ARLINGTON, Texas – It began with an interception from DeMarcus Ware. Five turnovers later, the Cowboys demonstrated last year's failure to create turnovers may be a thing of the past.
The Dallas defense and special teams combined to force six turnovers in Sunday's 36-31 opening night win against the Giants, capped by a 49-yard interception return for a touchdown by Brandon Carr late in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys never even forced three turnovers in a game last year.
"Obviously, turnovers were the story of the game," said head coach Jason Garrett. "We took it away from them six times and it's been a huge point of emphasis for us from minute one. It's a great feeling as a coaching staff when your players are able to take that emphasis from the practice field into the ballgame to start the season."
The Cowboys' defense didn't waste any time getting the ball back to the offense, helping the team earn its first victory in five matchups against the Giants in what is now AT&T Stadium.
Ware's interception on the Giants' first play from scrimmage continued a trend of dominance from the Cowboys' defense dating back to the preseason, when they forced turnovers on the opponent's first possession in three of their five preseason games.
The Giants ran a screen play, which Ware read out, snatching Eli Manning's pass out of the air intended for running back David Wilson.
That pick wasn't Wilson's fault, but the next turnover from the Giants was. Wilson fumbled on the Giants' next possession after driving inside the Cowboys' 10-yard line. That was the first of two fumbles on the day for Wilson, who was eventually benched in favor of running back De'Rel Scott.
Wilson's second fumble would be much more costly than the first, as Barry Church picked up the ball on the Giants' first possession of the second half and scored to extend the Dallas lead to 20-10. Church was also the one to strip Wilson earlier in the game.
"Coach (Garrett) is always telling us turnovers come in bunches," Church said. "Once one comes, just keep raking at the ball, and they will fall. Today, they did."
They certainly did, as the Dallas defense forced turnovers on each of the Giants' first three possessions, marking the first time the Cowboys have ever accomplished that feat in the first quarter of a game. The only problem was the Cowboys' offense managed just three points off those turnovers.
The score was tied at 3 after the first quarter, after Tony Romo miscommunicated with rookie wide receiver Terrance Williams in the red zone. The Giants picked off the pass and returned it to the Cowboys' goal-line. DeMarco Murray, who ran 20 times for 86 yards, sprinted the distance of the field to prevent a touchdown.
The Dallas defense held its ground, as it would throughout the first half. A 70-yard touchdown catch and run by Victor Cruz, who got behind the Cowboys' secondary in the second quarter, was the only touchdown the Dallas defense allowed until Manning found Cruz again in the third quarter on an 18-yard grab.
Cruz finished with three touchdowns on the day, with his last occurring midway through the fourth quarter to cut the Cowboys' lead to 30-24. But as close as the Giants made it, the Cowboys never relinquished their lead, even after Romo went down with a rib injury.
Romo was sandwiched between defenders as the Cowboys tried to drive the field at the end of the first half. He missed just one play at the end of the second quarter before returning for the rest of the game. Wide receiver Dez Bryant also injured his foot at the end of the game and missed some time, but it didn't appear to be as serious as it seemed initially, as the receiver was able to come back later for the two-point conversion after Carr's pick-six.
"It's a sport we all love and you've got to be out there to play," Romo said. "You've got to be able to play whatever you can. I'm going to be fine. Mine is nothing really crazy."
The Cowboys' defense and special teams put Romo and the offense in favorable positions throughout the day, but some of the red zone woes of the past returned, as they were only able to reach the end zone on two of their four trips. Both of those touchdowns went to Jason Witten, who only had three touchdowns all of last season.
Witten finished with eight catches for 70 yards and the two scores, surpassing the 9,000-yard receiving mark in the process. Michael Irvin's the only other Cowboys player to reach that mark.
"You get down there, you need touchdowns, and that's something that I feel like I want to capitalize on," Witten said. "I feel like we take advantage of it a lot from 20 to 20, and you want to see it capitalized and finished off in the red zone."
The way the defense was forcing turnovers and returning them for scores, the offense didn't need to be perfect Sunday night. The Cowboys forced three fumbles and intercepted three passes, as Carr, Ware and safety Will Allen secured one pick apiece.
Carr's interception return for a touchdown came on the first play after the two-minute warning, as the Giants attempted to mount a comeback trailing by just six points. Manning was the only player that had a chance at stopping Carr, and he wasn't going to let that happen.
"I can't let him catch me," Carr said. "If I let him catch me, y'all wouldn't let me live it down, and I'd probably hear it for the next week until we head out to Kansas City. So I mean, once you've got that ball in your hand, you've got to score. That's what we've been harping on. It's one thing to get the turnover, but now you want to take it to the next level and get into the end zone." [embedded_ad]
The turnover frenzy was a remarkable turnaround from a team that forced just 16 turnovers last season and finished tied for 27th in the league with a minus-13 turnover ratio. The Giants finished with 478 total yards to the Cowboys' 331, but forcing six turnovers will put any team in a position to win. The Cowboys are now 7-0 all-time against the Giants in season openers.
"I think six was a lot, but we've been thinking about it," said linebacker Sean Lee. "We've been working at it non-stop. We have a lot of room to improve defensively. We gave up a lot of yards, and we have to improve that, but I think we did a good job."