Key for Monte Kiffin: Takeaways

IRVING, Texas -- As the Dallas Cowboys trotted out their newly formed coaching staff Thursday, maybe it was just coincidence that Monte Kiffin was first to speak.

Maybe it was an age thing, and the 72-year-old defensive coordinator got the first round of questions from the gaggle of reporters at the team's Valley Ranch practice facility.

"I'm no big deal," Kiffin said. "I'm really not."

Sorry, coach, you are a big deal. You have to be a big deal. You better be a big deal.

Coach, you and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli are being asked to do a major rebuilding job. You will have some talent on defense, but not nearly as much as your predecessor Rob Ryan always bragged about. And you might be down the Cowboys' best defender from 2012 in Anthony Spencer, who will be an unrestricted free agent.

The actual move from the 3-4 to the 4-3 will be the easiest part.

"I mean, a 3-4, a 4-3, it doesn't matter," KIffin said. "Last time I checked you got 11 guys on the field, right? Not eight, not nine, not 10. That's not good. We got 12? That's not good either. We're going to get a penalty."

Counting to 11 was an issue for Ryan's defenses, so you will have a leg up there. No, Monte, the most difficult part will be turning players who have not shown the ability to create turnovers over the past few years into a unit like those that did it regularly for you in Tampa Bay.

In Kiffin's run as the Buccaneers' coordinator from 1996 to 2008, Tampa Bay averaged 19 interceptions, 12 fumble recoveries and 39 sacks a season.

Only three times since Jerry Jones bought the Cowboys in 1989 has a Dallas defense had more than 19 interceptions. The Cowboys intercepted seven passes last season, led by Brandon Carr's three.

Only five times in the Jones era have the Cowboys had more than 12 fumble recoveries in a season. Last year, the Cowboys had nine.

Only six times since 1989 have the Cowboys had more than 39 sacks in a season, and four came since they moved to a 3-4 scheme. The Cowboys had 34 sacks last season.

Perhaps the biggest reason why Jason Garrett wanted to move to the 4-3 scheme and hire Kiffin -- and by extension, Marinelli -- is the ability to create turnovers. Marinelli's Chicago defense had a league-high 44 takeaways in 2012, including five against the Cowboys.

"We've done a lot of good things on defense here in the last six years, but the thing we've probably have done least well is take the football away," Garrett said. "And takeaways and turnovers and that differential is probably the single most important statistic in football."

In Tampa Bay, Kiffin had playmakers on all three levels of the defense in Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber and John Lynch.

In Chicago, Marinelli had playmakers on all three levels in Julius Peppers, Henry Melton, Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. In 2012, Tillman led the NFL with 10 forced fumbles, and Jennings led the league with nine interceptions.

Do the Cowboys have those kinds of players?

Carr has never had more than four interceptions in a season in his career. Last year's No. 1 pick, Morris Claiborne, had one last year. And for all of the talk about his ball skills, he rarely displayed the ability to take the ball away as a rookie. Orlando Scandrick has three interceptions in five seasons. Safety Gerald Sensabaugh has one pick in his past 28 games.

DeMarcus Ware has a knack for swatting the ball away from quarterbacks when he turns the corner, but the Cowboys picked up only two of Ware's five forced fumbles in 2005.

The best pure playmaker on defense is linebacker Sean Lee. He has seven interceptions over his three seasons. He just has a nose for the ball that others on this defense don't have.

"I think the secret is whatever you really want you really have to emphasize," Marinelli said. "And it's emphasized every day in practice and it's on our minds. If a loose ball is there, we're picking it up. We play hard. We play smart. And you've got to get the ball. It's a theme and you just constantly talk about it."

Ryan emphasized and talked about it. He even resorted to calling them "takeovers" in 2012 as some sort of last resort. Wade Phillips emphasized it. So did Bill Parcells.

It didn't work for them.

We'll find out this year if it's scheme or personnel, and, Monte, that's why you're such a big deal.