10 reasons the Cowboys' defense has improved

IRVING, Texas -- Defensive end Tyrone Crawford insists he knew it during the offseason, says there’s a videotaped interview of him predicting the Dallas Cowboys' defense would be good.

Defensive tackle Nick Hayden and Bruce Carter said he knew after the San Francisco game. Safety J.J. Wilcox said he wasn’t certain until the Cowboys' win over Seattle.

Until we see Crawford’s videotape, assume no one on this roster knew the Cowboys’ defense would morph from one of the NFL’s worst into a playoff-caliber unit. But it has.

Last year, the Cowboys allowed 415.3 yards per game; this year it ranks 19th at 355.1 yards per game.

“I knew in OTAs,” said Crawford, “because of the way we were working and the way we were flying around. I could see it in [Rod] Marinelli’s eyes. When you see him smiling, you know you’re doing good things because he’s on top of everything.”

The Cowboys’ defense is playing some of its best football of the season as they prepare to face Green Bay, which averaged 386.1 yards and a league-leading 30.4 points per game.

Here are 10 reasons the Cowboys’ defense is much better than it was last season:

  1. Rod Marinelli is one of the NFL’s best defensive coordinators . His mantra -- “Do the ordinary well” -- means do a few things on defense and do them really well so the players can play fast instead of thinking.

  2. The Cowboys forced 31 turnovers, second in the league, in the regular season and added three more against Detroit in the wild-card playoff game. Dallas has forced a turnover in each of the last 16 games.

  3. The Cowboys played much better against the run after allowing 4.7 yards per carry and 128.5 yards per game (27th in the NFL). This season, the Cowboys finished eighth against the run (103.1), while allowing 4.21 per carry.

  4. Orlando Scandrick continued his emergence into an upper-echelon cornerback capable of handling elite receivers -- inside or outside -- in man-to-man coverage.

  5. The Cowboys have stayed true to the tenets of the Tampa 2 zone scheme by allowing far fewer 20 yard plays than they did last year. In 2013, the Cowboys allowed a league-high 79 plays of 20 yards of more. This season, they allowed 57 plays of 20 yards or more, which is below the league average of 61.

  6. The offense’s commitment to the running game kept the Cowboys’ defense from getting exposed by keeping them off the field. Dallas finished second in the league in time of possession at 32:22.

  7. Middle linebacker Rolando McClain joined the team just before training camp and eased the loss of Sean Lee (ACL) with a physical presence, play-making ability and a nasty demeanor that inspired his teammates.

  8. They make plays at winning time. Of the 34 turnovers the Cowboys have forced, 17 have occurred in the fourth quarter.

  9. The pass rush has continued to improve, especially with the improved health of defensive end Anthony Spencer. Of the 31 sacks the Cowboys have this season, 16 have been in the fourth quarter, including two against Detroit.

  10. Enigmatic Bruce Carter developed into a playmaker and finished with a team-leading five interceptions.