IRVING, Texas -- Truth be told, there is not much difference between the Dallas Cowboys' pass defense through the first six games of 2011 and the first six of 2010.
The Cowboys gave up 200 yards a game through the air in the first six games last year. They are allowing 231 this year. They picked off five passes in 2010; seven in 2011. They had 13 sacks last year; 17 this year. They gave up 18 pass plays of 20 yards or more last year; 17 this year. Quarterbacks had 11 touchdown passes to nine this year.
So why does the pass defense seem so much better this year?
The easiest answers are: new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, cornerback confidence and pressure.
Rob Ryan's impact
"He has been a momentum swing for us since he got here," cornerback Mike Jenkins said. "He is a fun guy to play with. If you don't get up playing for Rob, then you don't have passion for football. He is always going to have your back. He is aggressive. That's what you want."
The way secondary coach Brett Maxie remembers Ryan's first introduction to the defense goes like this, and surely the language has been cleaned up just a little:
"He said, 'I'm going to give you the game plan and I'm not going to tell you guys how to do it. Just make sure you get it done.' It's giving the players ownership."
But Ryan also raised the level of expectation. Most teams judge how well pass defenses perform by how many plays of 20 yards or more they allow. Ryan has cut that in half.
"Ten yards is a first down," Maxie said. "If it's 10 here, 15 there, 16 over there, 18 over there, you can say, 'Well, we met our goal,' [if you judge it off 20 yards]. Let's be a little more demanding."
The Cowboys have given up 68 pass plays of 10 yards or more. They are allowing just 6.7 yards per pass, which is second best in the NFL. A year ago through six games, they gave up 7.48 yards per pass. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 59.5 percent of their passes compared with 64 percent last year.
"Last year when things went bad we lost confidence," cornerback Orlando Scandrick said. "Bad things can pile on bad things."
Ryan's swagger has brought swagger to the cornerbacks. He lets them decide whether they play press coverage or off at the line of scrimmage.
Jenkins looks more like he did in 2009 when he was added to the Pro Bowl. A poor start to last year, highlighted by pass interference penalties, took away the coaches' confidence in him even if Jenkins says it did not affect his confidence.
Terence Newman has allowed eight receptions in four games. Scandrick limited New England's Wes Welker to six catches for 45 yards two weeks ago. Alan Ball, last year's starter at free safety, and Frank Walker have played well.
"We haven't given up the 60-yard, down-the-field throws, the one that happened to us last year where we miss the tackle and the guy goes 90," Maxie said. "We're a better tackling team than we were a year ago. That has something to do with it because on the intermediate throws you've got guys coming to the ball and being more sure tacklers."
Pressure, pressure, pressure
"I think pressure makes the secondary," Maxie said. "If the quarterback doesn't sit back and hold the ball, then it makes our jobs that much easier."
DeMarcus Ware has eight sacks. Six other players have recorded at least one sack. The Cowboys have 38 quarterback pressures in six games. Ryan's looks up front confuse quarterbacks.
"What it does is help you eliminate routes," Jenkins said.
It also helps before the snap.
"You can get up and challenge guys," Maxie said. "You know you're not going to have to cover as long. If you know the pressure is not going to get there, then maybe I'm not going to challenge him. I'm going to kind of play soft, so now you give up the easy throws with easy access to the receiver."
All of this leads to Sunday's game at Philadelphia.
With Michael Vick throwing to wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, the Eagles live by the big play. They have 24 pass plays of 20 yards or more. Jackson had the 91-yard catch Maxie mentioned earlier in a four-catch, 210-yard day against the Cowboys last year.
"If you let the hype get to you, you start putting stuff in your head and speaking things into existence," Jenkins said. "You have to come into the game knowing what you want to do, what you have to do, and do it. You can't get caught up into 'We're facing D-Jack this week. I don't want him to do this. I don't want him to do that.' You just do what you do."
Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.