Cowboys’ new-look defense under Kiffin, Marinelli has great debut

All seniors eat free at local Denny’s on Monday morning.

Well, OK, it’s a free grand slam breakfast if you can convince management your name is Monte Kiffin or Rod Marinelli.

Hoping to revive what had been a collapsing defensive unit over the last few years, the Dallas Cowboys turned in the off-season to the gray brigade:

The 74-year old Kiffin and the 64-year old Marinelli once had some NFL glory days together, but it was a decade ago in Tampa.

Despite surviving an ample amount of Eli Manning moments on opening night of the 2013 season, the new-look defense ended up saving Sunday evening by coming up with five — count ’em, five — turnovers.

And the Cowboys got off to a winning beginning with a 36-31 victory over the New York Giants, a team that never loses at the Big Yard. Or at least hadn’t until committing six turnovers in all.

To put the Kiffin-Marinelli instant impact into perspective, the Cowboys’ defense had a meager 16 takeaways last season. Sixteen in 16 games, one of the worst ratios in the league.

From training camp, the Cowboys’ emphasis — “emphasis, emphasis, emphasis,” said coach Jason Garrett afterward — was go get the guy with the ball, strip the ball and pounce on the fumble.

Talk is easy in Oxnard. Talk is easy in meaningless exhibition games.

But this was live action. And this was about putting the talk into action.

The biggest turnover of the night, simply because of the timing, belonged to cornerback Brandon Carr, who picked off a deflected Manning pass at midfield and raced 49 yards for the clinching touchdown.

With a mere 1:50 left, the Cowboys’ lead was then 36-24.

Manning, who was airing it out on the defense in the second half, attempted a short pass to running back Da’Rel Scott. Eli wasn’t off target much in the second half, but the pass was behind Scott, although probably catchable.

The ball deflected off Scott’s hand right to Carr, who was off to the races, having to beat only Manning to the end zone.

Eli’s numbers for the night — 27 of 42 for 450 yards and four touchdowns — would suggest it was anything but a fine defensive performance.

But the negative number on Eli spelled doom for the Giants. He threw three picks.

There was also a huge strip and recovery twice on starting running back David Wilson, who fumbled at the Dallas 8-yard line early in the game on a hit by safety Barry Church.

And in the third quarter, Wilson fumbled again on a strip by tackle Nick Hayden, and here came Church again. He returned the fumble 27 yards for a touchdown, and at the time, a 20-10 lead.

The Cowboys would go up 27-10 in the second half, but Manning and his receivers blew through the defense for back-to-back 90- and 80-yard touchdown drives, meaning 85,000-plus in the Big Yard had anxious moments until the Carr pick.

The other turnover came on a muffed Giants punt, a touched ball that Dwayne Harris kept alive by prying it from a New York player, allowing rookie linebacker DeVonte Holloman to make the recovery deep in Giants territory.

That turnover led to a Cowboys TD on a Tony Romo-to-Jason Witten throw.

Harris, by the way, lost his spot in the receivers’ rotation to rookie Terrence Williams but was an absolute demon on the punt coverage team. Speaking of a vast improvement from a year ago, give credit to the Cowboys’ special teams, which had no major gaffes.

Also speaking of defense, a huge play in the game came on a tackle by DeMarco Murray, meaning the Kiffin-Marinelli combo can’t exactly take credit.

After Williams had a rookie mix-up on a route deep in NY territory, the Romo pick on the play was returned 91 yards by Giants safety Ryan Mundy. For a TD, however, Mundy needed 92 yards.

Murray ran down Mundy at the 1-yard line after it appeared to be a sure pick-six.

The Cowboys’ defense got a stuff on first down and then a sack by one of those defensive unknowns, end George Selvie. The Giants, starting at the 1, had to settle for a field goal.

Make it five turnovers created by the defense, plus an end-zone shutdown of the Giants from the 1-yard line.

Give up 500 yards of offense, yet it was still a great debut for the new-look defense.

Go figure as the Cowboys go 1-0 on the season.

And senior citizens can go to Denny’s, at least with a fake ID.

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