Dallas Cowboys

Lack of takeaways has Cowboys on pace for some poor defensive marks

The Dallas Cowboys defense had a goal-line stand against the Green Bay Packers last week, but they’ve struggled to create turnovers.
The Dallas Cowboys defense had a goal-line stand against the Green Bay Packers last week, but they’ve struggled to create turnovers. Star-Telegram

Defensive captain Barry Church just shakes his head. He doesn’t know the reason. Neither does coach Jason Garrett nor defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.

The Dallas Cowboys were the second-best team at forcing takeaways a year ago, but haven’t figured out a way to duplicate that success this season. It hasn’t been simply a modest slide to the middle of the pack for the Cowboys, either.

The Cowboys have fallen from one of the league’s best to the league’s worst. And not just the worst this year — the Cowboys are on pace to force the fewest takeaways in league history.

They have only eight takeaways through the first 13 games, putting them on track to break the record of 11 set by the 2013 Houston Texans and the 1982 Baltimore Colts (who played only nine games during the strike-shortened season).

“It’s tough,” said Church, who had two interceptions and two forced fumbles last season, but has none of either this season.

“We’re doing everything the same as last year. I feel like we’re hustling to the ball more, so I can’t put my finger on it. The ball just isn’t bouncing our way like it was last year.”

The Cowboys had 18 interceptions and recovered 13 opponents’ fumbles last season. This season, they have only six interceptions and have recovered only two fumbles, including one on special teams by punter Chris Jones. Yes, the punter has as many fumble recoveries as the entire defense.

If the Cowboys don’t get another fumble recovery, they will join the 2013 New York Jets in the NFL record book for that mark of futility with two.

“You know, it’s just … we’re stripping at it, it’s just not getting out, you know?” Marinelli said. “We had some opportunities and it is what it is, so we have to look forward to this week and keep after it and keep digging it out.”

It’s been a head-scratching development for the players and coaching staff. No cornerback has an interception, and they are well below the league average in recovering fumbles. Teams, on average, have recovered 46 percent of opponents’ fumbles, while the Cowboys have recovered only 25 percent (two of eight).

Maybe the Cowboys simply overachieved a year ago. Maybe teams were more reckless with the ball against a 12-4 team that led most of the time than they are against a 4-9 team that is usually behind.

Maybe it’s simply a case of the personnel not being as good at getting the ball. Linebacker Bruce Carter had a team-leading five interceptions last season, and left in free agency. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick had two interceptions, but had a season-ending injury in training camp.

Still, there shouldn’t be that drastic of a drop-off, should there?

“One of the most disappointing things for our team this year is our inability to take the ball away,” Garrett said. “It’s not because of lack of emphasis. It’s the thing we emphasize more than anything else. You just have to keep grinding away at it. There have been a number of times over the course of the season where the ball has been out. And for whatever reason it bounces back to their guy or it’s gone out of bounds or he was called down or whatever those things are that happened.

“So what we keep emphasizing and preaching is keep hitting the ball hard. The analogy is to a baseball player. If you keep hitting the ball hard and it’s right at somebody, if you keep hitting the ball hard, good things are going to happen. And we believe that.”

The lack of takeaways has overshadowed what has been a decent defensive season, at least statistically. The Cowboys rank in the top 10 in total defense, allowing an average of 334.8 yards a game. They have the fourth-best pass defense, giving up only 221.1 yards a game.

But they rank 16th in points allowed per game (23.5) and are last in takeaways. It’s not going to be easy to get on track Saturday against the Jets, either. New York has turned it over only once during its current three-game winning streak.

But the Cowboys understand they have to do it, and not just to avoid going in the record books for the wrong reasons. No team, after all, can expect to have reasonable success without winning the turnover battle.

“We’re not cutting the field in half with the takeaway for our offense and letting them have an easier chance scoring the ball,” Church said. “If we had takeaways to go with our defense this year, it would be a lot different story. We’d be winning more games.

“But that’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes.”

Drew Davison: 817-390-7760, @drewdavison

Jets at Cowboys

7:25 p.m. Saturday

NFL Network, KTVT/11

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram