In the defensive meeting rooms, the Dallas Cowboys found themselves talking about one thing more than any other.
If you guessed the six turnovers, you’re wrong.
“This week, we heard more about the big plays that we gave up, because those plays are the plays that get you beat in certain games,” defensive end DeMarcus Ware said. “So we have to go back and say, ‘How do we stop those big plays that we had and eliminate those big plays?’”
It is the question the Cowboys have pondered all week.
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They have had the pleasant duty of talking about the three interceptions, two fumble recoveries and one muffed punt recovery they collected in the season-opening victory against the New York Giants.
But it has been immediately followed by questions about the six pass plays of 20-plus yards they gave up, including a 70-yard touchdown by Victor Cruz, a 57-yard catch by Hakeem Nicks and a 26-yard catch by Rueben Randle — plays fueled by the 450 yards passing of quarterback Eli Manning.
“That’s over. We need to go out, and we can’t have any more busted coverages and no more explosive plays,” cornerback Orlando Scandrick said. “We’re lucky that those explosive plays didn’t come back to haunt us.”
The flood of yards from the Giants left the Cowboys with the 30th-ranked defense in the NFL. The Cowboys were the only team ranked 25th or worse in defense last week to win. But then, the Cowboys also had the most turnovers of any defense in the NFL last week.
Can’t be a coincidence.
“At the end of the day, this game is wins and losses,” secondary coach Jerome Henderson said. “If we would have completely shut down their offense — their receivers, their quarterback — and lost, what does it matter? At the end of the day, we took the ball away. We won.
“Do we have to play better? Absolutely. Will I lose my mind if we give up that kind of yardage? Absolutely.”
Henderson could laugh about it a little, even after his cornerbacks and safeties found themselves scrambling to cover all night against the Giants. The Cowboys’ Tampa 2 cover scheme will give up some yards. But the big plays irked everyone.
“They were in a passing mode. They were trying to come back. And sometimes you give up yards in those kinds of situations,” coach Jason Garrett said. “But there’s no question we have to play better pass defense and not let some of those big plays be made. …
“We just have to do a better job of that and force teams to drive the football a little bit better and certainly tackle when they catch it. There was too much yards after the catch, as well.”
Linebacker Bruce Carter said play action from Manning and pulling action from the offensive line got the Cowboys linebackers too close to the line of scrimmage, leaving too much area behind them for the secondary to cover.
“We tried to disguise stuff we were running. I thought he still did a great job,” Carter said of Manning. “Couple of times, we got sucked up on play action, and they threw the ball right over our heads. We just need to cover better and make sure guys are where they need to be.”
Cornerback Morris Claiborne said: “Some of the things they were doing, like slants, we can improve upon that by getting our droppers in. As corners, squeeze them a little bit more and squeeze them a little bit tighter. As you know, some things, in the type of defense that we play, some things we’re weak at. We just have to do a better job of getting our droppers in and squeezing.”
Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said improvement should come with time and experience in the system.
“We had the turnovers and all this and that, but we’ve got to play better on defense, too,” Kiffin said. “We didn’t play as well as we should’ve. We won the game and we hung on, but we needed to play better. I think just being in the system and getting to learn what the other guy is doing and understanding the scheme and things like that — we’ve just got to keep getting better.”
This week, the Cowboys face what appears to be a less explosive offense in the Kansas City Chiefs. They are led by a careful quarterback, Alex Smith, with a veteran running back, Jamaal Charles.
But the Cowboys remain wary of being bitten by the big play.
“If you can’t stop a team from getting explosive plays, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing or who your opponent is,” Scandrick said. “It starts with us. Explosive plays is a blueprint of being a bad and losing team. Especially defensively.”