the NFC (250).

But there still was a problem: turnovers.

The Cowboys were tied for 27th with 21 takeaways. The NFL average was 27. Dallas also had just 11 interceptions, tied for 26th.

Those numbers concern coach Wade Phillips, who has talked to his team about winning the turnover battle.

During practices here and in San Antonio, secondary coach Dave Campo has constantly yelled at his group to "go get it, go get it." When the secondary players fail to intercept a pass, they do pushups. It was something they did in previous years, with the lack of interceptions.

NFL teams compiled a .789 winning percentage when they had three or more turnovers. The defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints went 9-0 when forcing three or more turnovers last season. The Cowboys also had success when they did that, going 3-0.

When you don't get turnovers, that's where problems arise. NFL teams which failed to get a turnover in a game had a .220 winning percentage last season. The Cowboys went 2-2 in those instances in 2009.

The Cowboys feel like they need to get turnovers and turn those into points. In the preseason opener vs. the Bengals, Brandon Sharpe intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown to clinch the victory in the fourth quarter.

"It's all about scoring some points," outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "Coach Wade told us there's a 76 percent chance of winning if the defense scores one time, and that's some good odds to me."

Talent is not the issue for the Cowboys.

They have two cornerbacks -- Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman -- who reached the Pro Bowl last season. Jay Ratliff, the All-Pro nose tackle, is moving into superstar status. There is good chemistry between James and Keith Brooking at inside linebacker, and what more can be said of Ware and Anthony Spencer at outside linebacker?

Ware led the team with 11 sacks and 45 quarterback pressures. Spencer came on strong toward the end of the year, finishing with six sacks and 36 quarterback pressures. The two combined to force seven fumbles.

Ware wants those numbers to increase.

"You got to have that confidence as a pass-rusher," Ware said. "You can't go in saying, 'Hey there's somebody better than me, a better duo out there.' When you look at that guy beside you and when it's third and [long] and time to roll, I look at Spence and say it's time to go.

"That's the kind of confidence you have to have."

James said having Phillips call the defensive signals the last two seasons has made things easier for him on the field. James said he can almost anticipate what Phillips is going to call and, when it happens, it allows the defense to make adjustments a lot quicker on the field.

Turnovers might be a problem, but the talent is there. The coaching is there. The only thing missing is the dominance needed to push the Cowboys to a deep playoff run.

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.