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Secondary is Cowboys' primary concern

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Rob Ryan gave a hug to Jason Garrett on Thanksgiving Day when the game clock read all zeros.

It was as though the Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator was giving thanks to his head coach for bailing out the secondary.

Then Ryan, after congratulating his players and the Miami Dolphins for a good effort, dressed and left Cowboys Stadium.

Ryan has some work to take care of.

That's because the Cowboys' secondary got beat up during the 20-19 victory over the Dolphins.

Miami quarterback Matt Moore threw for a season-high 288 yards and a touchdown on 19-of-32 passing.

That came less than a week after Washington Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman scorched Dallas for 292 yards and two touchdowns on 25-of-38 passing. It was Grossman's best passing total since the season opener and highest completion percentage of the year.

On Thursday, the Cowboys' pass defense allowed 13 plays of 10 or more yards, with five of those going for 20 or more. Against the Redskins, this same secondary gave up six plays of 20 or more yards.

In the previous two weeks combined, the Cowboys gave up just two pass plays of 20 or more yards.

The injury to Mike Jenkins, who has missed the past three games with a strained hamstring, could be part of the problem. Free safety Gerald Sensabaugh playing with a sprained foot is another issue.

But a bigger concern is the performance of the healthy players in the secondary.

"It's easier to correct a game when you win than it is when you lose," cornerback Orlando Scandrick said. "Everybody wants to hit the panic button and do what you want. If you look at it for what it is, this team is 7-4. We got another tough game coming up next week and [we] take it one week at a time and hopefully we can improve to 8-4."

There were too many mistakes against the Dolphins.

There was cornerback Alan Ball with his back to the ball while it was in the air, running into Brian Hartline for a 20-yard pass interference penalty that helped set up a Dolphins field goal late in the first half.

In the third quarter, Hartline ran past Ball at the snap. Ball caught up to Hartline but scooted past him as the receiver slowed down to catch a 41-yard reception.

Two plays later, Brandon Marshall ran past Terence Newman on the way to the end zone. Newman caught up but draped both arms around Marshall's neck, drawing a flag. It didn't matter because Moore's pass landed in Marshall's hands for a 16-10 Dolphins lead.

The play was so bad that former Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens, who is now out of work, tweeted, "Great concentration & TD by B Marshall w/Newman as a superman cape!! Lol"

Newman said of Marshall, "Just made a great play. Easy to say he made a great play."

The Dolphins were not afraid to challenge the Cowboys' secondary. At one point, Moore threw a pass to Marshall when he was covered by Abram Elam and Barry Church.

On the fourth-quarter drive that led to the field goal that put the Dolphins up 19-17, Elam was called for illegal contact on a third-down incompletion, giving the Dolphins a first down.

Frank Walker was called for a personal foul later in that drive.

The Cowboys are in the thick of the playoff race, but this secondary needs to play better with so much on the line in the next few weeks.

"It just comes down to you winning your matchups," Elam said. "They did a good job, but I think we stepped up when it counted. We got off the field on third down and allowed our offense to drive the field."

Yes, as former Jets coach Herm Edwards famously said, "You play to win the game." Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware noted Thursday it's not about style points, it's about victories.

If the Cowboys are going to keep winning games -- they're on a four-game streak -- the secondary will have to give Ware and the pass rushers some help.

There were four sacks, nine tackles for loss and five quarterback hurries Thursday. No interceptions, though.

"We got a secondary that is full of guys that can do everything," Walker said. "These coaches utilize everybody in the secondary, every game, and I think that's a good thing."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.