Turnovers mask Cowboys' subpar effort

SAN DIEGO -- A glaring lack of turnovers kept the Dallas Cowboys' defense from being an absolutely dominant unit last season.

Only three teams in the league forced fewer turnovers than the Cowboys' 21. Those teams -- the St. Louis Rams, Oakland Raiders and Washington Redskins -- combined for a grand total of 10 wins.

It's tough to win in the NFL if your defense doesn't take the ball away from the opponent, so it could be considered an encouraging sign that the Dallas starters forced two turnovers in the first half of Saturday's 16-14 preseason win over the San Diego Chargers.

"We try to work on it every day," said inside linebacker Bradie James, who forced a fumble. "People have been asking us how we can improve. Just create turnovers. You saw that tonight. If we wouldn't have gotten any turnovers, we wouldn't have won the game. Hands down, point blank, period."

If the Cowboys hadn't forced any turnovers, they'd have been on the wrong end of a blowout by halftime. That's the bad news.

Stop reading now if you're a Cowboys fan with a weak stomach. The stats from the first half will appear in the next paragraph.

Total yards: Chargers 205, Cowboys 49. First downs: Chargers 14, Cowboys 3. Time of possession: Chargers 23:26, Cowboys 6:34.

Coach Wade Phillips, in an attempt to stick up for his defense, pointed out that the Chargers had to convert a fourth down to score. So what? The Cowboys struggled to stop an offense that has Pro Bowl holdouts at receiver and left tackle.

Phillips also noted that the Cowboys were vanilla with their defensive scheme. They didn't call a blitz in the first half.

"There was nothing vanilla on their side," James said. He wondered whether Chargers coach Norv Turner, the runner-up when Jerry Jones hired Phillips, held something against the Cowboys.

The simple fact was that two big plays kept the Cowboys' starting defense from having a horrible performance.

"We got spoiled those first two games and didn't realize we are not as good as we've looked in practice," said cornerback Terence Newman, whose interception in the red zone halted the Chargers' first drive.

"That's what happens when you practice against the same guys each day. You get used to those guys, but this gives us the indication that we have a lot of work to get done to be ready for the regular season."

But the Dallas defense does deserve the benefit of the doubt. After all, this is a group that allowed the fewest points in the NFC last season and pitched back-to-back shutouts the last two weeks of the regular season to claim the NFC East title.

Phillips is one of the NFL's brightest defensive minds. Dallas' defense is loaded with talent. The Cowboys have four players coming off Pro Bowl appearances -- outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, nose tackle Jay Ratliff, cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Newman -- and another outside linebacker in Anthony Spencer who was more dominant than any of them down the stretch in 2009.

So it's probably safe to assume that Phillips and crew will figure out ways to get off the field once they start scheming. The question with this defense is whether it can go from very good to great by dramatically increasing its turnover total.

So it's significant that the Cowboys' starters came up with a couple of takeaways against the Chargers. Newman jumped an out route to Legedu Naanee to kill a 10-play drive by picking off Philip Rivers, who was intercepted only nine times on 486 attempts last year. James stripped running back Darren Sproles on a third-down reception, a fumble that rookie safety Barry Church returned 80 yards to set up the Dallas starting offense's only touchdown of the preseason so far.
Those two plays provide the Cowboys tangible evidence that this defense can fix its biggest flaw.

But that won't make the film of the rest of the first half any more fun to watch.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.