Commentary

Defense to focus on turnovers

New coaches want players going for loose balls, creating a new mindset

Updated: July 29, 2013, 2:35 PM ET
By Jean-Jacques Taylor | ESPNDallas.com

OXNARD, Calif. -- Eight days after the season-ending loss to the Washington Redskins -- one that had considerably more to do with Tony Romo's three interceptions than Rob Ryan's defense -- Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett scrapped the 3-4 defense that the Dallas Cowboys had used for nearly a decade.

It was harried decision wrought with emotion and disappointment -- and if Dallas had beaten Washington, there's a good chance defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli wouldn't be employed by the Cowboys.

[+] EnlargeMonte Kiffin
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillNew defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin will lead the adjustment from the 3-4 to the 4-3.

Let's keep it real: The Cowboys made Ryan the primary scapegoat for missing the playoffs.

Most of the time, that type of overreaction results in disaster.

But if Kiffin's Tampa 2 defensive scheme helps the Cowboys create turnovers, then no one will be making jokes about a 73-year-old defensive coordinator.

Dallas generated just 16 turnovers -- eight fumbles and eight interceptions -- last season, tying the team for 28th in the NFL. It's hardly unusual.

Since winning Super Bowl XXX following the 1995 season, the Cowboys have ranked among the NFL's top 10 in turnovers just three times.

Pathetic.

So there's been a concerted effort by Garrett and the coaching staff to emphasize the importance of getting turnovers. Of course every staff talks turnovers, but the Cowboys' staff is doing it with more intensity than we've seen around here in years.

Before each and every play during team drills, secondary coach Jerome Henderson can be heard yelling, "Get the ball back!" or "This is our ball, go get it!"

That's not all.

The defensive players scoop up every loose ball -- even those the result of incompletions -- and return them 30 or 40 yards. The defensive backs and linebackers attempt to strip the ball or punch it out from every running back or receiver for three or four seconds after every play ends.

It's because turnovers = wins.

You can easily make the argument that winning the turnover battle is the single most important statistic in football. Teams that forced no turnovers last season went 24-98-1.

Those with one forced turnover went 73-89-1, while those with two forced turnovers went 75-48, and those with three or more went 83-20.

FYI: Chicago led the NFL with 44 turnovers last season.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys have lost 15 consecutive games in which they didn't get a turnover. They haven't won a game without a turnover since a 26-20 overtime win over Kansas City in 2009, a span of 56 games.

Wow.

Last year, the Cowboys were 0-5 without a turnover, 4-2 when they created one turnover and 4-1 when they managed two.

"It's a mindset we're trying to create," Marinelli said of picking up every loose ball on the ground. "When fatigue sets in, it gets harder. We want guys who can rush the passer and sprint to the ball every play. That's mental toughness."

In the Tampa 2 scheme, the safeties traditionally play 15-20 yards of the line of scrimmage to prevent the big play. Dallas will play more zone than man-to-man in the scheme, which helps generate turnovers.

In a zone defense, the defensive backs and linebackers typically keep the action in front of them, allowing them to read the quarterback and react more easily to tipped and deflected passes.

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No scheme by itself is going to generate turnovers. It's about the players within this scheme.

Part of the reason Garrett said he felt comfortable scrapping the 3-4 scheme, which the Cowboys had used since Bill Parcells arrived prior to the 2003 season, is the Cowboys believed players such as outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer and defensive tackles Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher could easily make the transition. And they believed cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr wouldn't waste their talents playing zone.

After all, they traded up to grab Claiborne with the sixth pick of the 2012 draft and they signed Carr to a five-year, $50 million contract.

More importantly, they believed linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter would thrive in the system, and it would put them in position to make even more plays.

At practice last week, Lee sprinted 35 yards down the middle of the field and deflected a deep ball intended for Miles Austin. Carter, playing opposite the tight end most of the time, can use his speed to chase the ball without fighting off many blockers.

"We started with the personnel, but Monte was a big piece of this thing from the start because we knew he was available," Garrett said. "Often times when teams do this it's a 2-3-4 year process to get your personnel right.

"You gotta get rid of this guy, get rid of this guy, this guy can't play, we better sign this guy, we gotta draft these guys in the first three rounds, so it really can upset your whole roster and what you're trying to build."

The transition must be smooth. The turnovers must flow. Or Garrett will suffer the consequences.

Jean-Jacques Taylor joined ESPNDallas.com in August 2011. A native of Dallas, Taylor spent the past 20 years writing for The Dallas Morning News, where he covered high schools sports, the Texas Rangers and spent 11 seasons covering the Dallas Cowboys before becoming a general columnist in 2006.

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