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Cowboys can thank their defense for turnaround from last season

Dallas Cowboys' Justin Durant and George Selvie celebrate

Dallas Cowboys' Justin Durant and George Selvie celebrate an interception of a New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees pass as guard Jahri Evans walks past during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, in Arlington, Texas. Photo Credit: AP / Tim Sharp

ARLINGTON, Texas - You'd be hard-pressed to find many people who were bullish on the Cowboys at the start of this season, what with the team coming off a third straight 8-8 record and a defense that already was among the worst in the NFL before being besieged by free-agent defections and injuries.

Even Jerry Jones, the Cowboys' relentlessly positive owner who made his fortune taking plenty of gambles in business, seemed to acknowledge potential problems when he used the phrase "uphill battle" to describe his team's situation at the Cowboys' annual kickoff luncheon.

But here they are, 5-1 and atop the NFC East along with the Eagles. Riding a five-game winning streak, the longest of coach Jason Garrett's career, the Cowboys are the surprise team of the NFL this season. They can thank the defense for the dramatic turnaround.

While Tony Romo's offense has never been the issue -- outside of some late-season disappointments in clutch situations -- the defense was supposed to be this year's undoing. Or so it seemed.

Consider what the Cowboys faced coming into the season:

GONE:DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys' all-time sack leader, opted to sign with the Broncos rather than take a reduced deal with the Cowboys, who faced extraordinary salary-cap pressures.

GONE: Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who led the Cowboys with 11 sacks last season, bolted for Washington.

OUT: Linebacker Sean Lee is sidelined with a torn ACL.

STUCK: Former first-round cornerback Morris Claiborne showed no signs of getting any better.

It was enough to make any defensive coordinator squeamish, especially the guy being asked to take over from veteran play-caller Monte Kiffin. But new coordinator Rod Marinelli, for years one of the most well-respected defensive minds in the game, seemed unfazed. Despite the personnel losses and the woeful performance of last year's unit, he saw a bright future. All he asked of his players was maximum effort.

"You play the game as hard as you can play it, and play as well as you can," Marinelli said.

Marinelli also had the dubious distinction of being the only coach in NFL history to go 0-16 (2008 with the Lions), and the outlook with this year's Cowboys team didn't seem all that much better. No one was predicting a winless season, but only the most wide-eyed optimist would have predicted a division title.

Of course, there's no guarantee that the Cowboys' red-hot start will translate into the NFC East championship. But with Marinelli's unit overachieving in the early going, there's at least some hope. Even if the Cowboys don't have a lot of recognizable names on defense.

"I think what's important is what we do," Marinelli said. "Anything else, to me, is elevator music. I don't listen to anything. All I know is we've got to get better and improve. And that's what they're willing to do. Work."

Marinelli runs a traditional 4-3 defense, unlike the 3-4 alignment the team ran before Kiffin took over last year. The transition was a difficult one, with Dallas playing some of the worst defense in franchise history. The numbers were gruesome:

The Cowboys allowed 415.3 yards per game, worst in the league. They gave up 432 points; only six teams allowed more. Their 286.8 passing yards allowed ranked 29th.

Out with Kiffin and in with Marinelli, who has transformed his defense with a sound scheme and mistake-free performance from his players.

"I think effort and tackling," Marinelli said about why the improvement has come so quickly. "I think guys are really flying to the ball. I think we know what we're doing. We're not having a lot of breakdowns. If [there is] a breakdown, it might be a missed tackle or something like that. Just guys understand it's a team game, a team concept. And everybody's accountable. You set a standard and we're trying to live up to it."

The McClain project

Marinelli's best work has come with Rolando McClain, who once was one of the NFL's most promising prospects but whose career seemed at a dead end last year.

McClain, an Alabama All-American linebacker, was the eighth overall pick of the Raiders in 2010. He never lived up to his reputation and was released by Oakland after three seasons.

McClain also had problems off the field. On Dec. 1, 2011, he was arrested by Decatur, Alabama, police and charged with third-degree assault, menacing, reckless endangerment and discharging a firearm. He was found guilty on all counts, was ordered to pay $2,000 in fines and was sentenced to serve 180 days in jail.

The charges were dismissed in November 2012 after McClain and the victim reached a financial settlement.

After being released by the Raiders, McClain was signed by the Ravens, but he decided to retire and missed the 2013 season. But the Cowboys persuaded him to return to the NFL and traded a sixth-round 2015 pick for the 25-year-old.

He quickly has become one of the team's best players. McClain leads the team with 43 tackles and has two interceptions, and the Cowboys already are talking about making a long-term commitment to him. McClain is playing on a one-year contract.

"I think he just leads with his play," Marinelli said. "He's got rare ability. He is really a terrific leader in his own way. Guys seem to rally around a guy like that, physical presence. He hits. He runs. He likes to practice."

McClain won't take any individual credit, though.

"I'm just happy to be with the Dallas Cowboys," he told reporters Friday. "I'm happy with our success so far. I'm having fun with my teammates. Having a good time, jelling together and playing some good ball right now."

Jones is thrilled with McClain's emergence.

"It's been an unbelievable deal," the owner said in a radio interview this past week. "He's a young player to boot. He was a top 10 player, so it shouldn't be surprising. He just had a lot of challenges when he came out of school, on and off the field. I think he's gotten his hands around that. He feels comfortable in Dallas. He feels comfortable in this system. I really think that he's got a future here."

He certainly does if he continues to play like this and the Dallas defense performs as well as it did in the first six games. But neither he nor Marinelli will look too far ahead. As far as they're concerned, it's week-to-week. Asked if he's satisfied with how his defense has done so far, Marinelli replied: "Oh, no."

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