Turnovers making a big difference for Cowboys

Published Dec. 10, 2010 3:49 a.m. EST

Jason Witten is a lot more careful about protecting the football these days, making sure both hands squeeze it just right to avoid a defender prying it loose.

His renewed emphasis isn't only in games. He does it in practice, too, because his Dallas teammates are coming after the ball more than ever.

Of all the changes interim coach Jason Garrett has brought, an emphasis on turnovers - getting them on defense, avoiding them on offense - stands out the most.

In eight games under Wade Phillips, the Cowboys lost the ball nine times more than they took it away. They went 1-7. In four games under Garrett, the Cowboys have taken the ball away six times more than they lost it and are 3-1.


Phillips emphasized these things, but apparently not as much or as well as Garrett and new defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni have.

It starts when the team practices in full pads on Wednesdays and continues all the way through walkthroughs. Defenders are always going after the ball, which means the offense has to work harder not to let them get it.

Each workout begins with drills to go over the basics of catching and holding the ball properly, then there's the challenge of defenders always going after the ball and the offensive guys trying to keep them from getting it.

The concept is pretty basic. But it becomes fun, too, a point of pride to see which side does better.

''There's no better way to work at it than every time you catch a ball you know a guy is coming to rip it out,'' Witten said.

Generations of football coaches at all levels have stressed these things. Everyone in this locker room has certainly heard it before.

But seeing is believing, and seeing the direct correlation - as Garrett likes to call it - has helped make ball-hawking the thing to do on this club.

''I don't want to say everyone wasn't paying attention before, but it's different now,'' linebacker Anthony Spencer said. ''We saw how we were losing games when we weren't getting the turnovers. Now we are getting turnovers and we're getting the Ws. So it's become more of a thought during the game.''

The most stark change is how consistently the defense is coming up with turnovers - at least two every game. They didn't have any in four of the eight games under Phillips.

There's been at least one interception all four games since Phillips left, and a fumble recovery in all but one.

''I think it's the mentality that Pasqualoni is bringing to the defense,'' cornerback Mike Jenkins said. ''He wants you to go for that ball. His mentality is `go get the ball.' ... In walkthrough, we may bat the ball and try to catch it with one hand. He wants us to put two hands on the ball now.''

The Cowboys beat Peyton Manning and the Colts last weekend largely because of turnovers. Dallas intercepted four passes; two were returned for touchdowns and another set up the game-winning field goal in overtime.

But Manning has been generous with giveaways in recent weeks. The Cowboys will have to work a lot harder to get the ball from Michael Vick and the Eagles on Sunday night. Vick has just two interceptions this season, a big reason Philadelphia is a league-leading plus-15 in turnover margin.

So maybe the Cowboys would be best off just trying to avoid turnovers on offense.

Jon Kitna certainly has, throwing only two interceptions since Garrett took over. Compare that to the 13 interceptions he and Tony Romo combined for under Phillips.

Garrett was calling plays under Phillips, so he doesn't get full credit for this change. However, since taking over, Garrett has emphasized running the ball more and that's definitely the best way to cut down on interceptions. The defense can't catch it if it's not thrown.

But a lot of those Phillips-era interceptions were on balls that bounced off a receiver and to a defender. Those kinds of things aren't happening any more.

''You have to practice catching the football,'' Garrett said. ''You can't catch enough balls. The best receivers I've ever been around in my career caught more passes than anybody else. They caught them before practice, during practice and after practice. There's a correlation. Some guys have natural hands, some guys have less natural hands. But practicing catching is going to help anybody.''

NOTES: CB Orlando Scandrick continues to do well in his recovery from a concussion and is expected to play Sunday. ... LBs Bradie James (knee) and Keith Brooking (foot) returned to practice after missing Wednesday, although Brooking was limited. ... Rookie LB Sean Lee, the NFC defensive player of the week for intercepting two passes last Sunday, was limited for a second straight day because of a shoulder injury. ... S Gerald Sensabaugh (thigh) and RB Marion Barber (calf) missed their second straight practice.