Cowboys making strides defensively, but Lions will be true test

IRVING, Texas -- The Cowboys don't want to hear about or discuss how well their defense has played after three games, especially because they're about to face their toughest test Sunday against the explosive Detroit Lions. That humility in itself already shows some development in a locker room where hubris led to breakdowns in discipline which led to losing last season.

What's being discussed is more Xs and Os because players are still learning the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's aggressive defense in the same 3-4 front they've played for years. That common focus of figuring things out has heightened concentration, according to inside linebacker Bradie James. Factor in Ryan's demands and his enthusiastic teaching methods, and players now feel emboldened to do right.

"It's not like one guy knows and dictates," James said. "With all the different packages we have, we're trying to go out and make sure we know our jobs. It's given us chemistry. Rob? He's just always prodding and doing his thing. It's the real deal."

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The Cowboys rank second in rushing defense and lead the NFL with 13 sacks.

What's different?

They've come through in tough situations, like Monday, when outside linebacker Anthony Spencer -- so far rebounding from a down 2010 -- chased down, sacked and stripped the ball loose from Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman to seal Dallas' victory.

That, more than anything, is the change. How did it develop?

It's not just Ryan's techniques and fresh voice, players said. In fact, it stems more from a newer practice method implemented by coach Jason Garrett.

At least once a week since training camp -- and now -- he pits the offense and defense in less-than-desirable situations, mainly in 2-minute-type drills. That's common in the NFL. Every team does 2-minute drills, goes through drives with no-timeouts and has last-second Hail Mary sessions.

Where things differ, players said, is Garrett has the first units square off running the Cowboys' plays, schemes and personnel packages. That is not common once training camp ends.

Most teams want to work sets, packages and clock management against opposing team's sets, so scout teams are typically used in these drills. Dallas does that, just not during the beneficial segment when the ones face the ones, according to defensive lineman Marcus Spears.

"It's more real," Spears said. "I don't know if (quarterback) Tony (Romo) is going to see a better pass rush than (DeMarcus) Ware and (Anthony) Spencer in a 2-minute situation. Dez (Bryant) and Miles (Austin)? Where are you going to face two guys like that, and (Jason) Witten in a 2-minute drill? It breeds a little confidence when you're going out and playing against guys. You think you're at the top of your game."

The Cowboys don't think they're at the top of their games, yet. They know Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson are the cogs of a potent offense that will stress them. If Dallas doesn't stop Detroit's so-so running game, the Cowboys are setting themselves up to get scorched by Stafford.

Dallas' defenders know things are better, at least in their approach and execution. That's more than a good start, especially since the schedule doesn't get any easier.

"Everybody might not understand what they're doing but we understand the situation and the urgency you have to have," James said. "That's one thing we've definitely improved on. Situationally, there will be times you won't do as well on first- or second down but there will be situations when those times come up that you have to be able to execute and understand. That can mean the difference between winning and losing."

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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