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Brooking injects passion into Cowboys defense

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Alex Marvez

Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com. He has covered the NFL for the past 18 seasons as a beat writer and is the former president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He also is a frequent host on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

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IRVING, Texas

With excited teammates bouncing around him, Dallas linebacker Keith Brooking ends every pre-game speech with the same fiery message toward the opposition.

“Hit them in the mouth, bloody their nose, throw them to the ground and step on their throat!” Brooking screams.

For the past three weeks, the Cowboys’ defense has done just that.

What was previously considered a very good unit is on the verge of becoming elite. While the Cowboys’ offense has long commanded the media spotlight, no team will enter the playoffs any hotter on the other side of the football.

Philadelphia learned that first-hand last Sunday. The Eagles enter Saturday night’s road playoff rematch smarting from the 24-0 shutout that Dallas posted to win the NFC East and keep Philadelphia from claiming a first-round bye.

Combined with a 17-0 blanking of Washington the previous week, the Cowboys have logged back-to-back shutouts for the first time in the franchise’s 50-year history. Not even the storied “Doomsday Defense” of the 1970s was ever that dominant in two straight contests. Overall, no NFL defense had consecutive shutouts since 2000.

Along with a 24-17 road upset of high-powered and previously unbeaten New Orleans in Week 15, the Cowboys are peaking late in the season rather than fading like Dallas squads from the past 13 seasons. The Cowboys ranked a modest 12th in total yards allowed during the regular season but were third in scoring defense and never surrendered more than 21 points to an opponent besides the New York Giants.

“We’re playing with a lot of confidence,” Brooking said Thursday at Cowboys headquarters. “We need to build off that.”

That won’t be a problem if the Cowboys keep following Brooking’s lead.

There are significant differences in the 2009 Dallas defense than the previous two seasons under head coach Wade Phillips. With 20 years of experience as an NFL defensive coordinator, Phillips is now calling the plays himself in a blitz-heavy 3-4 scheme. While standouts like outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and nose tackle Jay Ratliff continue playing at an all-pro level, some of the faces have changed from last season as well. The Cowboys have five new starters. Brooking is arguably the most important.

His impact goes beyond the 156 tackles, four sacks and eight defensed passes during the regular season. Brooking has become the conscience and vocal leader of a unit that needed someone to help fill that role besides fellow inside linebacker Bradie James.

“Keith couldn’t have done a better job,” Phillips said. “He’s been outstanding as far as his play is concerned, but his leadership also has taken over. That’s surprising because he’s coming from another team. But you could see week by week he was starting to step up. Everybody started looking to him.”

Released in the 2009 offseason after 11 celebrated seasons in Atlanta, Brooking didn’t need long to find a new home. Phillips was eager to sign the 34-year-old Brooking, stemming from their previous player-coach relationship with the Falcons in 2002 and 2003.

Brooking quickly won over his new teammates with hustle and attention to detail. Spencer said Brooking “will get in your face when he needs to if someone’s not in the right place. He makes people accountable.”

“He earned our respect,” Spencer said. “Throughout (offseason workouts), he didn’t say that much. He ran down the field like a rookie to finish a play. He did it the right way. He worked his way into being able to say things. You can’t help but listen to him.”

Around midseason, Dallas began using a line from Brooking – “It’s 80,000 of us against 11 of them” – on the massive Dallas Cowboys Stadium video scoreboard to help rally fans. Cowboys running back Tashard Choice then began encouraging his fellow Georgia Tech alumnus to bring that same pre-game intensity to Dallas players. So about an hour before kickoff, the Cowboys gather around Brooking for a speech delivered with the fire of a Pentecostal preacher.

Except for his graphic closing line about nose-bloodying and throat-stepping, Brooking doesn’t prepare his talks beforehand. The five-time Pro Bowl selection instead speaks on “pure emotion and trying to get everyone ready to roll.”

“Does it make that much of a difference? You get between the lines, that’s forgotten,” Brooking said. “It’s about executing, making plays and doing your job. But if guys call me up to do it … To be candid, I think part of it is that guys enjoy it. It’s fun. That’s what football is about. If it gets some guys jacked up and ready to roll, heck, I’ll sit there and do it for 3½ hours at the game.

“Whatever it takes, it doesn’t matter. There are no limits to what I’ll do to help us win.”

Brooking knows it will take more than bluster for a strong repeat performance against Philadelphia’s big-strike attack. But at least his words are guaranteed to get Dallas off to an emotional start.

“I usually stay on the outskirt of that, but when he gets going, there’s something about it,” Ratliff said. “It’s the best (pep talk) in the league right now.”

With all due respect to the stingy New York Jets, the same can be said of the Dallas defense.

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