Cow­boys de­fense lack­ing im­pact of promis­ing unit from last sea­son

The Saline Courier Weekend - - SPORTS - By Schuyler Dixon As­so­ci­ated Press

FRISCO, Texas — Jeff Heath agrees the Dal­las de­fense hasn’t had the im­pact it did early last sea­son, when that unit of­ten cov­ered for a sag­ging of­fense and kept the Cow­boys from fall­ing too far out of the play­off pic­ture.

The sev­enth-year safety also doesn’t want to over­state how he and his de­fen­sive mates were play­ing a year ago.

“The idea that we were this per­fect de­fense last year is just not true,” Heath said. “I think it’s some­thing that you’re al­ways try­ing to get bet­ter. The re­sults of these last three games haven’t been what wanted them to be. But I think we have the right ap­proach.”

Af­ter a 3-0 start, the Cow­boys have lost three straight games but are still tied atop the NFC East at

3-3 with Philadel­phia. The Ea­gles visit on Sun­day night.

While the first loss — 12-10 at New Or­leans — was the first time since 2002 that the Cow­boys have lost with­out al­low­ing a de­fen­sive touch­down, Dal­las couldn’t get a quick stop in the fourth quar­ter.

The Cow­boys had to use their time­outs be­fore get­ting the ball back with 1:39 re­main­ing. Af­ter quar­ter­back Dak Prescott was sacked on the first play, Dal­las even­tu­ally ran short on time and had to throw a des­per­a­tion pass from mid­field on the fi­nal play.

In a 24-22 loss to the pre­vi­ously win­less Jets last week, Dal­las let New York drive to a field goal af­ter get­ting within five points in the fourth quar­ter. The Cow­boys an­swered with a touch­down to get within two, but the 2-point con­ver­sa­tion at­tempt failed with 43 sec­onds re­main­ing.

“We haven’t been as con­sis­tent as we’ve wanted to be on the de­fen­sive side of the ball,” coach Ja­son Gar­rett

said. “And we want to do a bet­ter job mak­ing some im­pact plays, tak­ing the ball away. But I think in gen­eral we’ve done a good job keep­ing the scores down, which is the No. 1 thing a de­fense needs to do.”

The Cow­boys are eighth in scor­ing de­fense at 19 points per game af­ter fin­ish­ing sixth last sea­son. And Dal­las is back in the top 10 in to­tal de­fense af­ter a slow start while the of­fense was gen­er­at­ing nearly 500 yards and more than 30 points per game through the first three.

But Dal­las is near the bot­tom in take­aways (five) and in­ter­cep­tions (two), an area that has kept the unit from be­ing elite un­der de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Rod Marinelli. As much as he talks about forc­ing turnovers, the de­fense is de­signed to avoid big plays.

That’s been an­other prob­lem for the Cow­boys, high­lighted by Robby An­der­son’s 92-yard touch­down catch last week. Dal­las is in the bot­tom third in the league in al­low­ing plays of at least 20 yards.

Last sea­son, the Cow­boys were among the best in the NFL in lim­it­ing big plays.

“There’s been times where I think we’ve played well, at other times that we haven’t,” Heath said. “It’s re­ally hard to pin­point what the main dif­fer­ence is. It just as a whole we’ve just got to be more dis­ci­plined.”

Lineback­ers Jay­lon Smith and Leighton Van­der Esch, emerg­ing young stars last sea­son with sev­eral highlight wor­thy plays each, haven’t shown up much this year. Nei­ther player was in the locker room this week when it was open to re­porters.

“It’s a mat­ter of time,” pass­ing game co­or­di­na­tor and sec­ondary coach Kris Richard said. “We all set a very high stan­dard for our­selves, them in par­tic­u­lar. They’re more than ca­pa­ble. We take the re­spon­si­bil­ity. We go out there and we know we need to per­form.”

Dal­las still has a rel­a­tively young de­fense. Sean Lee (33 years old) is the only starter not in his 20s, and six of them are 25 or younger. At the same time, most of them have been starters for at least two years.

“There’s no ques­tion we have some guys who are young that haven’t played that much foot­ball but we have some vet­eran play­ers too,” Gar­rett said. “It’s a good mix. We like the mix and we just have to keep bang­ing away.”

NOTES: Of­fen­sive tack­les Ty­ron Smith (an­kle) and La’el Collins (knee) re­turned to prac­tice on a lim­ited ba­sis Thurs­day, boost­ing the prospects for them play­ing against the Ea­gles. Re­ceivers Amari Cooper (thigh) and Ran­dall Cobb (back) and cor­ner­backs By­ron Jones and An­thony Brown missed prac­tice again. Jones and Brown have ham­string in­juries.

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