FRISCO, Texas – Just like that, Jeff Heath is back in contention.
For a defense that has struggled to create takeaways in recent seasons, the fifth-year safety has been the Cowboys' leader in interceptions each of the last two years.
By becoming the first defender to pick off Alex Smith this season on Sunday, Heath tied himself for the team lead once again – and re-established his status as the Cowboys' primary ballhawk.
"I don't know about that," Heath said with a laugh on Sunday. "I just try to catch them if they come to me."
Ok, so maybe "ballhawk" is a bit extreme. Heath has six career interceptions, and Sunday's fourth-quarter pick of Smith was his first this year. But going back to last year's playoff loss, when he nearly nabbed two interceptions of Aaron Rodgers, he has shown an undeniable ability to make plays on the ball.
To hear it from Cowboys' owner/general manager Jerry Jones, that knack is the reason why Heath is handling a starter's role this season.
"The reason Jeff is getting the opportunity and the reason he is a starter is because Jeff is around the ball," Jones said.
It was a fantastic play that ultimately helped seal the Cowboys' 28-17 win against Kansas City. But it also signals a larger trend for this Dallas defense.
As uninspiring as the Cowboys have looked in the takeaway department at times this season, they appear to be making progress in that department. This defense forced just four turnovers in the first five weeks of the season – including a combined effort of zero in losses to Los Angeles and Green Bay.
In the three weeks since the bye, however, it's a different story. Heath's interception on Sunday evening marked the second-straight week the Cowboys have managed an interception. It was also their seventh total takeaway in the last three games.
Heath said that's right in line with the Cowboys' defensive priorities when they take the field.
"No. 1 every week is to get the ball and create turnovers. That's probably the most telling stat in the NFL," he said. "The second is stop the run, and affect the quarterback, make him uncomfortable."
All three of those things are happening during this win streak. The Cowboys are allowing an average of just 73 rushing yards over these three wins. As a result, quarterbacks have had to pass more – which has helped contribute to 11 total sacks in the last three weeks.
With opposing quarterbacks taking 11 sacks, on top of plenty more hits, the turnovers have followed. San Francisco lost three fumbles to the Cowboys back on Oct. 22, while Washington lost two fumbles and added an interception.
Heath's pick on Sunday was the lone takeaway against the Chiefs – but it's worth noting that it came against an offense that has lost just four turnovers in nine games.
"When our rush is working like it has been this season, it makes our job way easier," Heath said. "When you're out there, you have a feeling for when the pocket is closing. It's not so much like you see it, but you just have this feeling like he's kind of getting antsy, and you see guys getting there. That allows you to be a lot more aggressive."
With that aggressive mentality, the Cowboys defense has been making life easier on its offense. And while Heath is technically tied for the team lead in interceptions, no Dallas defender currently has multiple picks this year.
The goal going forward is undoubtedly to keep the count climbing.