Cowboys without a sack or turnover
IRVING, Texas -- The Cowboys led the NFL in sacks last season with 59, third most in club history. Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware led the league with a career-high 20 sacks and set a franchise record in the process.
But two games into the 2009 season, the Cowboys are the only team without a sack or a turnover.
On Monday night, the Cowboys play host to Carolina, a team that may help the defense shake its slump. Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme has thrown five interceptions and been sacked four times this season.
Dallas' lack of sacks and interceptions is a puzzling development for Wade Phillips, a coach who is noted for teaching defense and one who is trying different techniques in practice to force turnovers in games.
Yet Phillips and team owner and general manager Jerry Jones assured that the defense is doing fine.
"I'm not concerned," Jones said. "It has everything to do with Wade. It has everything to do with our front seven; they really played well against [the New York Giants last week]. I know what we are trying to do [with] the quality of our players and coaches in the secondary. I am not concerned. We will get this right."
The Cowboys replaced four starters on defense and their nickel linebacker in the offseason. The biggest departure could be that of veteran outside linebacker Greg Ellis, who was cut to elevate Anthony Spencer, a 2007 first-round pick, to the starting position. Ellis signed with Oakland and has eight tackles, three sacks and two tackles for loss. Spencer has nine tackles and two tackles for a loss.
Jones mentioned on a local radio show that he's not surprised with Ellis' play but showed support for Spencer.
In Dallas' season-opening win over Tampa Bay, the Cowboys' defense faced 73 snaps. Dallas defended against 42 passing plays and hit Buccaneers quarterback Byron Leftwich nine times.
Tampa Bay spread out its offense and protected with five offensive linemen and, on occasion, a running back or tight end.
The Cowboys rushed at least four or five defenders at a time. Leftwich, who is not as mobile as some NFL quarterbacks, stood in the pocket longer and endured hard shots and visibly complained about hurting during the game.
"He stays in the pocket a long time waiting," Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking said. "He got hit a lot, but he made a lot of great throws."
Cowboys corner Mike Jenkins managed to intercept one of Leftwich's passes, but a penalty nullified the play.
Against the Giants, quarterback Eli Manning was hit just twice in 38 throws. The Giants used six players to block the pass rush. A tight end would block Ware or fellow outside linebacker Spencer for about two seconds before starting his pass route.
Manning also moved up in the pocket and took advantage of the Cowboys' man-to-man defense in the secondary to complete 25 passes for 330 yards and two touchdowns.
"It is always frustrating when you don't pull them down or get enough pressure on the quarterback," Ware said. "But we have to find some way and try to get more pressure on them."
Phillips and Jones said the team needs more sacks, especially on third down. The secondary also has to make more stops or grab more interceptions to turn the momentum around.
During practices, Cowboys defensive players are working on drills designed to increase interceptions. Failure to secure a pick results in push-ups.
"I see an aggressiveness that we need," Phillips said. "We didn't cover as well man-to-man as I [would have] liked to, and I think that hurt us some. So we may have to adjust some things or help some things. I see the aggressiveness that it takes."
Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. Follow him on Twitter @calvinwatkins.
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