I recently predicted that the Dallas Cowboys will win the NFC East because of three factors: Tony Romo, coaching, and the ability of the re-made defensive staff to create turnovers. On Sunday, we saw that the last factor, in particular, seems to be working in the team's favor, as the Cowboys had six takeaways -- two of which led to defensive scores -- in Sunday's season-opening win over the New York Giants.
When it comes to winning football games, takeaways are crucial. Former coach and recent Hall of Fame enshrinee Bill Parcells has a formula for determining a team's chances of winning based on takeaway differential. According to Parcells, a team that has a plus-one takeaway margin in a given game has a 75 percent chance of winning that matchup; that increases to 84 percent with a plus-two takeaway advantage, 93 percent at plus-three and 98 percent at plus-four. According to NFL Media research, the numbers since 2010 are similar: plus-one (68 percent), plus-two (84 percent), plus-three (94 percent) and plus-four (100 percent).
Last season, the Cowboys had a notoriously difficult time prying the ball from the grasp of opposing offenses, finishing with just seven interceptions and nine fumble recoveries -- and an 8-8 record that left them just short of the playoffs. Thus, Sunday's comparative takeaway explosion -- Dallas didn't register its sixth takeaway last year until the sixth game of the season -- is an encouraging sign.
Of course, we'll have to see if the takeaways keep coming this week when the Cowboys take on the Kansas City Chiefs. But it's clear that, for now, the team is forcing turnovers in a big way once again. So what's the difference? How did the Cowboys turn over a new leaf? Let's take a closer look at Dallas' renewed emphasis on taking the ball away from opponents.
1) Defensive line
One thing the defensive linemen are doing differently: When the ball goes downfield, they're running down and following the play, rather than just standing there and sort of waiting for the whistle. This puts them in a much better position to potentially scoop up a loose ball or even make a strip. This is something the Seattle Seahawks also emphasize, as we saw on Sunday when defensive tackle Tony McDaniel's willingness to chase a 16-yard running play allowed him to grab up the ball after a fumble by the Carolina Panthers' DeAngelo Williams. One could see that mentality in action in the Cowboys after the team forced a fumble out of Giants running back David Wilson in the first quarter; when the ball hit the ground, defensive lineman George Selvie was there to pick it up.
Then, of course, there's the presence of DeMarcus Ware, the veteran defensive end who got the Cowboys off on the right foot by picking off the very first pass of the game. Obviously, that's not the kind of takeaway one can plan on, but it's good to have a guy like Ware -- who was a receiver in high school -- on the line when the ball goes that way. Most linemen wouldn't be able to make that play.
Though he didn't have any turnovers on Sunday, linebacker Sean Lee, who is playing at a Pro Bowl level, embodies the kind of "get after the ball" mentality that can lead to frequent changes in possession. Some guys are reluctant to scramble for the ball, but when the pigskin hits the turf, Lee practically turns into a jet, streaking in there to try to make a play. Consider how he dove onto the onside kick to secure Sunday's win. It's a good thing he plays that way, too; he's expected to be a do-everything guy for this defense.
3) Defensive backs
The Cowboys' seven interceptions last season marked a low point for a franchise that once was known for picking off passes. It's tough to say exactly why they struggled in that department, though the overly complicated nature of the defensive game plans last year might have had something to do with it. Whatever the underlying reason behind 2012's futility, Dallas' secondary showed on Sunday that it is once again a meaningful threat to balls in the air.
After Ware broke the ice on Sunday, safety Will Allen kept the pick party going, grabbing an interception midway through the first quarter. Allen, who was brought in as a free-agent acquisition in the offseason, goes back a long ways with new Cowboys coordinator Monte Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, having started his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when both coaches were with that team. He likely didn't need to adjust much to the system in Dallas, which is probably one reason he was able to hit the ground running.
The final Cowboys interception of the night landed in the hands of cornerback Brandon Carr, who snapped up a pass that was bobbled by Giants running back Da'Rel Scott and ran it back for a cushion-preserving touchdown in the fourth quarter. (Incidentally, a friend of mine thinks that the way we count interceptions should be changed so that quarterbacks aren't blamed for well-thrown balls that end up being picked off after they're misplayed by the intended receiver; I think that's a good thought.) The opportunistic pick-six proved to be huge, as it put the game just out of reach for the Giants.
Carr had a quiet first year with the Cowboys after arriving as a free agent in 2012, but Dallas gave him a bunch of money for a reason. Though he's not the speediest guy, he brings a lot of toughness to the cornerback position. He's also a playmaker who will make things happen when he gets his hands on the ball.
Of course, interceptions aren't the only way for the Cowboys' defensive backs to impact the takeaway column; safety Barry Church had a big hand, so to speak, in both of Wilson's fumbles. In the first quarter, Church was the one who knocked the ball away from the running back, while in the third, he was the Dallas defender who recovered after Wilson coughed up possession, returning it for a crucial score.
4) Special teams
As we saw when the Giants muffed a punt that was recovered by the Cowboys in the third quarter, key takeaways -- the play set up a Dallas touchdown -- can also be made by the special teams unit. And when it comes to special teams, the Cowboys have an asset that has the potential to cause opponents fits: a left-footed punter in Chris Jones. The spin is different on balls kicked by left-footed punters, which can make the punts more difficult to field.
That can be a huge wrinkle, at the very least serving as yet another element that opponents have to prepare for. I can tell you that when I worked with the Cowboys, we spent extra effort getting ready for Bill Bradley, a left-footed punter who was with the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1970s, reversing the JUGS machine in practice and spending 10-15 minutes per day trying to get a feel for the spin.
5) Coaching staff
Not every player wants to hustle after loose balls; it takes a special breed of guy. Of course, it also takes plenty of guidance from the coaching staff. I spent three days with the team at training camp, and I saw the Cowboys working hard on coverage drills and tip drills and focusing on ripping the football away from offensive players -- that all came into play on Sunday.
The addition of Kiffin made headlines, but I think you have to talk about him and Marinelli together. Marinelli looks more like a teacher than a football coach, but he gets the most out of his players. He doesn't go in for fancy gimmicks; he just makes sure his guys do what they do very well.
Much was made this offseason of the Cowboys switching from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3, and that is important. But I have to say that when it comes to takeaways, luck can play as much of a role as anything else. Consider that pick made by Carr, or the interception that Giants safety Ryan Mundy made in the first quarter on Sunday after the ball was tipped by teammate Prince Amukamara. Sometimes, it's just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Of course, in the past, the Cowboys haven't been able to do much of that, either.
On Sunday, I saw the Cowboys go harder after the ball than they did last year; they had an attitude -- a big difference from last season -- as well as plenty of chemistry. Will it last? Only time will tell. But forcing turnovers like Dallas did in Week 1 was a good place to start.