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Spagnola: Bearing Down On Keys To Success


FRISCO, Texas – Category, Dallas Cowboys, for $1,000.

Limit to no turnovers.

Grab takeaway, or 'ways preferably, for the first time in five games.

Clean special teams play.

Finish drives in end zone.

Play through any adversity or success.

Protect Dak.

Defend. Defend. Defend.

Repeat: Defend. Defend. Defend.

That's right, all week long, ever since that disheartening Thanksgiving Day loss to the Buffalo Bills, 26-15, felt like we've been in some NFL game of Jeopardy, the correct answer to these clues being provided is:

What will it take for the Cowboys to go into Soldier Field Thursday night in Chicago to defeat the Bears and push their record to 7-6 and their lead in the NFC East to 1.5 games, pending Sunday's outcome of the closely trailing 5-7 Philadelphia Eagles' game against the struggling 2-10 New York Giants?

Them right there are the keys to victory for the Cowboys, keys they have mostly ignored in losing three of their past four games, plummeting an erstwhile 5-3 team to a middling 6-6 with four games left to play.

And if they need some sort of reinforcement to this carefully thought out plan, then see Oct. 20, 2019: Cowboys 37, Eagles 10.

The Cowboys had a season-high four takeaways in that game. Only turned the ball over once, that late in the game when unnecessarily getting a tad greedy. But while losing three of the next five games have committed seven turnovers.

They were three-for-three on field goals in that impressive win, including a 63-yarder that Brett Maher going three-for-six in the past two games has faded from our memory.

The Cowboys scored on seven of their 11 possessions in that win, which included four touchdowns, twice as many as they have scored in losing these past two games.

When the Eagles narrowed the 14-0 lead to 14-7, the Cowboys responded by scoring 13 consecutive points.

While Dak Prescott was sacked three times, he was only hit on three other occasions, providing him enough time to complete 21-of 27 passes, a rare 77 percent completion percentage. Unlike this past loss to Buffalo, when Dak was sacked four times, hit another seven and completed just 65 percent of his passes.

And now to what must be considered the biggest of problems lately, uh, where is the defense? In the past four games, losing three of them, the Cowboys have given up 28 points, 27, 13 in the miserable weather conditions at New England and 26. That's 94 of their 236 points this season in just four games, or 40 percent. In the three games other than the 13-9 loss to New England, that's giving up an average of 27 points a game.

That won't cut it, and will minimize whatever other categories the Cowboys might improve on against the, and let's face it, equally 6-6 and offensively-challenged Bears Thursday night.

Now I get it, if you include a nickel defender, the Cowboys very likely will be down four defensive starters against the Bears: Leighton Vender Esch, Jeff Heath, Antwaun Woods and Anthony Brown. That hurts, as does the season-ending loss of versatile defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford, a great veteran voice on the field and in the locker room.

But you don't have to be an expert to recognize this Cowboys defense, other than three games – at New Orleans (12 points), Eagles (10 points) and Patriots (13 points, though seven thanks to a blocked punt recovered at the Cowboys' 12-yard line) – just hasn't played up to expectations in four of the six losses.

Maybe training camp was a mirage, practice after practice stifling what now is the NFL's No. 1 offense (total yards). While the defense has been in the top 10 the past 10 weeks (8th currently), this unit is just 16th against the run, giving up 106.4 yards a game, an Achilles heel leftover from last season. (See Rams 273 yards rushing in the NFC Divisional Playoff 30-22 loss.)

Of the 25 touchdowns yielded, 11, or 44 percent, have come in the past four games.

And takeaways? Forget about it. Only three teams have fewer than the Cowboys' 12 takeaways – Miami, Cincinnati, Atlanta – and their combined win total is seven. And no team in the NFL has fewer than the Cowboys' four interceptions, threatening the club record for fewest in a season with four games to play, the six recorded in 2016, but definitely a candidate for top-three fewest since seven and eight are next.

"Over on defense, it is frustrating not to be able to get turnovers there, they are vital," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said the other day on 105.3 The Fan. "You can't win if you can't certainly match up turnovers with the other teams, much less be further behind in the count. So you would like to see turnovers.

"We are a bend don't break group, which is really fine. Yet we've been gashed by some really big plays more than the bend-don't-break philosophy works for us."

Boy, Jerry's got that right. In the past four games the Cowboys have been hit for 16 Big Run Plays, considered 10-plus yards. Add to that 17 Big Pass Plays (considered 20-plus yards). That's way far too many biggie-sized plays, meaning a total off 33 of the 79 they've given up this entire season.

So here we have the Bears, the NFL's 29th-ranked offense, 28th in both run and pass. The Bears only average 17.6 points a game and have scored just 24 touchdowns so far. Heck, the Cowboys had scored 23 at the halfway point of the season.

But before heaving a big sigh of relief, just know the Bears, while winning their past two games, have averaged 21.5 points and totaled five touchdowns in those outings. Plus, quarterback Mitch Trubisky, with the 24th ranked passer rating, has put together two of his better passing days, throwing for 278 and 338 yards during the two-game winning streak over the Giants and Detroit.

Look, we know the Bears will, as their fight song goes, Bear Down defensively. That's what they do. They only give up 17 points a game, and only two teams – the Raiders (24) and Saints (36) – have scored more than the 22 points the Eagles did.

And it's going to be cold, probably with the wind coming off Lake Michigan, a low-20s feel-like. No precipitation, thank goodness for all, but with a grass turf – and I can vouch again for grass not growing well in December in Chicago – the atmosphere is not right for scoring beaucoup points.

This Cowboys defense must show up. No matter the temp or the weather, the defense should be able to play. Play well, and that gives the Cowboys a chance to win.

Passing game coordinator Kris Richard preached "discipline" all this week. Basically, do your job. Carry out your responsibility. Don't start free lancing.

"It's going to come through discipline, it's going to come through doing things right consistently," Richard says. "(Trubisky) is a great athlete, he's got a powerful arm, he's been known to utilize his legs. We have to keep him in the pocket, force him to beat us in the pocket and we have to be disciplined on the backend in coverage.

"There are really only two types of pain. It's the pain of discipline, doing things right consistently. You want to change discipline? It's choose the more difficult right than the easy wrong. Do not pick the easy way out."

Do not heed this advice, along with the aforementioned keys to victory, and then Jeopardy no longer applies to some game show.

But to this Cowboys season, as injeopardy.