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Array of problems troubling Cowboys' defense

Wade Phillips' defenses in Buffalo were known for playing fast and loose.

Phillips put a high priority on players knowing their assignments, so he usually resisted making his scheme overly complicated. The Bills were a hit-you-in-the-mouth, take-no-prisoners outfit under Phillips' direction in the late 1990s.

Phillips needs to find a way to recreate that attitude -- and fast -- because his Cowboys defense looks like its cracking under the pressure of the circus atmosphere in Big D.

At the first sign of adversity in losses to Arizona and St. Louis, the Cowboys' defense has folded. It looks like a unit that is panicking. It looks like a unit with no heart. When a team is under intense pressure, there's more of a temptation for defensive players to start freelancing, trying to do it all themselves. That's what the Cowboys were doing in losing to St. Louis last week.

Dallas has some talent issues on defense, to be sure. Defensive end Marcus Spears has slipped back into his inconsistent mode. Outside linebacker Greg Ellis and middle linebacker Zach Thomas are looking old. The front seven misses outside rusher Anthony Spencer, who's nursing a sore hamstring. The secondary misses cornerback Terence Newman, who is out another couple weeks following surgery for a sports hernia. Rookie corner Mike Jenkins is playing like a rookie. Strong safety Roy Williams is overrated and now he's out for the year.

So the Cowboys' defense isn't in the class of the Giants or Bucs. But it should be better than it has been playing. Wade needs to settle the ship. He may not get much time to do it. Dallas sends aging Brad Johnson against Tampa's dominant defense today. Next week the Cowboys visit the Giants.

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D.J. on No. 88

Michael Irvin's high-voltage personality turns a lot of people off, and his off-the-field indiscretions as a player for Dallas are well-documented. But ask any of his former teammates about his work ethic and his influence as a leader on the field when he was a player, and all you get are raves. Former Cowboys fullback and Fox analyst Daryl Johnston said that Terrell Owens could stand to be more like No. 88.

"Terrell Owens needs to put a little bit more of a positive spin because he's an emotional guy," Johnston said. "Take that emotion and just tweak it a little bit. Don't be on a guy when he makes a mistake because the guy who made the mistake is the last person that needs to be told that he just made a mistake."

"Michael Irvin challenged us," Johnston said. "He never went to one person individually. He would pace up and down the sidelines and call all the guys out, including himself, and it was always a 'we.' 'We need to do this,' or, 'We're better than this,' and I don't know if this year's Cowboys have that."

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Peppers poppin'

Part of the reason Carolina ranks fifth on defense is defensive end Julius Peppers is rebounding from a dismal 2007, when he had only 2 1/2 sacks.

Peppers has four sacks in the last five games and 12 quarterback pressures. In the Panthers' beat down of New Orleans last week, the former No. 2 overall pick had a sack, a forced fumble, a pass deflection and a stop on a fourth-and-goal play.

"I can't get that game out of my mind as far as how he played," Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said this week as he prepared to face the Panthers. "He took over that game."

Peppers' subpar play last season was partly attributable to the fact a preseason illness hindered his strength.

Peppers would not use the illness as an excuse for his play the entire season, but said, "That's a fact -- I'm a lot stronger."

"I worked out hard in the offseason, like everybody in here did," Peppers said this week. "The result is you play better on the field. . . . That's what you're seeing; a whole bunch of hard work in the offseason is paying off."

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Porter busting

Reason No. 24 why it was good to lock up Lee Evans: The Jaguars' big bid to improve their receiving corps is looking like a flop. Jerry Porter, the former Raider who got $10 million in guaranteed money from the Jags in March, was supposed to give his new team a deep threat. He underwent hamstring surgery in July and sat out the first three games.

He returned to action three games ago but has seen only part-time duty and has only one catch. Porter has not appeared on the injury report, and there is speculation he has been spending time on the bench because of a bad attitude.

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Quotable

Colts General Manager Bill Polian drafted Kerry Collins way back in 1995 when he was GM in Carolina. Polian remains a big fan of the veteran quarterback. On his radio show this week, Polian said: "You can take two jet planes, two F-16s, rush them off the edge and it wouldn't bother Kerry Collins one iota."

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Haslett celebrates

From the You Gotta Love the Game department: Rams coach Jim Haslett enjoyed a huge upset of the Cowboys last week. When he got home later that evening, how did he celebrate the triumph? He sat in front of the TV and watched Tampa Bay versus Seattle.

"I watch all the games," Haslett said. "This is the only business in the world where you work all day and you can go home and watch at night and still enjoy it. A dentist doesn't do that. Think about it. Surgeons, they don't do that. They don't go home and watch somebody do operations."

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Onside kicks

*Bucs defensive guru Monte Kiffin is licking his chops. The quarterbacks the Bucs' defense faces in the coming weeks are: Dallas' Johnson, Kansas City's Quinn Gray (or whoever), Minnesota's Gus Frerotte and Detroit's Dan Orlovsky.

*The Giants (5-1) have faced only one winning team. Their next 10 games are against teams that currently are .500 or better.

*If Arizona loses at Carolina and Oakland loses at Baltimore, then West Coast teams will be 0-13 on trips to the East Coast this season.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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