Cowboys defense looking to make habit of takeaways

ARLINGTON, Texas — New Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, 73, has spent a lifetime believing that takeaways can be the result of habit, can be something within a team’s control, and can be momentum-grabbing in their contagiousness.

Contagious? Yes. And his players are catching it.

“It needs to be habit if this defense is going to be great,” middle linebacker Sean Lee said after Dallas’ 24-18 home win over the Bengals in Saturday’s dress-rehearsal preseason game featuring four Cowboys takeaways. “We need those turnovers. We practice it. ‘Get the ball out.’ That’s big for us.”

The Cowboys defense hasn’t allowed a first-half TD through the four games of the preseason while also recording nine takeaways in the exhibition season – and Kiffin’s group, learning a new 4-3 Tampa-2 scheme, has done that despite the absence of stalwarts like cornerback Mo Claiborne and defensive lineman Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff.

“It was different,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said, “being on the other side of those turnovers.”

The significance of the numbers is greatly negated, of course, because much of this isn’t “real football.” But for a Cowboys team that now has more than half as many takeaways in four preseason games as it had all of last year (16 in 16 games), it’s a start toward an effort to avoid being over-reliant on the passing talents of QB Tony Romo.

Romo had his moments here, to be sure. He was at his most sharp, retiring after a first half in which he was 13-of-18 for 137 yards, with TD passes to Miles Austin (four catches for 59 yards) and Dez Bryant (six catches for 54 yards).

“I thought we did some good things,” Romo said. “It was good to finally play a half and be able to execute into the second quarter.”

It was also good for Romo to benefit from a great deal of help, not only from Kiffin’s defense but also from his offensive skill-position mates – most notably the moment-in-the-doghouse running back DeMarco Murray.

Murray joined Romo in playing behind a makeshift offensive line that featured tackle Doug Free lining up at right guard, backup Jermey Parnell starting at right tackle and usual right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau starting on the left side. The line was part of Dallas committing zero turnovers – though Murray did fumble (Dallas recovered) … and was pulled from the game by coach Jason Garrett due to the error.

Murray responded brilliantly to the punishment, returning to the field in the third quarter with a mixed batch of starters and second-teamers. He rushed eight times for 45 yards on a Cowboys possession capped by his seven-yard catch-and-run for a score that featured spinning, dancing and bulling through five potential Bengals tacklers.

“We had a little in-house resolve about what we would do if we should turn the ball over,” Jerry Jones said. “I think (Murray) came back with resolve and I think he still had an attitude after he finished that third quarter. I think Jason was making a point.”

Points made on offense and takeaways made on defense? That’s a promising Cowboys combination.