GREEN BAY, Wis. – In a mere 60 minutes, the Cowboys did their best to double their takeaway tally on the season.
They didn't quite get there. But the much-maligned unit entered Lambeau Field on Sunday with five total takeaways, and they left with nine. Against a two-time NFL MVP in Aaron Rodgers, that's certainly commendable.
"This year the ball is kind of bouncing our way. Last year we didn't get a lot of takeaways, and it kind of works together," said Barry Church. "The rush has improved from last year, and our coverage on the back end has improved from last year. We're forcing teams to give us the ball, and we're taking advantage of it."
In a few short sentences, Church summarized an entire season for this defense. By no means have the Cowboys developed into elite-level ball hawks, but they're in the right places and getting the right bounces.
Things started off that way, as not one, not two, but three different Cowboys had a shot to recover a Jordy Nelson fumble before Morris Claiborne eventually fell on it.
It went to another level later on, when Rodgers was stripped near the Cowboys' goal line by David Irving – who also managed to recover it.
"They were driving us pretty good, and you've got to drive the whole field – not just 98 yards," Irving said.
It was difficult to explain why the Cowboys couldn't get takeaways last year. They had opportunities all throughout their disappointing 4-12 season, but they nabbed just eight interceptions and three fumble recoveries.
That's right, Sunday's spirited effort against the Packers saw the Cowboys recover as many fumbles in one day as they did all of last season.
It's not any easier to understand when the takeaways start coming, but Church said it's all about taking advantage of opportunities.
"That's basically what it comes down to – you get about two or three chances to make a play, and you've just got to capitalize on it. So far this season we've been able to," he said.
Of course, it does help to get some assistance from the opposition. Church became the Cowboys' interceptions leader in the early third quarter when Rodgers threw a ball directly to him. The pick killed a Green Bay drive that had covered 30 yards and led to a Dallas field goal.
"I never saw him," Rodgers said. "Obviously, I threw it right in his chest. I never saw him."
By the time the Cowboys fell on their third fumble of the day – another strip of Rodgers, also recovered by Irving – the momentum had been permanently swung. That drive was nearing midfield, so it's entirely fair to say that all four Dallas takeaways ended potential scoring drives.
That helps explain how the Packers finished with just one touchdown and 16 total points, as Randall Cobb didn't find the end zone until the waning minutes of the fourth quarter – with the score sitting at 27-9.
Moreso than just better luck, Sean Lee also added that it comes down to effort and execution. Lee said when watching tape of the Dallas defense, he sees defenders playing fast and confidently – and that can pay dividends in the turnover game.
"We're playing defense the right way. We're playing the techniques the right way, we're playing with the right effort," he said. "And it's not just one group, it's the entire defense. And when you put it all together, that's when it shows up on the football field."
It's something the Cowboys couldn't put together in 2015, but they certainly appear to have it figured out to this point.