Season turns on defense

The Cowboys rank fourth in the league in creating turnovers, thanks in good measure to the teaching and preaching of Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

IRVING, Texas -- For just a moment, stop focusing on the negative. Yes, it's difficult. But now is not the time to focus on the overall disaster that is the Dallas Cowboys' defense.

Injuries have compromised it, no doubt. So has dumb drafting. Can you believe they didn't select a defensive lineman in last year's draft? And so has nose tackle Jay Ratliff's decision to quit on his teammates and get released.

You can moan and groan about defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and all the dubious records this defense has set or will set before the season ends.

All that will do is leave you mad and frustrated.

Instead, focus on the one thing this defense does well: force turnovers. It's not a fluke. It's not luck. It's not a bunch of strange coincidences. It's what this defense does. It is what it expects to do.

Forcing turnovers has become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the players on one of the NFL's worst defenses.

They believe it will happen, so it does.

Give Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli most of the credit for this team creating 25 turnovers through 12 games, which ranks fourth in the NFL. Just so you know, the Cowboys have finished among the NFL's top 10 in turnovers just twice this millennium.

They're on pace to nab 36 turnovers this season, which would be the most for the Cowboys during the Jerry Jones era. Since Jerry bought the team in 1989, the Cowboys had more than 25 turnovers in 11 seasons.

This team's ability to create turnovers is what gives the Cowboys their best opportunity to end a three-year drought and make the playoffs. Hey, we know they're going to give up yards.

The Cowboys have already allowed more than 600 yards in total offense twice this season. It took 809 games for it to happen the first time in franchise history, then the Cowboys' defense did it twice in three games.


They have allowed an NFL-record four 400-yard passers, and three times this season the defense has yielded more than 200 yards rushing.

By the time this season ends, the Cowboys will probably have established new franchise highs for passing and total yards allowed.

Despite all this, they're tied with the Philadelphia Eagles for first place in the NFC East with a 7-5 record and remain in complete control of their playoff destiny largely because of the turnovers they generate each game.

Kiffin and Marinelli are relentless about players giving maximum effort and running to the ball every play. A player gets caught loafing on tape and Marinelli will say things to him that would make his daddy blush.

But it's one thing to lecture about turnovers -- every coach does that -- and quite another to make them week after week. The players had some success forcing turnovers in the preseason, but DeMarcus Ware made the season's most important defensive play in the first game.

On Eli Manning's first pass of the season -- what was supposed to be a safe screen pass -- Ware leaped high and intercepted it.

It was the ultimate tone-setter for the game and the season.

The Cowboys forced six turnovers that night and beat the New York Giants 36-31. More than the victory, the way they won gave credence to everything Kiffin and Marinelli had preached throughout the offseason and training camp.

Not only do the Cowboys rank fourth in turnovers forced -- behind the Seattle Seahawks (27), Kansas City Chiefs (26) and Carolina Panthers (26) -- the team has scored 89 points off those turnovers, which also is fourth in the league.

Guess what? That number is lower than it should be.

After all, if the Cowboys' offense -- pedestrian over the past six weeks -- had been more efficient, that total would be considerably higher. Ten times the Cowboys have given their offense the ball on their opponent's side of the field, producing only 44 points. And that includes four possessions that started inside the opponent's 20, with three that began inside the 5.

The turnovers come, in part, because defenders rip at the ball every play. Obviously, they don't get it most of the time, but the potential for a game-turning fumble or interception never wanes.

And when the ball pops out, the Cowboys find themselves in prime position to pounce on the ball or grab a deflection because the coaching staff has relentlessly challenged them to chase the ball every play.

Think about Jeff Heath's 50-yard fumble return for a touchdown against the Giants in one of the season's pivotal games. Orlando Scandrick ripped the ball from Victor Cruz, who fumbled for only the second time in his career.

While Scandrick tugged at it, linebacker Kyle Wilber slammed into Cruz and Heath hustled over for support. When the ball popped free, it literally fell into Heath's arms and he sprinted down the sideline for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.

The Cowboys had shown no life on Thanksgiving Day and trailed the Oakland Raiders 7-0 in the second quarter, when Wilber pounced on a botched snap at the Oakland 2. One play later, the score was tied.

The defense has made plays like that all season, and that trend must continue for the Cowboys to make the playoffs.

So ignore every other stat regarding the Cowboys' defense and concentrate solely on the turnovers it creates. It's the only thing that matters for one of the worst statistical defenses in franchise history.