Stealing the Headlines

Terrell Owens and Tony Romo are getting all the headlines. And deservedly so.

But when the story is told about how great the Cowboys season has been, the defense should not be left out.

Much was said about the Cowboys being a one-dimensional team after giving up 35 points in the season opener.

Even more was said when the Cowboys were routed by the Patriots.

But the defense has quietly gotten better, healthier and more comfortable in Wade Phillips' new scheme as the season has gone on. And now they are adding reinforcements with the presence of suspended defensive tackle Tank Johnson.

The Cowboys are seventh in the league in total defense, second in the NFC.

"I think we have improved quite a bit," Phillips said.

Phillips is not into excuses but there were reasons for the Cowboys' early struggles.

They opened the season without their second-best pass rusher in linebacker Greg Ellis and with their best cover cornerback, Terence Newman, on the sideline.

Then in the season opener, they lost nose tackle Jason Ferguson to a season-ending triceps injury.

And then when Newman came back after the second game, they lost cornerback Anthony Henry for three games with a high-ankle sprain.

Add in the normal growing pains that come with learning a new defense.

But over time the Cowboys got better and healthier and more comfortable.

They are now the attacking defense that Phillips promised with Ellis returning to the lineup to join linebacker DeMarcus Ware on the pass rush. Ellis has had a sack in every game since returning, giving him 6.5 in five games. Newman has gotten healthier and Henry is back to playing in nickel situations.

"I think we're starting to get things going," linebacker Bradie James said. "We're playing much better right now and we've got all our guys back."

They also have fresh blood.

Jay Ratliff has done a wonderful job stepping in at nose tackle in place of Ferguson.

But he is a converted defensive end and the bruising play inside was bound to wear on him. Johnson, who was suspended for the first eight games of the season for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy, has showed up in the nick of time.

He was rusty in his first game back last week against the Giants. But he still made his presence felt with a sack and three tackles.

The Cowboys believe he will only get better as the season goes along, giving them a fresh and formidable rotation for the stretch run.

"I think he's going to help us inside because he can give us a push inside on the pass rush," Phillips said of Johnson. "The quarterback can't step up. If they can't step up, then you've got guys coming off the edge and we've got some guys who can get there. So we'll have to see, but I thought he did a good job on the rush this last game. That encouraged me."

SERIES HISTORY: 95th meeting. Dallas leads the series, 55-37-2. The Cowboys have faced only the Eagles (96 times) more than they have faced the Redskins. The Cowboys have won five of the last eight games in the series and 15 of the last 19.

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