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The Dallas Cowboys haven’t been 4-0 since Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith roamed the backfield. They’ll have a good shot at getting there again on Sunday when they host a winless St. Louis Rams team missing arguably its best player.
Steven Jackson, the NFL leader in total yards from scrimmage last season, will miss Sunday’s game - and maybe more - with a partial tear of his left groin.
“He’s one of our best players, if not the best player,” Rams offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. “As we tell our players, anytime someone gets injured the rest of us have to pick up the slack. We’ll find a way to spread the ball around.”
Jackson’s absence could help Dallas to its first 4-0 start since 1995, when Aikman and Smith led the team to its third Super Bowl victory in four years. The Cowboys have made the playoffs each of the previous 13 times they’ve started a season with three straight wins.
Dallas improved to 3-0 with a 34-10 victory over Chicago on Sunday night. The Cowboys outgained the Bears 431-239, and forced four turnovers to win their fifth straight regular-season road game dating back to last season.
“I think this journey that we’re going on has been pretty fun, and I think it’s going to be really exciting for the rest of the year,” said quarterback Tony Romo, who was 22-for-35 for 329 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
The Cowboys rank second in the NFL with 1,261 total yards and have scored a league-best 116 points. They’re also tied for first with 18 plays of 20 yards or more.
“I think we’re a very explosive offense,” Romo said. “The funny thing is last year I think we were a good offense as well, but I was probably more of 67 completion percentage type guy, this year we’re going down the field in chunks. And you’re not probably going to have as high completion (percentage) but you’re probably going to score more points with the way we’re doing things.”
While the offense is getting most of the attention, the team’s defense has improved each week. The Cowboys gave up 35 points and 438 yards in the season opener against the New York Giants, 20 points and 334 yards against Miami in Week 2, and 10 points and 239 yards against Chicago.
Thanks in part to cornerback Anthony Henry, who leads the league with four interceptions, Dallas has forced a league-best 10 turnovers and leads the NFL with a plus-7 turnover differential.
“Everybody is very excited around here,” defensive captain Bradie James said. “The city is buzzing. Our confidence is definitely high. … We’re showing some flashes of what we can be. There’s still some things we have to work on, no doubt. But we know that we’re putting in the work and the foundation is getting set.”
Dallas’ improving defense will be a challenge for St. Louis, which is hoping to avoid its first 0-4 start since 2002. Even with their star running back playing each of the first three games, the Rams have managed only 32 points - fourth-fewest in the NFL - and 975 total yards - 25th in the league.
They were held to 245 yards in a 24-3 loss at Tampa Bay last Sunday.
“Missed opportunities again. I know it sounds like a broken record, the idea is not to miss them, and we’re working at it,” Rams coach Scott Linehan said. “We’re not seeing any dividends of our hard work yet.”
The Rams, who settled for three field-goal attempts last week, are last in the league in red-zone efficiency with only two touchdowns in eight chances.
“If you want to blame someone, blame me because as quarterback, it’s my job to get us in (the end zone) and I’m not doing it,” said Marc Bulger, who was 17-for-26 for 116 yards with three interceptions on Sunday.
St. Louis turns to rookie running back Brian Leonard to replace Jackson. Leonard, a second-round pick out of Rutgers, has run for 21 yards on four attempts and caught six passes for 41 yards in his three-game NFL career.
Leonard’s job will be even more of a challenge as the Rams have lost two starting offensive linemen for the rest of the season. Seven-time Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Pace and guard Mark Setterstrom are sidelined by a shoulder injury and a torn knee ligament, respectively.
“We’re sitting here with no wins in three games and we are playing the hottest team in the NFC, maybe all of football right now,” Linehan told the Rams’ official site. “If we keep our minds right, it will be the greatest win we’ve had since we’ve been here. That’s the only way you can be.”
Including the postseason, the Rams have won each of their last four games in Dallas, where they haven’t lost since a 29-17 defeat Oct. 18, 1981. They beat the Cowboys 20-10 at Texas Stadium in the teams’ last meeting Jan. 1, 2006.
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