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So far so good for Cowboys' defense

CANTON, Ohio -- Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 defensive scheme is supposed to help the Dallas Cowboys' defense generate turnovers this season. Frankly, it would be hard for the Cowboys to be any worse than they've been lately, no matter what scheme they used.

That said, Kiffin's scheme is known for producing units that steal the ball. So far, so good.

The Cowboys recovered a fumble to set up one touchdown and returned an interception for another in the first half to help Dallas beat the Miami Dolphins, 24-20, in the Hall of Fame Game.

We all understand that you shouldn't get too excited about any individual or team performance in the first preseason game, especially when coach Jason Garrett sits almost every starter. But when discussing how the Cowboys will fare this season, you have to start somewhere.

For a defense that has been abject at forcing turnovers in recent memory, Garrett just needs to see progress. Kiffin's unit provided it Sunday night.

On Miami's first offensive play, quarterback Ryan Tannehill and running back Lamar Miller botched a handoff and defensive lineman Nick Hayden recovered at the Miami 9-yard line. Five plays later, Dallas led 7-0 on Phillip Tanner's 1-yard run.

The Cowboys pushed the lead to 17-0 on a textbook Tampa 2 defensive play by sixth-round pick DeVonte Holloman.

Quarterback Matt Moore's pass bounced off receiver Chad Bumphis' hands, and Holloman reached back to snag the ball about a foot off the ground. He quickly regained his balance and sped down the field, stiff-arming Moore at the 15 and cruising into the end zone.

"They talk about turnovers before the play, during the play and after the play every day," Holloman said. "I was just happy to get into the end zone once I intercepted the pass.

"I didn't want the quarterback to catch me. I'm happy. I got my first handshake from Coach Garrett."

The Cowboys forced just 16 turnovers last season -- eight fumbles and eight interceptions -- to tie for 28th in the NFL. They have ranked among the top 10 in turnovers just three times since winning Super Bowl XXX.

In case you wondered, the Cowboys tied for 27th in points off turnovers last season with 34. We're talking about a team that has lost 15 consecutive games when it doesn't force a turnover. The Cowboys haven't won a game without getting a turnover since a 26-20 overtime win over Kansas City in 2009, a span of 56 games.

You see, just a little improvement in this area can have a significant impact on the Cowboys.

Among the reasons this scheme helps the defense generate turnovers is that the Cowboys will be playing much more zone defense than they did under former coordinator Rob Ryan. In zone schemes, the linebackers and defensive backs are looking at the quarterback and reacting to him. They're also looking at the ball, which makes it much easier to react to deflected or overthrown passes.

In man-to-man schemes, the linebackers and defensive backs often have their backs to the quarterback, so they don't react as quickly to errant passes.

Kiffin and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli have emphasized turnovers even more than Ryan's staff did. Their coaches, especially secondary coach Jerome Henderson, are yelling about the importance of taking the ball away seemingly before every play in training camp.

They're doing a variety of drills designed to create turnovers, whether it's having the linebackers practice punching the ball out or having the defensive backs attempt to intercept the ball as they're getting hit.

And players are instructed to scoop up every loose ball -- even incomplete passes -- and return them for touchdowns. In the first quarter, yet another ball bounced off a Miami receiver's hands and safety Matt Johnson scooped it up. Officials did not rule it incomplete until after they conferred quickly after the whistle blew.

See, it's all about the mindset.

The Tampa 2 is all about putting pressure on the quarterback and forcing him to make the kind of poor decisions or throws that lead to turnovers. Since the first game between the Dayton Triangles and the Columbus Panhandles in 1920, quarterbacks under duress have been making mistakes.

"Turnovers were the name of the game in the first half," Garrett said. "We took the ball away from them on their first offensive play. I think it was an exchange problem, but we were around the ball and came up with it.

"Turnover differential has the biggest correlation between winning and losing in the NFL."

Garrett can only hope this is the beginning of a new trend in Dallas.