By Schuyler Dixon
The Associated Press
IRVING, Texas — Plenty of players were around when Dallas safety Barry Church scooped up a loose football and ran 27 yards untouched to the end zone.
Ball-hawking defense was a scene that played out constantly during practice in the offseason and training camp for the Cowboys — pretty much ever since Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli showed up in January preaching turnovers. It’s a group effort.
Church’s play in the third quarter of the season opener against the New York Giants was followed by Brandon Carr’s clinching 49-yard interception late in the fourth of a 36-31 Dallas victory that included six New York turnovers.
Now the Cowboys have to work on stopping someone without a takeaway since Eli Manning kept the Giants close with 450 yards passing and four touchdowns. Dallas goes for its first 2-0 start since 2008 on Sunday at Kansas City.
“I think six was a lot, but we’ve been thinking about it,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “We’ve been working at it non-stop. We have a lot of room to improve defensively. We gave up a lot of yards. We have to improve that.”
It will be next to impossible to improve on turnovers. Or maybe not, given how much they are emphasized by Kiffin, the 73-year-old defensive coordinator, and sidekick Marinelli, who was defensive coordinator last year in Chicago when the Bears led the league with 44 takeaways.
Throughout offseason workouts in Texas and camp practices in California, Dallas defenders were swiping at the ball, or picking it up and running toward the end zone. They didn’t care whether the whistle had blown.
Most of the players around Church on Sunday night must have thought the whistle blew, because they stood around as the ball bounced away from Giants running back David Wilson just before he hit the ground.
Church never stopped moving. It was just like another practice.
“I’ve never been in a drill just to take the ball away,” said Church, who had his first career NFL touchdown. “Just take the ball away. Every play in practice we’re trying to take the ball away, so it helped us in the offseason and now it’s transferring over to the season.”
The Cowboys had three interceptions of Manning and forced two fumbles out of Wilson, who had just 19 yards on seven carries in what was supposed to be his first season as the starter. The Giants also muffed a punt when the ball hit Trumaine McBride while he was trying to block for the return.
But when the Giants held on to the ball, they moved it. Victor Cruz had three touchdowns and was one of three 100-yard receivers who helped New York erase most of a 17-point deficit. The Giants twice had chances to take the lead trailing 30-24 before Carr’s big play with 1:50 remaining.
“We’re up a couple of scores and you start to play a style of defense where you’re playing the game a little with the score relative to the clock,” coach Jason Garrett said. “They have weapons outside. They made a lot of plays.”
So did the Dallas defense, which also stuffed the New York running game. The Giants had 50 yards on 14 carries, a 3.6-yard average.
The Dallas defenders look like they will be a reflection of Kiffin, who speaks in a raspy whisper while keeping meetings with reporters brief and has a feisty side on the field.
Kiffin loved to raise his arms in an attempt to pump up the crowd during training camp, and would angrily throw down his hat when he saw things he didn’t like.
“He’s a great teacher, he’s great in the classroom, he’s great on the field,” Garrett said. “And he has such an infectious spirit, a great passion for the game that really permeates your whole team.”
That certainly showed up in the opener.
NOTES: X-rays showed no structural damage in Tony Romo’s ribs, and executive vice president Stephen Jones told the team’s flagship radio station that he will be ready to face the Chiefs on Sunday. Romo missed Dallas’ final offensive play of the first half but returned after halftime.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
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