By applying pressure, Cowboys' D stopped bleeding
Put a little pressure on a quarterback and a defense can force an incompletion, a sack or an interception. Put a lot of pressure on a quarterback and all kinds of good things can happen. Just look at the Dallas Cowboys. After going without a sack the first 10 quarters of the season, the Cowboys have 14 in the last 14 quarters. Turnovers have spiked in that span and so have the wins - three in four games, including two in a row. And after months of stalled negotiations, Jerry Jones this week agreed to give the richest contract in team history to his best applier of pressure, DeMarcus Ware. "When you really break down the film and look at each week, we were hitting the quarterback a lot and causing a lot of havoc in the backfield, we just weren't getting any sacks," linebacker Keith Brooking said Wednesday. "It was like, 'Well, we're getting the pressure. The sacks will come as long as we keep doing what we're doing.' You're starting to see that coming to the surface now." The Cowboys led the NFL last season with 59 sacks, so the slow start was surprising. But it's not like they were putting up big sack totals the first six games of last season. They actually had only one more than they do right now. Ware had 20 sacks last season, so the bigger surprise - and cause for concern - was seeing him stuck at zero through four games. The theory was that offenses were loading up against him because they didn't have to worry about the other outside linebacker, Anthony Spencer, a first-time starter. But Ware picked up two sacks against Kansas City, then had two more last Sunday against Atlanta's Matt Ryan, who'd gone down only twice all season. He's only two behind last year's six-game tally, despite playing through a stress fracture in his left foot. "It just adds to his legend," defensive end Marcus Spears said. What makes Dallas so effective is that most sacks come from its base defense, not blitzes. It also helps to have them coming from all over - eight players so far, same as Minnesota, which leads the NFL with 24 sacks. Last season, 14 players contributed to the Cowboys' sack total. "We've got a real physical, real aggressive group," said coach Wade Phillips, who also is the defensive coordinator. "They're going to make plays, and they're starting to feel that." Yet another thing that's clicked is improved coverage. Mike Jenkins won an in-season battle with Orlando Scandrick at left cornerback and Gerald Sensabaugh has been a good fit at strong safety. He missed three games with a broken plate in his right wrist, but picked up where he left off when he played wearing a cast this past Sunday. The game-by-game numbers show how Dallas has steadily improved. The Cowboys didn't have any sacks or turnovers the first two games and gave up more than 400 yards both times. Doing it against Eli Manning and the Giants was one thing, but to also have done it against immobile, error-prone (and since-benched) Byron Leftwich and Tampa Bay indicated something was out of whack. Then Jay Ratliff broke through in Week 3, getting a sack on Jake Delhomme, and things started turning around. Rookie Victor Butler got two sacks in just a handful of plays. Jenkins got the first interception of the season in that game and Terence Newman got another that he returned for the victory-clinching touchdown. The Cowboys haven't allowed more than 337 yards since, and that was against unbeaten Denver. Kansas City got to 302 with the benefit of overtime, while the Panthers and Atlanta Falcons were each held in the 200s. So while the emergence of speedy receiver Miles Austin is the headline story around the Cowboys, the improved defense could be the bigger reason Dallas has crawled back near the top of the NFC. The Cowboys (4-2) are a half-game behind the Giants in the East, with only three teams in the conference having more wins. Dallas also has a good chance to keep the momentum going this weekend at home against Seattle (2-4). The Seahawks scored just three points and had a meager 128 yards against Arizona in their last game. They're coming off a bye, but they're also breaking in their fourth left tackle, five if you count Walter Jones, who was being counted on to protect the quarterback's blind side. He was put on injured reserve Wednesday. "We've still got some things to improve on," said Dallas linebacker Bradie James, a defensive captain. "We want to be more than just a pressure defense. We want to be a dominant defense. ... Holler back at me in about three games and we'll see where we are. We should be fine."