‘Fighting and scratching’: Cowboys hope takeaways keep coming vs. Eagles to keep NFC East hopes alive

Jori Epstein
USA TODAY

Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs laughs when asked.

Sure, he remembers his college teammate’s speed and mobility, his leadership and his friendship. They hung out “every day” as Alabama teammates for three years.

But when the Cowboys and Eagles kick off Sunday afternoon and Diggs lines up against now-Philadelphia starting quarterback Jalen Hurts, all bets are off. Forget the friendship.

“That’s always the main goal, to always create turnovers,” Diggs said Wednesday. “But with him especially, him being one of my good friends and all, it’s time to turn it on.”

A historically bad Cowboys defense continues to hold the league’s worst mark in rushing yards allowed (161.8 per game) and second worst in points (30.9). But Dallas, on its first two-game win streak of the season, has appeared to find a formula that works well enough to win. The same players who entered their Nov. 1 Philadelphia game with three takeaways in seven games now boast seven takeaways the last two weeks. The same Cowboys offense that turned the ball over 16 times in the first seven weeks of the season hasn’t lost the rock the last two.

It’s a small sample size, against a pair of teams with losing records in Cincinnati and San Francisco. But ahead of divisional matchups vs. the 4-8-1 Eagles and 5-9 Giants, it’s one the Cowboys hope to ride as they cling to NFC East title hopes a little longer.

“Keeping that intensity up on the defense,” Diggs said. “Just keep going for the ball, keep getting turnovers, keep making plays. I feel like we're headed in the right direction with that going into this game.

“We just got to keep it going."

Aldon Smith picks up a fumble against the 49ers.

Do takeaways come in bunches?

When Mike Nolan was hired as defensive coordinator in January, he realized this process might take time. Overall, the Cowboys’ defense was average to above-average each of the past five seasons. In 2018 and 2019, the group ranked top-11 in points and yards allowed. Since 2015, neither ranking has fallen below 17th, and only has it reached that mark once.

But the Cowboys’ takeaway count perennially ranked far lower than their ability to stop the ball. From 2015 to 2019, only the 49ers averaged fewer takeaways than the Cowboys’ 17.8 per season.

“When you’re in the dry spell, you feel like it will never come,” Nolan said Monday. “We’re just in the process of trying to become some things that we weren't in the past – one of them, to be a team that gets some turnovers. But you can't just talk about it. You have to work on it.

“And it doesn't just change overnight.”

The Cowboys’ first seven opponents this season would agree. Never in those games did the Cowboys force more than one turnover. In fewer than half the contests did they take it away at all. Compare that to the seven turnovers the team has forced the last two weeks, and the 11 it’s nabbed over the last five games. Is the notion that turnovers come in bunches valid?

“Takeaways come with play style,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “Playing aggressive, being assertive, running to every football and guys playing a certain way. I think we’ve improved as the year has gone on and you watch, not only some of the older guys, but some of these young guys step up and make plays. They’re doing it by playing fast, playing aggressive. And when you do that, that play style leads to big plays and then it leads to turnovers.”

Turnovers, of late, have led to Cowboys points. When fumble recoveries gifted the Cowboys offense fields of 22 and 24 yards in the first quarter vs. San Francisco, Dallas scored a touchdown each time within five plays. In total, Dallas cashed in 24 points off turnovers in the 41-33 win over San Francisco and 17 off three first-half fumbles in a 30-7 win over Cincinnati.

The combination of a functional offense with a playmaking defense reaps benefits. The Cowboys are 17-2 since 2014 when taking the ball away three or more times. One of those two losses: their Week 8 visit to Philadelphia this season. Diggs intercepted Carson Wentz twice in the contest, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and safety Donovan Wilson each forcing and recovering a Philadelphia fumble. But seventh-round rookie quarterback Ben DiNucci wasn’t ready to lead the Cowboys offense. A Dallas fumble, field goal, punt and missed field goal followed the defensive turnovers.

Takeaways will be tougher to come by this week after the Eagles benched Wentz in large part to cut down on them. In 13 starts, Wentz compiled a league-high 15 interceptions. He also fumbled 10 times, losing four. Hurts replaced him Dec. 6 at Green Bay and has since started an upset of New Orleans and 33-26 loss to Arizona. Hurts lost one fumble against New Orleans and didn't turn the ball over against Arizona. 

The Cowboys hope their recent energy and commitment to finishing plays will change that.

“You’ve seen a group that’s fought hard together, fought through tough times and were trying down in and down out to play the right way,” Lee said. “I think that’s coming through.”

‘No. 1 priority’

The Cowboys’ turnover differential still ranks eighth-worst in the league at minus-six. But they’ve begun to climb from the previously-league-worst numbers they posted midseason, including a minus-13 mark after Week 7.

McCarthy hopes that continuity with Andy Dalton at quarterback (Dallas shuffled through four passers in a five-game span) and a multi-game offensive line (more than a dozen combinations have cycled through with seven linemen spending time on injured reserve) has finally stabilized his team enough to avoid the turnovers that wrecked both offensive scoring opportunities and capitalize on any defensive momentum.

“If you look at every game in the NFL or really any league, how important it is to protect the football and take it away and obviously the points that come off of, that is a determining factor in the outcome,” McCarthy said. “I mean it’s part of the No. 1 priority, that’s ball security.

“You try to emphasize it as many different ways as you possibly can and the fact that you like to focus on ending every series in a kick, even if it’s a punt. That’s what you have to do in the league, especially in December football.”

The Cowboys don’t control their destiny and know that at 5-9, it’s unusual they’re still in contention. For the Cowboys to advance to the playoffs, they must beat both the Eagles and the Giants – and Washington must lose to Carolina and Philadelphia. Building on their recent formula for success will help position them to seize the moment.

“This is another opportunity and Philadelphia is obviously in the same boat as us,” McCarthy said. “Everybody’s fighting and scratching at this time of the year. We need to build off what we’ve accomplished the last two weeks.”