Morning cup of Joe: break away from bend, don't break

On the morning of each Cowboys game, you'll get a chance to take a sip of Joe's gridiron insights with our 'Morning Cup of Joe.' He'll offer five story lines to follow when the Cowboys take the field, and his thoughts on what to expect.

Santa Clara -- The Cowboys get back to work after the bye week focused on keeping the 49ers winless, and this presents a great chance for that struggling Cowboys defense to begin to put things in order, so let's kick it off on that side of the ball.

1.The ball, the ball, the ball
The Cowboys defense is on a 3-game turnover drought, and they've given up 70 points in the last two games.
We'll get to a reason for some optimism in a moment, but let's talk mentality first, and safety Byron Jones is on the right track.

"I think the biggest thing is just turnovers; getting some takeaways and giving the ball to our offense more. That's the biggest key," Jones said when asked how to turn things around.

I tried to ask a question about the importance of improving their third-down defense, but he didn't even let me finish the question before saying, "take the ball away, just take the ball away,"

He's right. Here's the problem, though: saying it and doing are literally worlds apart, but I like the way Jones dismissed everything else and thought about nothing but the ball, the ball, the ball. Now let's see if it translates into a takeaway or two.

2.Break away from bend, don't break.
Sticking with that same thread, the Cowboys have a clear path to forcing turnovers. It's the perfect chance from defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli to break away from his bend, but don't break philosophy and crank up the pressure.

49ers rookie quarterback C.J. Bethard will be making his first NFL start. It's a perfect chance to bring pressure from all different directions, forcing the rookie to make quick, tough decisions. Then the Cowboys have to be ready to pounce when the rookie mistakes happen.

3.The field general is back
I'm not done with takeaways because they're so important. Linebacker Sean Lee's return after missing two games with hamstring issues is even more reason why the Cowboys should have plenty of pressure in the game plan.

Lee is the best communicator on the defense and he's the guy to get everyone lined up and in the right position when this defense may try things that it doesn't do as much. Take advantage of him being back, trust that he can have everyone in the right place and go get the rookie.

This will mark the first time Lee and fellow linebacker Anthony Hitchens will start a game together this season. That should translate into improved run defense, another reason why the Cowboys should have chances to dial up more pressure.

4.Dez and Dak need to connect
Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant was featured in the team's weekly release for having reached the 70 touchdown catch mark; that's second in Cowboys history behind only Bob Hayes.

It's also the second most touchdown catches since Bryant entered the league, trailing only New England tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Those numbers are great, but these aren't: 21 catches for 264 yards. I'm not saying this is all on Dez, because it's not.


The 49ers have a couple of fourth-round draft choices starting at their corners, so it's time for Bryant and Dak Prescott to show Dez is better than averaging 4.2 catches for 53 yards per game.

5.Feed off it
Zeke Elliott likes to give the 'feed me' sign that he's made so popular in the NFL. And he needs to feed off one of his best showing of the season so far. In the fourth quarter of the Cowboys loss to the Packers, Elliott finally began to look like the Zeke of 2016.

He admitted this week that the ups and downs associated with his legal issues are "tiring," and while his teammates would disagree, it sure seems as though some of that fatigue has spilled over into his play.

But against the Packers, he ran it 13 times for 85 yards in the final 15 minutes, ending the game with 116 yards, his best rushing output of the season. The 49ers rank near the middle of the pack in run defense, giving up 112 yards/game. Elliott must build off what happened against Green Bay because there's no telling how much longer he'll be able to play this season.

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