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Spagnola: Knocking On Takeaway's Door


FRISCO, Texas – This really is strange. In fact, not very logical.

The Cowboys' defense is ranked fifth in total yards, giving up a respectable 306.3 a game.

That defense, even after allowing Detroit's Matthew Stafford to throw for 307 yards this past Sunday, is ranked sixth against the pass, giving up just 208.5 yards a game.

When it comes to points against, the Cowboys rank seventh at 77, with 19.25 a game after four games. By comparison, 15 teams already have given up at least 100 points, including Sunday night's opponent, the 1-3 Houston Texans at NRG Stadium, with 108, or 27 points a game.

The Cowboys are third sacking quarterbacks, racking up 14 after four games, two short of four a game, and are on pace right now for 56 over 16 games, which would be their most since registering 59 in 2008.

Hey, and think about this: The Cowboys actually won a game this past Sunday, 26-24, over the Detroit Lions without Pro Bowl linebacker Sean Lee on the field, a rarity over the previous three seasons.

And on top of that, after the game old-school defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli awarded linebacker Jaylon Smith the rare "heavy hitter" award, and for only the third time since he's been here handed his middle linebacker one of those old-school neck-roll braces he's been collecting over the years. When asked what he's going to do with it, Smith was so proud of joining Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox in this exclusive club that he said, "I'm taking it to the grave."

But when it comes to takeaways, a combination of fumble recoveries and interceptions, the Cowboys are dead last. That's right, 32nd. All they have is a measly two. TWO! For perspective, 19 teams have more than twice that amount.

Worse, when it comes to interceptions, the Cowboys have none. As in zero. Goose egg. If the English are scoring at home, love, and not the love you want to be associated with in this game. This ain't tennis.

Go figure.

Come on now. Miami already has nine interceptions. Chicago has eight. My gosh, Cleveland has seven, upping their takeaway total to a league-high 13. And to think, the defenses of the Dolphins and Browns are ranked 26 and 25, respectively.

What the heck gives here with the Cowboys. Just does not seem to compute.

"A little odd," Cowboys safety Jeff Heath agrees.

I'll say.

Plus, this sort of makes the lack of takeaways, especially interceptions, even worse. Opponents have totaled 42 possessions against the Cowboys' defense. They have scored on just 14 possessions, or 33 percent of the time.

But get this: On the very first defensive possession of the season, the Cowboys' DeMarcus Lawrence recovered a Christian McCaffrey fumble at their own 5-yard line to stall out that scoring drive. So, in the next 41 possessions, they have just one more takeaway, that a Taco Charlton recovered fumble against the Giants in Game 2.

Normally, when you are playing well defensively, takeaways are a byproduct. But not with these guys.

"It's not a coincidence," Marinelli admits, refusing to make excuses, "we're just not getting it done. I mean, we're going after 'em. The thing I told the guys, you got to believe in the unseen sometimes. We just got to keep working at it, keep working at it, and believe it's going to happen.

"I mean, they work at it."

That's what makes this oddity so frustrating. The Cowboys have held two of their four opponents to no more than 16 points, yet just split those two decisions. They have held the other two opponents to 24 points, split those two decisions, too. And three of the six touchdowns they have yielded in those two games have come on busted coverages in pass coverage.

Especially the last one that almost beat them, when playing what you would think a very protective Cover 3 defense with a 23-17 lead against Detroit late in the fourth quarter, allowing Golden Tate to get behind them for a 38-yard touchdown passes to take a 24-23 lead with 2:17 left.

Making this even more frustrating on a couple of balls Stafford threw was corner Chidobe Awuzie being in position to seemingly pick a pass or three. But Stafford sort of reinvented the term "dropping a dime" on the Cowboys, his perfectly thrown passes beating what you would consider Awuzie's perfectly executed coverage.

Plus, it's not as if the Cowboys have dropped a bunch of interception opportunities. Oh, they have grabbed one while going out of bounds. Heath had a chance at a diving pick that just alluded his grasp.

"You won't want to hear this, but they're just not coming our way," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says. "Really like the skill of our players to get takeaways . . . I think they're coming."

And it's not as if the Cowboys have failed to pressure opposing quarterbacks, exactly where the majority of takeaways are generated – in the pocket, by either strip-sacking the quarterback or hurrying them into bad reads leading to interceptions. In four games the Cowboys have recorded 42 quarterback hits to go with their previously mentioned 14 sacks.

They even own the NFL's four-game sack leader, Lawrence leading the pack with 5½ sacks, a 22-sack pace over 16 games.

They haven't been bad against the run, either, giving up 391 yards, so less than 100 yards a game. And in the two games they have given up more than 100 yards rushing – 147 to Carolina and 113 to Seattle, for a total for 260 yards – it has taken a total of 71 attempts to do so, limiting those two teams to an impressive 3.66 a carry.

But still, when it comes to takeaways, no dice.

"It's on their minds all the time, all the time," Marinelli said of being conscious of creating takeaways. "You can be frustrated, but just go get 'em, the job is to go get 'em.

"It's like knocking on the door selling insurance. If you get frustrated and you keep knocking, nobody is going to buy. But keep knocking with a positive approach and you're going to sell one."

Well, the Cowboys' defenders better keep knocking Sunday, especially against the Texans. They come into this game with the NFL's fifth-ranked offense, averaging 413.8 yards a game. Problem is, in their three consecutive losses to open the season – Patriots, Titans, Giants – they scored no more than 22 points in any of those games.

But in Game 4 against the Colts, the Texans hung 37 on the board, scoring the final three in overtime to win.

Plus, the quarterback, Deshaun Watson is a load, averaging 311.5 passing a game. But he has been intercepted four times. sacked 17 times and hit 43 times.

And as Heath emphasizes, "Interceptions start in the pocket, and we've done a good job up front of making quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket."

Yet quarterbacks have combined for as 105.9 QB rating against a Cowboys defense perceived to be playing well. The combination of Cam Newton, Eli Manning, Russell Wilson and Stafford have combined to average 234.7 yards passing a game. Not bad. You can live with that.

So why the QB rating so high?

Well, those guys have combined for five touchdown passes – three of the last four on those busted coverages – with NO interceptions, a heavily weighed factor when it comes to figuring QB ratings.

Hmmm, what to do, what to do?

"We can make it easier on ourselves with takeaways, so much easier," Marinelli says.

Absolutely, especially facing these hyped-up Texans yearning for those so-called in-state "bragging rights" over the Cowboys.

So, they had better start knocking on that proverbial door just a little bit harder with a smile on their faces Sunday night.