The Dallas Cowboys couldn't appear to be more ready to kick off the 2013 NFL regular season. The NFC East has been won by four different teams the last four years, and the 'Boys are technically due. It's only Aug. 25, but through four preseason games, Dallas is clicking like a team on the verge of reclaiming the divisional throne in 2013.
While the Tony Romo-Dez Bryant connection continues to flourish and the offense looks very promising, the true bright spot of the 2013 preseason has been Monte Kiffin's new-look/old-school defense, which is making plays at a unfamiliar rate.
In their victory over the Cincinnati Bengals Saturday, the Cowboys had two more first-half takeaways. That's the same starting D that has yet to allow a touchdown this month and has turned the ball over three times in four quarters of work. The defense as a whole has nine takeaways in four preseason games, which is more than half of their entire 2012 total of 16.
“We have a good system in place," said cornerback Brandon Carr after Saturday's impressive effort, per Tim MacMahon of ESPN.com. "We have been working since OTAs trying to get the small details down and trying to get on the right page to get the chemistry down. At the end of the day, it comes down to the will to want to get the ball out. Do you want to take the ball away?”
Only three defenses took the ball away less often than Dallas last season, when Rob Ryan was running the show on D. The Cowboys' takeaway total dropped from 30 in 2010 to 25 in 2011 to 16 in 2012, putting them on pace to record about a handful of takeaways in 2013.
But Kiffin's Tampa-2 defense has seemingly lit a fire under a talented group. The timing could be perfect, because the personnel wasn't really there under Wade Phillips and the unit couldn't stay healthy during the brunt of the Ryan era. Now, the defense is relatively healthy and appears to be extremely hungry.
It makes even more sense when you consider Kiffin's track record. Between 2000 and 2008 in Tampa, Kiffin-coordinated Buccaneers defenses were ranked in the top 11 in takeaways seven times out of nine. Five of those years, they ranked in the top five in that category.
Only the Baltimore Ravens recorded more takeaways during that span.
Those Tampa teams averaged 32 takeaways per season, which is two per game. That usually puts you in the top five in any given season, and it should probably be the Cowboys' goal. That means doubling their total of 16 from last season, a pace they've been hitting easily thus far in the preseason.
Can they keep it up? They've been getting it done without star defensive tackle Jay Ratliff and 2012 first-round pick Morris Claiborne at corner, but both should be back soon. That's a sign that better things might still be ahead for this suddenly dangerous Dallas defense.