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Phillips: Why The Defense Still Has Plenty To Build On, Despite Two Glaring Stats

FRISCO, Texas – Rod Marinelli is well aware of the statistics.

The Cowboys have 20 sacks, ranked 25th in the NFL, and are on a season pace for 29, below last year's total of 31.

The Cowboys have 10 takeaways, ranked 27th in the NFL, and haven't forced a turnover since Oct. 30 against the Eagles five games ago.

And, following a 20-point fourth quarter and 449 passing yards from their Thanksgiving opponent, the Washington Redskins, questions now abound over a Cowboys defense that has dropped from 10th to 21st in the last three weeks.

"Everything that's kind of happened to us a little bit is teachable and correctable," the Cowboys' defensive coordinator said Monday.

Marinelli still believes in his group, and he still has good reason to, despite perhaps a little public panic this week even as the Cowboys enter December with everything in front of them at 10-1: best record in the NFL, first place in the NFC and a chance to clinch a playoff spot as early as this week.

Despite allowing 26 points against the Redskins and 30 against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 30, the Cowboys are still tied for sixth in scoring defense for the season (19.4). In between those two games, they held the Baltimore Ravens to 17 points on Nov. 20 – right around the defense's season average before the Redskins game.

They're also the only defense in the league that hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in a game all season, and their success against the run on Thanksgiving, coupled with a two-possession lead for parts of the second half, pushed the Redskins into pass-first mode (53 attempts by Kirk Cousins).

It certainly hasn't been perfect, but there is still plenty for the defense to build on with the Minnesota Vikings up next on Thursday night.

Washington entered Thanksgiving as arguably the most prolific passing offense in the league, with Cousins averaging 349 yards with an 8-to-1 touchdown-interception ratio over the Redskins' previous four games.

That fourth quarter at AT&T Stadium wasn't good – particularly DeSean Jackson beating rookie Anthony Brown down the sideline for a 67-yard touchdown. It's at least worth noting, though, that the defense went zone on the first of three Washington scoring drives, and it took the Redskins nearly eight minutes to drive 90 yards and trim the deficit to one score in an eventual 31-26 Cowboys victory.

Two of the defense's best strengths all season have been limiting big plays and keeping offenses out of the end zone. The Cowboys allowed too many long pass plays on Thanksgiving – the Redskins had seven over 20 yards and another 19-yard gain – but the first three quarters were pretty productive, and that's mostly what we've seen from the defense this year.

Washington's first five drives: two missed field goals, a punt, and two field goals on two red zone trips.

Marinelli will take that all day.

Now, are those season sack and takeaway totals enough? Of course not. It's a concern. But this has never been a defense with a proven veteran pass rush, particularly in the first four games without talented defensive end and last year's sack leader DeMarcus Lawrence.

They've tried a three-man rush in certain situations, using a fourth defender to drop into coverage. It's been successful, particularly at Lambeau Field against Aaron Rodgers in Week 6.

"I've told you before, if we're not getting there good enough with the four-man (rush) then you add a man to coverage and that's what we've kind of done," Marinelli said. "It's tough sledding when you're rushing three, we know that. That's where we're at and we're just going to have to keep working on that phase of the game for us."

The lack of takeaways bother Marinelli because turnover margin is one of the most influential stats toward winning or losing. The Cowboys rank third in the league with a plus-three margin because the offense rarely gives the ball away.

Dak Prescott and Co. have started drives in opposing territory only eight times this season. Eight. That speaks to its incredible efficiency this season, averaging 28.7 points per game. Imagine what it could do with a few more short fields.

All that said, the hallmarks of this defense have been great effort, rallying to the football, and sound tackling. The Cowboys uncharacteristically missed tackles on Thanksgiving, and that's a correctable issue, as Marinelli would say.

A healthier group would help, too. Although linebacker Justin Durant (hamstring), safety J.J. Wilcox (thigh) and cornerback Morris Claiborne (groin) have been ruled out for Thursday, starter Barry Church (forearm) has been pointing toward returning from a four-game absence this week.

In the meantime, the defense has been working to hold things together – even Marinelli doesn't use the popular 'bend-but-don't-break" description.

"I say we play aggressive, fast football," he said.

They've exceeded everyone's expectations for most of the season. They've run into two top offenses in the last three weeks.

A popular phrase Marinelli does use: "Poise and panic." Obviously, he preaches the former over the latter.

"We believe in what we're doing," he said. "I like poise and I like to go out and work on our execution and teach.

 "I'm always optimistic. I just believe whatever's happened in the past, lack of takeaways or lack of sacks, whatever's happened doesn't affect what's going to happen this week. That's a statistic that's behind us. So now you're just constantly looking forward how to get better at what we're trying to do."

The next opportunity is Thursday night in Minneapolis.

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