- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Cowboys’ starting defense didn’t allow a touchdown this preseason, but that’s not the statistic it's proudest of.
Turnovers were the hottest topic of discussion on the defensive side of the home locker room after Saturday night's 24-18 victory over Cincinnati at AT&T Stadium. That, of course, is a continuation of what we’ve heard at Valley Ranch and in Oxnard, Calif., and every other stop the Cowboys made this summer.
To this point, the players are following through on all the gum-flapping. The Cowboys have forced nine turnovers in four preseason games, including three by the starters in a little less than four quarters of work.
The concept for trying to force turnovers is far from revolutionary. It’s been the primary emphasis since Jason Garrett took over as head coach midway through the 2010 season, and that’s not exactly unique in the NFL.
It just seemed like lip service last season, when Rob Ryan’s injury-ravaged defense forced only 16 turnovers, tied for the fourth-fewest in the NFL. That’s what makes the mostly meaningless first four games under new (but old) defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin so encouraging.
“Every year, you say the same thing,” said safety Barry Church, who ripped the ball out of Bengals receiver Marvin Jones’ hands to halt a Cincinnati scoring threat in the first quarter. “But once you buy into the system, it works. It really does.’
It worked for Kiffin -- and his lieutenant, defensive-line coach Rod Marinelli -- for years in Tampa. The Buccaneers ranked among the NFL’s top 10 in turnovers forced in six of Kiffin’s final nine seasons, including five top-10 finishes. With Marinelli as defensive coordinator, the Chicago Bears forced the most turnovers in the league last season after finishing third and fifth the previous two years under him.
The scheme helps, but this is much more about a mentality than any Xs-and-Os adjustments.
“It’s all about getting the population to the ball, everyone swarming and trying to pick the ball up,” said cornerback Brandon Carr, who recovered the fumble forced by Church. “It’s all about effort. It’s the will to want to get the ball out.
“We have a good system in place. We have been working since OTAs trying to get the small details down and trying to get on the right page to get the chemistry down. At the end of the day, it comes down to the will to want to get the ball out. Do you want to take the ball away?”
Added linebacker Sean Lee, who forced a fumble on the starting defense’s first possession of the preseason: “It needs to be a habit.”
Owner/general manager Jerry Jones is quick to point out that the defense’s personnel should be upgraded for the Sept. 8 season opener, when defensive end Anthony Spencer and cornerback Morris Claiborne are expected to start after missing all of the preseason due to knee injuries. At some point this season, former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jay Ratliff might even be able to play.
Three starters down, the defense has looked the part in the preseason.
“We’ve just got to keep that up,” said defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who scooped up the fumble he helped Lee force in Oakland. “We’ve got an explosive offense that had a heck of a night tonight. Why wouldn’t you want to go out there and take the ball away and give it to your offense? We keep honing in on that, we’re going to go far.”