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Despite Late-Game Struggles, Defense Improved

IRVING, Texas - By Monday afternoon, the Cowboys defense still hadn't shaken its frustration over Sunday's gut-wrenching 13-10 loss to Seattle.

Despite holding the NFL's top-ranked offense to 208 total yards for 58 minutes, only the final 120 seconds, which included an 81-yard touchdown drive and a 50-yard field goal by Seahawks kicker Josh Brown, held any significance.

Those 120 seconds, coupled with a late-game collapse in Week 2 against Washington, have altered perceptions of the defense's performance through seven games. In reality, the Cowboys have quietly fielded one of the league's best defensive units this season.

And more important, the players don't seem to be satisfied.

"We just have to finish what we start," said third-year linebacker Bradie James, who is tied for the team lead in tackles (35). "You can't worry about the offensive side of the ball or the special teams side of the ball. If (the opponents) don't score, they don't win."

Head coach Bill Parcells' top off-season priority was to patch up last year's leaky defense, which finished 16th in total yards (330.3) and gave up an astounding 25.3 points per game.

The club acquired proven veterans like cornerback Anthony Henry and nose tackle Jason Ferguson, and dedicated six draft picks to defense in preparation for its switch to the 3-4 scheme. Three of those picks - defensive ends Marcus Spears and Chris Canty and linebacker DeMarcus Ware - already have prominent roles.

And this season, the numbers speak for themselves:

  • The Cowboys currently rank seventh in total defense, allowing 292.6 yards per game, and are giving up 17.7 points per game, good for 11th in the league.
  • Opponents have a 30.3-percent conversion rate on third down, as opposed to last year's 39.1 percent. In the last four games, the Cowboys have dropped that figure to 15.6 percent.
  • The Cowboys already have tallied 21 sacks and are on pace to finish with 48, which would be their best non-strike season total since 1986. Much of the credit can be given to Ware, who leads the team and all NFL rookies with four sacks. Last year, the Cowboys finished with 33 sacks.
  • The Cowboys already have 14 takeaways and are just eight shy of reaching last year's total of 22. Perhaps the biggest improvement has been their turnover ratio, which has skyrocketed from minus-15 last season to plus-2 through seven games.

The competition hasn't been a cakewalk, either. The Cowboys' last three opponents -Philadelphia, New York and Seattle - owned the top-ranked offense in either yards gained or points scored leading up to the game. But none of them gained more than 289 total yards or scored more than 13 points. And the Dallas run defense has allowed just 91.7 yards per game against the likes of LaDainian Tomlinson, Clinton Portis, Brian Westbrook, Tiki Barber and Shaun Alexander.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

"That's something else, isn't it?" cornerback Aaron Glenn said when asked about the Cowboys' streak of facing offensively-gifted opponents. "We've got another one coming in that's pretty good, too. That's the NFL. We've got to scratch and claw and fight every time we go out."

The defense will be tested again Sunday at Texas Stadium against an Arizona Cardinals offense which is ranked fourth in the league with 273.3 passing yards per game. Cardinals quarterback Josh McCown has thrown for almost 400 yards (385, 398) in two of the last three games.

But after seven games, the Cowboys' biggest problem on defense has been closing out a dominant performance in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Come-from-behind victories by Washington and Seattle serve as proof. So does the Giants sending the game into overtime.

"We can't allow this to be something that destroys the next two, three, four games for us," nose tackle La'Roi Glover said. "You've got to rebound from it. Good teams can rebound from a loss and come back the next week and play extremely well. That's what we plan on doing."

A 12th-year veteran, Glenn expects the defense to carry its momentum into Sunday's game and through next week's bye.

"I wish we didn't have the bye week coming because I think as a defense that we're playing well," he said. "We've got to go out there and have another good performance against another good offense."

Because this past Sunday's loss still doesn't sit well with this revitalized group.

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