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Friday, September 17, 2010
Defense struggles to create turnovers

By Calvin Watkins

There are many positives about Dallas Cowboys coach Wade Phillips' defense.

The emergence of Jay Ratliff, Anthony Spencer and Mike Jenkins as outstanding young players to go along with an elite veteran like DeMarcus Ware make the Cowboys' defense fearful.

The Cowboys have an NFL-leading 148 sacks since 2007, Phillips' first year as coach. But here's the scary part (or maybe where the negatives come in): In that same time span, the Cowboys are tied for 26th in interceptions with 38. And last season, their 21 turnovers overall had them tied for 27th in the league.

Jay Cutler
Chicago's Jay Cutler has thrown 59 interceptions since 2007, more than any quarterback in the NFL.

Phillips and several of the defensive players know they have to force more turnovers. Sacks aren't an issue. Forcing the other team to punt isn't an issue. Last year, the Cowboys gave up the fewest points in the NFC.

Yes, it was a good defense, but to become an elite defense, or a great one, forcing turnovers and turning those into points, whether the offense or defense does it, can help the Cowboys advance deeper in the postseason, should they get there.

On Sunday afternoon at Cowboys Stadium, the one man who can help the Cowboys begin this task actually starts for the Chicago Bears -- Jay Cutler.

Since 2007, Cutler has thrown 59 interceptions, more than any quarterback in the NFL. He led the NFL in picks last season and threw one in the season opener vs. the Detroit Lions.

"He's a good quarterback and he puts it out there and takes a lot of chances," Cowboy safety Alan Ball said. "We want to capitalize on that just like he wants to capitalize against us."

There is no secret to getting turnovers, but there are multiple ways to force them.

Creating pressure is one. Ware led the NFL with 45 total pressures, 25.5 knockdowns and 19.5 hurries last season. Spencer was tied for fifth in the league with 40 total pressures, 28.5 knockdowns and 11.5 hurries.

But is that good enough?

Another way to create turnovers is to make plays on the ball.

Jenkins led the team with five interceptions last season while fellow corner Terence Newman got three. Both players were named to the Pro Bowl last season. Yet, as a team, the Cowboys had just 11 interceptions, tied for 26th in the league.

Having athletic players who can jump routes on pass plays or strip the ball on run plays also helps.

"Yeah, we work on it," Phillips said. "We work on stripping the football, how to strip the football, there are drills that we do specific drills to work on things. Also, pressure, interceptions, catching the ball, all of those things. There are a lot of things involved in turnovers."

Winning the turnover battle in the NFL equates to victories.

NFL teams were 7-2 in Week 1 with one or more turnovers. In 2009, NFL teams compiled a .549 winning percentage with two or more turnovers and a .789 percentage with three or more. The Cowboys saw results when they forced turnovers themselves.

Dallas was 3-0 when they had three or more turnovers, 4-2 with one turnover and just 2-2 with none.

"We have to create more turnovers, get interceptions, try to get the offense a short field," Ware said. "Everybody has to do more to help each other out because sometimes we're not going to have a good game. The offense is not going to have a good game. We just have to play and have each other's back."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.