FRISCO, Texas – The tone was set in the first competitive training camp practice from Oxnard, Calif., when Mo Claiborne broke up a pass in a spirited one-on-one rep against Dez Bryant.
The exclamation point came a month later in the preseason finale when rookie Anthony Brown jumped a sideline route, intercepted Texans quarterback Brandon Weeden and sprinted to the end zone untouched.
It was evident all preseason with mostly positive results: The Cowboys' secondary is playing fast, physical and aggressive.
"They've done a nice job. They're off to a good start," head coach Jason Garrett said in late August when the team returned home from camp. "I think as a unit they're playing more physical than maybe we've played in the past, and that's a good thing. The corners are tackling. They're not afraid to stick their nose in there on a consistent basis. That's an area we still have to improve on."
In Sunday's season opener against the New York Giants at AT&T Stadium, they'll have to be sharp in all areas against one of the NFL's most talented receiving groups.
[embeddedad0]Odell Beckham, Jr. has topped 90 catches, 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns in each of his first two years, and he has the second-most catches by any player in his first two seasons in NFL history (187). Victor Cruz is returning from a torn patellar tendon that has sidelined him since October 2014. And rookie Sterling Shepard adds a potentially dynamic element to the Giants' offense after a productive career at Oklahoma.
"Both of those guys are All-Pro guys, and this rookie that they have is a guy that definitely is going to be a star one day from what I've seen and everything I've heard," cornerback Orlando Scandrick. "We've just got to go out there and focus. We've got to push ourselves in practice and we've got to practice like it's a game and we've got to do things like it's a game every day. So that when we get to Sunday the game is easy."
Health has been the first step for the Cowboys' secondary. Scandrick is getting set to play in his first regular-season game since the end of the 2014 season after spending the last year working back from a torn ACL and MCL. Cornerback Morris Claiborne went through a full camp and preseason for the first time in his career.
And, as Garrett says, the corners and safeties are employing a physical mindset under defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and secondary coach Joe Baker: better tackling technique, good communication, making plays on the ball in coverage.
It should only help the defense improve on last year's league-low 11-takeaway total.
"Coach Baker's mindset and Marinelli's is the corners have to be physical," Claiborne said. "In this defense the corners are going to have to come up and tackle. We've been working on that since training camp. Just doing everything we can do to be physical, to come down on the line when we have to come down and make tackles or force the ball back inside."
Said cornerback Brandon Carr: "We hang our hats on being a physical team out there. We didn't see it for 60 minutes each week last year. So we try to make it a point this year to create those habits early and just carry into the season. It's contagious. Once one person runs to the ball making plays, flying around, then you've got to go out there and match the intensity. All of our leaders are really harping on it and really leading by example."
The Cowboys are quite familiar with division rival New York's ability to move the ball through the air. Giants quarterback Eli Manning has started 24 straight games against Dallas with a 12-12 record. He has plenty of options down the field.
Scandrick is looking forward to the opportunity for himself and the rest of the secondary.
"I'm ready, I'm excited. I want to prove that I'm back," he said. "I want to prove it to everyone that thinks I'm not. I just got a lot to prove and this defense has got a lot to prove and this secondary has got a lot to prove. This is a good stage for us to begin proving ourselves."