Dallas defense must lead playoff run
As the schedule gets tough down the stretch, defense knows it has to step up
IRVING, Texas -- They don't force a lot of turnovers, don't have an elite cornerback and their best playmaker is double-teamed almost every play.
The Cowboys' defense isn't known for its flash, but collectively it's performed well enough to allow this team to maintain first place in the NFC East.
Over the next five weeks, the Cowboys' defense will be tested. That test will look something like this:
1. New York Giants: 11th in points per game.
2. San Diego Chargers: Tied for fifth in points per game.
3. New Orleans Saints: The best offense in the league.
4. Washington Redskins: Held to six points versus Cowboys last week.
5. Philadelphia Eagles: Loaded with big-play threats.
If the Cowboys are going to end their miserable Decembers, the defense will have to lead the way.
Ware leads the team with eight sacks, third among NFL linebackers. Offenses have double-teamed Ware most of the season, putting pressure on fellow outside linebacker Anthony Spencer to hurry the quarterback.
Spencer produced his two best games of the season against Washington and Oakland, getting an interception to seal a victory over the Redskins last week and recording his first two sacks of the season against the Raiders on Thursday.
If Spencer's production increases, it will take pressure off Ware, who is growing weary of the constant attention.
"It feels good," Spencer said of the sacks. "I've been trying to get a lot of pressure all year but have been coming up short. But [Thursday] it started working out and we won, so it feels even better."
Last year, the Cowboys led the league with 59 sacks. This season they have 28, tied for sixth with Arizona. Reaching that mark again could be harder this season especially with teams focusing on Ware.
The secondary has only seven interceptions, tied for the fourth fewest in the league. In 2008, Dallas had only eight interceptions, 30th in the league. In the history of the franchise, the Cowboys have never gone consecutive seasons with fewer than 10 picks.
Veteran cornerback Terence Newman has only one interception. Mike Jenkins, the second-year corner, has a team-leading three. The low numbers don't bother the Cowboys' coaches because Newman and Jenkins are containing their opponents' best wide receivers. Against the Redskins, Santana Moss was held to 7.6 yards per catch and Devin Thomas, the other starter, caught only three passes.
In the Cowboys' loss to Green Bay, the defense held the Packers without a touchdown until the fourth quarter. Donald Driver and Greg Jennings had a combined eight catches for 95 yards with no touchdowns.
"Just finishing," Jenkins said. "All we try to do is finish the plays and as you can tell, as the season has gone on we just keep improving and finishing our plays."
Forcing turnovers is the key to any defensive success. The Cowboys are tied for 16th in the league with 10 forced fumbles. Of those 10, they have recovered six. Seven interceptions bring the turnover total to 13.
Coach Wade Phillips has stressed forcing turnovers to put the offense in better field position, especially the past two weeks with the offense struggling to score points.
Dallas' defense has allowed only 13 points and three touchdowns in its past 12 quarters.
"The defense is great, they are playing some outstanding football," quarterback Tony Romo said. "I expect that to continue as we come into a tough stretch of games that we're going to rely on them in different situations."
Calvin Watkins covers the Dallas Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.
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