Secondary trying to tackle bigger issue

IRVING, Texas -- What, Wade Phillips worry about tackling in the secondary?

Phillips bristled at a question about the subject during his Monday news conference at Valley Ranch, less than 24 hours after the Dallas Cowboys' 17-10 loss to the Denver Broncos. The deciding points were scored when Denver receiver Brandon Marshall zigzagged his way into the end zone for a 51-yard catch-and-run touchdown, breaking one tackle and making other Cowboys miss.

"OK," Phillips said, "I would think somebody missed a tackle in the game for them and us."

Phillips made the point that the Cowboys tackled pretty well in Denver with the exception of one play. Too bad that play was the biggest one in the game.

Sloppy tackling in the secondary is something that has hurt the Cowboys dating back to last season. Die-hard Cowboys fans don't have to be reminded of the terrible tackling on the Baltimore Ravens' running backs, who slammed the doors on Texas Stadium with back-to-back breakaway touchdown runs to ruin a historic moment for a proud franchise and poke holes in the Cowboys' playoff hopes.

The Cowboys also missed several open-field tackles in the grand opening of Cowboys Stadium, a loss to the New York Giants. Eli Manning threw for 330 yards that night, a total padded by the elusive moves of receiver Mario Manningham, in particular.

Open-field tackling is one of the toughest things to do in the NFL. It's also one of the most important. It can be the difference between forcing a punt and giving up six points or winning and losing, as the Cowboys have learned the hard way.

"Of course, it's difficult," said cornerback Orlando Scandrick, who whiffed on Manningham a few times. "But that's just something that we've got to get better at."

Added free safety Ken Hamlin, who failed to finish tackles on the long touchdowns by the Ravens' backs and Denver's Marshall: "You're going to go against skilled guys who are going to make moves. That's what they're paid to do. We've got to be better in tackling."

Cornerback Mike Jenkins was widely criticized for avoiding contact on a touchdown run by then-Giants running back Derrick Ward last season. But effort hasn't been an issue in the Cowboys' secondary this season. In fact, Jenkins has been especially aggressive.

"He pulls the trigger on everything," Phillips said. "He doesn't hesitate."
The trouble starts with sloppy technique.

For example, on the game-winning touchdown against the Broncos, the 6-4, 230-pound Marshall easily broke an attempted arm tackle by Hamlin, who was out of position because of a poor pursuit angle. Cornerback Terence Newman, who was trying to chase down Marshall after the receiver soared over him to catch the ball at the 32-yard line, also overran the play. Newman and inside linebacker Bradie James collided when Marshall stopped on the right hashmark at the 18-yard line and dashed toward the front corner of the end zone.

Scandrick said the secondary, which will be without sound-tackling strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh (thumb surgery) for at least one game, also has had problems not properly using its help. That was the case when Scandrick let Manningham make outside moves after catching quick throws at the line of scrimmage instead of forcing him inside, where his pursuing teammates could have made the tackle after a short gain.

Phillips might be sensitive about the subject of tackling because he's been accused of running a soft training camp and practices. The Cowboys have a no-tackling policy in practice, as do many NFL teams, in order to prevent injuries.

That doesn't mean that the Cowboys ignore the tackling issue in practice. The defenders aren't allowed to take backs and receivers to the ground, but they are required to get in proper position to "tag up" the ball carriers.

"It's something that we've been focusing on and are going to focus on even more," Hamlin said, "because it's something that we have to do on a daily basis."

If they don't, Phillips will have a tougher time dodging questions than opposing playmakers do avoiding Cowboys tacklers.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.