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Cowboys' Kiffin rejuvenates the D in Dallas

The SportsXchange

IRVING, Texas -- So far so good.

That's the interim report on the Dallas Cowboys' move from Rob Ryan's 3-4 defense from the past few years to that of new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's 4-3 setup.

Well, at 73 years old, it may be a bit of a stretch to call Kiffin new. This is his 16th year as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, the previous 15 with Minnesota (1), New Orleans (1) and Tampa Bay (13).

And that's not counting college, where he filled that same position another 10 years, split among Nebraska, Arkansas, Tennessee and, finally, USC, where he worked with his son, Lane, the past three years.

So there is little that is new to Kiffin, who was a key factor in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers winning Super Bowl XXXVII with an epic defensive performance against the Oakland Raiders.

In Dallas, he inherited a defense that gave up the most yards in team history last season using Ryan's 3-4 scheme. There was some concern that the Cowboys didn't have the personnel to switch to Kiffin's 4-3. The most oft-mentioned concern was that this means star pass rusher DeMarcus Ware would move from outside linebacker, where he compiled 111 sacks in his first eight years, to defensive end.

To Kiffin, and his defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, it is just a matter of semantics. Marinelli calls his linemen "rushmen" anyway. That is what the sign says about the unit's room.

Whatever Kiffin and Marinelli have done, and by whatever name, it seems to be working.

The Cowboys have allowed only two touchdowns in the red zone this preseason although opponents have been inside the 20-yard line 13 times.

Most important, the first-team defense has allowed no touchdowns. Nada.

And perhaps more important, after managing only 16 takeaways in 16 games last season, the Cowboys have forced nine turnovers in their four preseason games. And all this despite playing without three starters -- cornerback Morris Claiborne, defensive end Anthony Spencer and defensive tackle Jay Ratliff.

Ware, that key starter who made the switch to, ah, rushman, suddenly feels rejuvenated at 31 years old as he eyes the franchise (unofficial) record of 114 sacks set by Harvey Martin. Although he needs only three to tie and four to break that mark, one player who knows both Ware and Kiffin thinks that number will be much higher in 2013.

Former defensive lineman Warren Sapp, who spent much of his career in Tampa Bay under Kiffin, told Ware before training camp began that he expects the Cowboys' key rushman to get 25 sacks this season.

Ware thought that was a nice thing to say at the time, but more recently sounded as if he may be more of a believer now. He definitely sounds like he has totally bought into the idea of moving from a standup linebacker to a hand-in-the dirt (or artificial surface) rushman.

"You ask the fastest man in the world: Can you run faster out of a two-point stance or a three-point stance?" Ware said. "He comes out of the block in a three-point stance."

So the new Dallas defense does sound like it is ready for action when the 2013 season sounds its starting gun.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.
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