- Associated Press - Friday, October 3, 2014

IRVING, Texas (AP) - The Dallas Cowboys have all kinds of answers for how the NFL’s worst defense a year ago has improved despite losing its best player to injury, dumping the franchise sacks leader and letting the most productive lineman go to a division rival.

There’s cornerback Brandon Carr’s theory of growing up: “You look different from 5 to 6 years old, right?” he said, laughing.

Or how about defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s idea that it’s so simple a 5-year-old could do it: “And then, we don’t change a lot.”

And finally, coach Jason Garrett’s take on players with something to prove: “I think everybody has a story, and oftentimes you tap into what their stories are.”

Add them all up, and you have a team that kept New Orleans out of the end zone for three quarters and built a 31-3 lead a year after giving up an NFL-record 40 first downs in an embarrassing blowout loss.

The Cowboys (3-1), who take a three-game winning streak into Sunday’s game against Houston (3-1), don’t stand out defensively in the rankings because they’re giving up plenty of yards - including a bunch to Drew Brees and the Saints in the second half of a 38-17 win.

But Dallas is among league leaders in takeaways with eight - a Marinelli staple - and in the top 10 in scoring defense, the other measure that matters the most to the man who took over the defense when Monte Kiffin was demoted after last season.

Marinelli and Kiffin came in together a year ago to switch the Cowboys back to a four-man front after nearly a decade in the 3-4.

“Once we get our package right in the offseason, I think you stay with it,” Marinelli said. “So the players aren’t learning something new every week. They’re trying to refine their skills. They’re trying to play faster.”

The Cowboys opened free agency in March by cutting defensive end DeMarcus Ware in a salary cap move, and their offseason began with a season-ending knee injury to linebacker Sean Lee in the first practice. Dallas decided not to give some of that Ware money to defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who led the team in sacks in 2013, and he signed with Washington.

Now the defensive front is a collection of bargains, while Rolando McClain has the potential to be a playmaking leader of the linebackers after the former top 10 pick flamed out early in Oakland and walked away from the game twice in Baltimore. The Cowboys traded for him before training camp.

“I felt a group of guys that are hungry,” McClain said of when he showed up at camp after missing the 2013 season. “I was hungry.”

With Bruce Carter out against the Texans because of a quadriceps strain, each starting linebacker has missed at least one game. The Cowboys have adjusted by mixing and matching in their front seven.

Dallas lost cornerback Morris Claiborne to a season-ending knee injury against the Saints. But there were already questions about whether the former top-10 pick could stay on the field ahead of undrafted fourth-year player Sterling Moore, who figures to have an expanded role against the Texans.

After consecutive seasons with injury-depleted units, the Cowboys have reached a point where they don’t seem to care who’s on the field. And they’re making plays they weren’t in those two years.

“We’re all students of the game and we’re trying to get this thing right,” Carr said. “The time is now. You can’t keep waiting.”

In other words, you have to grow up sometime.

NOTES: QB Tony Romo and DE Anthony Spencer kept with their weekly routines. Romo skipped another Wednesday practice after strong games the previous two times. Spencer, who played for the first time in more than a year against the Saints, skipped Friday’s practice, just as he has all season since coming off the physically unable to perform list.

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Online:

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler

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