Cowboys force four turnovers, slow down Burress

10/17/2005 - Dallas Cowboys

IRVING, Texas -- Questioned about his confidence in Jose Cortez late Sunday afternoon, Cowboys coach Bill Parcells allowed that he is pleased, at least for the present, with the often erratic kicker.

Hey, what else is a guy, even one as brutally candid as The Tuna, supposed to say after his kicker bounces back from one blocked effort and another that was woefully wide left to nail the overtime game-winner less than five minutes into the extra period?

But in a locker room where Cortez was reliving the 45-yard field goal that lifted Dallas past the New York Giants 16-13 -- and alternately describing the pressure kick in two tongues, no less -- most of the straight talk was about the cozy comfort level that the Cowboys' defense has quickly reached with its new 3-4 alignment.

Despite surrendering a 24-yard touchdown catch to Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey with only 19 seconds remaining in regulation and an eye-blink, two-play scoring drive in just 33 seconds that allowed New York to tie the game at 13, the Cowboys defense has now permitted only two offensive touchdowns in its last three games. On Sunday, even with the Giants' late-game heroics, the Cowboys held the NFL's highest-scoring offense, a potent attack averaging 34.0 points per game, to one end-zone visit.

"And in any language," said Cowboys rookie linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who notched a sack for the fourth consecutive game, "that's pretty good."

Good enough to catapult the Cowboys to a 4-2 record and first place in the ultra-competitive NFC East, where the three other division rivals are all a half-game in arrears at 3-2. And good enough, even at this early juncture of the season, to have Dallas' players contemplating a return to the postseason after a hiatus in '04, when the Cowboys slumped to 6-10 in Parcells' second season with the franchise.

There appears to be, thanks in large part to the resurrected quarterback Drew Bledsoe, sufficient offense to make a run at the Cowboys' first division title since 1998, especially with the Eagles so physically wounded. Even without starting running back Julius Jones, who sat out Sunday's game with a high ankle sprain, Dallas rang up 25 first downs, 385 yards and a time-of-possession advantage of more than 17 minutes.

Bledsoe completed 26-of-37 passes for 312 yards and three different receivers posted five or more catches, led by wideout Keyshawn Johnson, who snagged five balls for 120 yards. While the Cowboys rushed for only 92 yards, they got some timely runs from all three fill-in backs, with rookie Marion Barber contributing meaningful plays late in the game. That the Cowboys couldn't manage more than a 2-yard touchdown catch from tight end Jason Witten in the second quarter, and Cortez's three field goals, was mostly attributable to four turnovers and untimely penalties.

That the high-octane Giants couldn't muster more, despite the gift-wrapped opportunities, was testimony to a Dallas defense that is significantly quicker than its recent counterparts and which seems to have now moved beyond the awkward transition period that typically accompanies any philosophical and schematic makeover.

"I don't think it took us that long to buy into it," said defensive lineman La'Roi Glover, a five-time Pro Bowl tackle but now used more as an end in the 3-4 scheme. "What took awhile was getting [accustomed to] it, that's all. Like any defense, it has its strengths and its weaknesses. We're to the point with it now that we're pretty much able to play to the strengths and mask the weaknesses. So, yeah, it's going pretty good."

Dallas played without inside linebacker Dat Nguyen (sprained neck), its best run-stuffer, for a second straight week but still limited the Giants to 11 first downs and 270 yards. New York, which had the league's ninth-best conversion rate on third down, 44.0 percent, moved the chains just once in 11 chances. The Giants rushed for only 91 yards and Eli Manning, sacked four times, completed just 14-of-30 attempts for 215 yards, the scoring pass to Shockey, an interception and a 68.1 efficiency rating. Manning had a 97.8 passer rating, fourth best in the league, entering the game.

New York's pedestrian offensive production aside, the Dallas defense was tested several times and often forced to defend a short field. Three of New York's dozen possessions originated in Dallas territory, all following fumble recoveries. The Giants got 29 of their 53 offensive snaps on the plus-side of the 50-yard line but, until Shockey's touchdown on a cleverly conceived crossing route, all they could mange were two Jay Feely field goals.

Cowboys cornerback Anthony Henry, the team's $25 million free-agent acquisition, had a terrific game and stymied one New York threat with an interception. Henry also forced a fumble by Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress that was recovered by nose tackle Jason Ferguson and added a team-high seven tackles and four passes defensed. With the Giants at the Dallas 21-yard line in the fourth quarter, Glover sacked Manning and stripped him, with defensive end Greg Ellis recovering the fumble and then returning it 37 yards. Late in regulation, strong safety Roy Williams forced a fumble by New York rookie tailback Brandon Jacobs at the Dallas 1.

"A lot of teams, when their offense turns the ball over deep [in its own territory], might think, 'Man, we've got no chance,' you know?" said inside linebacker Bradie James, a two-year backup who is now a starter in the 3-4 front. "For us, it's like, 'Well, OK, it's another chance to go out there and stop somebody and show what we've got.' There's no doubt it's a challenge, but we feel we're up to it. There are a lot of good players here on our [defensive] side of the ball."

Indeed, while some of the defenders who previously played in the 4-3 seem a dubious fit for the 3-4 scheme, the Cowboys have undeniable depth up front and rotated no fewer than seven linemen for meaningful snaps Sunday. At times, coordinator Mike Zimmer substituted entirely new front three units. Youngsters like rookie ends Marcus Spears and Chris Canty and Ware, the kind of hybrid "edge" defender that every 3-4 team must have, are making big-time contributions. Ware and Spears were the team's twin picks in the first round and Canty, who entered his senior season at Virginia as one of the country's top-rated ends before suffering severe knee and eye injuries, was a steal in the fourth round.

Those rookies might actually be better suited to the 3-4 than some leftover defenders. But the switch to the three-man front has also created opportunities for young veterans such as James and end Kenyon Coleman. And in Henry, the fifth-year cornerback pried from the Cleveland Browns as a restricted free agent thanks to a $10 million signing bonus, the Cowboys have a big outside pass defender with the kind of size needed to match up with the NFC East's physical wide receivers.

A true hit-and-run corner -- he hit mostly everything in his path Sunday and then ran out of the locker room before anyone could grab him for even a brief interview -- Henry had a big outing in matching up against Burress much of the day. The Giants' primary vertical threat, Burress managed only 55 yards on five catches, and four of his receptions were for 9 yards or less. The secondary held Shockey without a catch for the first half, but he shook loose for five receptions and 129 yards after intermission.

"Those guys are great players," said Dallas free safety Keith Davis. "They're going to make some plays. It's a very explosive offense, running the ball, throwing it, and Eli is a great quarterback. So while it was a little disappointing to let them score late in the game like that, overall we played them pretty tough, I think."

Pretty tough, indeed, acknowledged Manning, who has yet to record a road victory as the Giants' starter.

"We made it hard on ourselves, especially with the turnovers and the penalties, but they made it hard on us, too," Manning said. "They're quick, they fly around and they get to the ball, and they hit you."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.