Sports

Cowboys' defence slipping while team keeps on winning

Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) prepares to throw a pass under pressure from Dallas Cowboys' Tyrone Crawford (98) during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) prepares to throw a pass under pressure from Dallas Cowboys' Tyrone Crawford (98) during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

FRISCO, Texas — Cornerback Brandon Carr bristled at the suggestion that the Dallas defence had lost its mojo through four straight games without forcing a turnover, or 53 pass attempts by Washington's Kirk Cousins without a sack.

"Are you trying to take it from us?" Carr shot back. "I won't let you get it. It's cool. We got it. Don't worry about it. We'll be all right. Thanks for the concerns."

The nine-season veteran has a pretty strong argument behind him, as does second-year safety Byron Jones when he summarily dismisses any negative numbers. The Cowboys have won 10 straight games , the most in franchise history in the same regular season.

Dallas is a win away from topping the 10-game streak in 1971 that included the playoffs and the Cowboys' first Super Bowl title. With a win over Minnesota on Thursday night, Dallas (10-1) will match the longest streak of any kind for the club — an 11-game run that bridged the 1968-69 regular seasons.

So, forget the late, easy touchdown drive for Ben Roethlisberger that put Pittsburgh back in front and forced Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott to answer for the second time in the final two minutes to keep the winning streak alive.

And never mind on three straight second-half drives that ended in touchdown passes by Cousins, who threw for 449 yards on Thanksgiving.

"You can look at numbers and stats and all those things. But the objective of the game is to win the football game," Carr said. "I feel like we made crucial stops at those moments in the game when we needed to step up the most."

The Cowboys were improving weekly on defence and had reached the top 10 statistically going into the Pittsburgh game — a week after dominating Cleveland and its quarterback-challenged offence 35-10. But they've been sliding since then.

The takeaway drought comes a year after Dallas was the worst in the league in that category, then started this season by forcing at least one turnover in six of the first seven games. And now the Cowboys are coming off their first game without a sack.

Takeaways and sacks are treasures for defensive co-ordinator Rod Marinelli.

"Not good enough," Marinelli said of the pass rush. "We've got to keep working on it."

There's a common denominator in the four-game stretch without a takeaway: the absences of safety Barry Church (broken right arm) and cornerback Morris Claiborne (groin injury). Church is expected to return against the Vikings, and owner and general manager Jerry Jones said he believes Claiborne will be back before the end of the regular season.

"I feel like we were kind of beating ourselves on the big plays we let up," Church said. "It's very hard to drive on our defence 80 yards, just dinking and dunking all the way down there. If we can minimize those big plays that we've been giving up lately, we'll have a lot better stat show."

Jones shamelessly acknowledges that the Cowboys have invested more in their offence , and he likes to point out that drafting rookie NFL rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick was in part a move for the defence by giving Dallas more power to control the clock.

And the stats show the discrepancy. Tyrone Crawford is the sacks leader with just 3 1/2, and Church is the only player with more than one interception despite missing four games. He has two.

"I know what we've got," Jones said on his radio show Tuesday. "However, the way I look at it, and I know this is a positive way to look at it, is there's room for improvement that we've got on defence . Can we do it? Can we start getting some turnovers? I'd like to think that we can."

Marinelli prefers to let teams drive without giving up big plays, figuring it will work in Dallas' favour . The first half against Washington was a good example, when the Redskins drove all four times they had the ball but didn't get in the end zone and missed two field goals. Cousins had 216 yards passing at the half and six points to show for it.

"We did some good things the last few weeks on defence ," coach Jason Garrett said. "Having said that, too many explosive plays, too much yardage and cashing in on points late in the ballgame. Those are things we've done a better job of earlier on in the year, so we've got to make sure we get back to that."

The Cowboys haven't skipped a beat on the winning part, though.

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Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler