0

Cowboys' defense does things Wade's way

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

IRVING, Texas (AP) -- Early in his tenure with the Dallas Cowboys, Wade Phillips declared himself "Mr. Fix-It" for the defense. Two years later, his unit still had serious flaws.

So team owner Jerry Jones ratcheted up the pressure going into this season, the last of Phillips' contract. Jones made Phillips the defensive coordinator and they agreed to overhaul the lineup -- five new starters, dumping several notable players and plugging in younger guys already here and some old favorites signed as free agents.

The fact the Cowboys are playing a second-round playoff game against Minnesota on Sunday is the first hint things have worked out quite well.

Dig deeper and the facts are even more impressive.

Dallas hasn't allowed a 300-yard passer since the second week of the season and hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season. Over the last five games, the Cowboys have allowed a total of six touchdowns. Only two were in the first half, helping the offense get ahead and stay ahead; they haven't trailed in their last four games.

"We play our techniques well, we execute and we don't allow big plays," defensive end Igor Olshansky said. "I think that's a big part of it -- don't allow big plays and make them earn every inch."

Bottom line: It's fixed.

"I think we've just been consistent," Phillips said Wednesday. "It's just being solid in so many areas."

The defense also has managed to pull off the coaches' dream of getting better as the season goes along, and peaking at the right time. A lot of it goes back to those five new starters and how well they've blended with holdovers such as pass-rush specialist DeMarcus Ware, nimble nose tackle Jay Ratliff and inside linebacker Bradie James, the captain.

The learning curve was pretty small for the three veteran newcomers -- Olshansky, inside linebacker Keith Brooking and safety Gerald Sensabaugh.

Olshansky played for Phillips in San Diego, and Brooking played for Phillips in Atlanta. Dallas uses pretty much the same 3-4 scheme Phillips has used everywhere else, so Olshansky and Brooking only needed to get comfortable with the guys around them.

Sensabaugh had no Phillips ties, but in Jacksonville he played for secondary coach Dave Campo and special teams coach Joe DeCamillis. They were sure he'd be a good fit, and they were right.

Outside linebacker Anthony Spencer and cornerback Mike Jenkins are the other new starters. Both are former first-round picks who were limited in previous years. Both got a chance when malcontents were swept out of the locker room.

It took time for the young guys to blossom, but they certainly have.

Jenkins actually didn't seize the starting job until late September, getting it partly by default because his competition, Orlando Scandrick, struggled. Yet Jenkins has certainly claimed the role, leading the club with five interceptions in the regular season and another in last weekend's playoff game. He also had a team-best 23 passes defended in the regular season and four more in the playoffs.

"(Jenkins) is going to be a superstar in this league for a long time," Vikings quarterback Brett Favre said.

Spencer was the king of the near-miss the first few months, with an ugly zero on his stat line for sacks going into a Thanksgiving game against predecessor Greg Ellis and the Raiders. Spencer had two that day and has put up a total of seven the last seven games, including one in the playoffs.

"There's a lot of guys that have a lot of potential, but if they're not comfortable with the people that they're around, it's hard for them to fit in," Spencer said. "The group of guys we've got around here, they make it easy, they make it easy to fit in."

As each piece of the defensive puzzle snapped into place, the unit became tougher.

When they held San Diego to a season-low 20 points last month, the players began to realize what they were capable of. Although the Cowboys lost that game, the confidence carried over the following week for what proved to be the season's turning point -- a victory at unbeaten New Orleans in which Dallas held the Saints to a season-low 17 points.

Then the Cowboys closed the regular season with consecutive shutouts, a first in club history, and followed it by allowing only a broken-play touchdown the first three quarters of the playoff opener against Philadelphia.

"The guys have bought into this system and bought into each other and the belief in one another and the belief in the system and the belief in Wade," Brooking said. "We're a selfless defense, we're a selfless team. That's what I love about us more than anything."

With even the backups contributing, Jones recently called Phillips "the MVP of the defense," giving the head coach/defensive coordinator full credit for the transformation.

What Phillips really would like is a new contract. His deal is up after this year, but there's a team option for next season. Considering how things have gone, he may earn a longer extension.

"I'm really happy for him," Olshansky said. "We are playing at a high level and he is getting his due respect."