Cowboys Preview: There Will Be Points

Tuesday August 12th, 2014

With top linebacker Sean Lee (50) out with a torn ACL, it's dark days ahead for the Cowboys' defense. (Donald Miralle/Getty Images) With top linebacker Sean Lee (50) out with a torn ACL, it's dark days ahead for the Cowboys' defense. (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

DEFENSE

Don’t believe the Cover-2 defense is dead as a base NFL scheme? Even one of its fathers, the great Monte Kiffin, has moved on from it. In 2013, coordinating an NFL defense for the first time in four years, Kiffin recognized that his patented Cover-2 had been solved by offenses and was easily exploitable, especially by increasingly popular 3 x 1 sets. Its ultra-conservative nature makes it a third-and-long defense, a new age “prevent.”

So Kiffin opted to play a base Cover-3 which, like the Cover-2, is a zone, but with an important distinction: instead of two high safeties, there’s only one. This changes everyone’s zone responsibilities and creates an extra defender to apply either in underneath coverage or to the pass rush.

Of course, Kiffin’s Cowboys often seemed to be playing Cover-0. Not as in “all-out blitz,” but as in “nobody covers anyone.” Through 14 games, the 2013 Cowboys had already allowed the most yards in franchise history. The 415.3 yards per game they allowed was the worst in the league, and third-worst in league history.

It wasn’t the scheme’s fault so much as it was due to rampant injuries. The Cowboys had significant stretches without Sean Lee, DeMarcus Ware, Morris Claiborne, Anthony Spencer, Tyrone Crawford, J.J. Wilcox and Justin Durant. When they gave up five straight touchdown drives in a Week 15 home loss to Green Bay, they were already starting six backups and wound up playing three backups’ backups.

Still, Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett saw fit to demote Kiffin this offseason, moving him to assistant head coach/defense. Kiffin’s longtime friend and former understudy, Rod Marinelli, is the new coordinator. Marinelli is another Cover-2 acolyte moving into new schemes. He says the Cowboys will play more man-to-man, as that plays to the strength of what’s left of a defense that has since lost Ware (released), Jason Hatcher (free agency), Lee (ACL surgery), Spencer (still on PUP following October microfracture surgery) and Orlando Scandrick (four-game suspension).

With Orlando Scandrick (32) suspended for the first two games, Morris Claiborne will have to step up. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images) With Orlando Scandrick (32) suspended for the first four games, Morris Claiborne will have to step up. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

It’s alarming that the secondary can be considered this defense’s strength. Yes, Brandon Carr is a physical press corner with good size and adequate movement skills (though he was up-and-down as last season unfolded). Scandrick, one of the league’s premier slot corners, has recently blossomed into a fine every-down player with an ability to operate on the outside in base. But the seventh-year pro only got the opportunity outside because Morris Claiborne, the sixth overall pick in 2012, has not developed. Injuries have kept him out of games and a lot of in-season and offseason practices. Garrett says he must get stronger.

Claiborne’s struggles are miniscule compared to B.W. Webb’s, a fourth-round pick a year ago who might have a tough time even making the final cut. Webb was supplanted midway through last season by street free agent Sterling Moore, who remains on the roster.

Dallas’s iffy cornerbacking depth is matched by an underwhelming group of safeties. Free safety J.J. Wilcox offers size and speed, but as a second-year pro who played wide receiver until his senior year at FCS Georgia Southern, he needed to be eased in slower than he has been. His technique and awareness are unripe. Last season, after missing three games with a knee injury, Wilcox lost his starting job to undrafted rookie Jeff Heath, who stood out at times in run support but, despite decent range, could be attacked in coverage (including man-to-man). Heath figures to back up Wilcox, with fifth-year veteran Barry Church starting at strong safety.

Things have a chance to be really ugly again for Marinelli’s defense because he’ll have to support a so-so secondary with a so-so (at best) pass rush and bottom-feeding linebacking group.

Marinelli is not a big blitzer, but bringing extra pass-rushers may be his only means of pressuring the quarterback. His top two pass-rushers, Ware and Hatcher, are gone. Filling one spot is rookie defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, a second rounder dealing with a foot injury who didn’t always face elite competition at Boise State. There’s also ex-Bear Henry Melton, a former Pro Bowler who is coming off a serious knee injury and couldn’t find a contract better than the incentive-laden, option-based deal that Jones gave him. That’s a strong indication that other teams’ doctors (including Chicago’s, who are most familiar with Melton) weren’t comfortable with what they saw in the 27-year-old’s knee.

Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Report: Robert Klemko sees a defense in disarray

As for the rest of the defensive line… on the outside, George Selvie relies on tenacity. Tyrone Crawford was drafted as a 3-4 end and does not have a clear position in this 4-3; he’s also coming off a torn Achilles, which usually takes two years to fully recover from. Free agent pickup Jeremy Mincey is just a guy and a less explosive pass-rusher than Martez Wilson.

Working beside Melton inside, resoundingly average free agent pickup Terrell McClain has reportedly had an impressive offseason, which could be enough to supplant Nick Hayden, a fringe journeyman who plays hard but sometimes struggles to disengage from run blocks.

As for that bottom-feeding linebacking unit, with Lee, this defense’s most alert and dynamic player, out, the Mike backer duties fall to fourth-round rookie Anthony Hitchens, who admits he has a long way to go. If Hitchens isn’t ready, Justin Durant, a longtime outside zone backer, will get the nod, leaving a void on the strong side for Kyle Wilber to fill. Also in the mix: DeVonte Holloman, who was a liability in all phases as a sixth-round rookie last year. On the weak side, Marinelli has publicly reminded Bruce Carter that football is “a man’s game,” which is a way of putting the athletic but overly finesse 2011 second-rounder on notice. Because of poor awareness against the pass, last season Carter briefly lost playing time to Ernie Sims, a journeyman that this mixed scheme could really use now.

The whole reason the Cowboys switched from Rob Ryan’s voluminous man-based system to Kiffin and Marinelli’s zone system is they wanted to create more turnovers. When defenders aren’t reacting to one specific man but are instead dropping back into areas with less to process, they react quicker to the ball. In this sense the new zone scheme has worked out well, as the Cowboys, despite a paucity of playmakers, created 28 turnovers last season, 12 more than they had under Ryan.

Marinelli plans on using more man-to-man, but that will likely only be on the outside. Inside, he can stick with matchup zone concepts, mimicking the Seahawks-style scheme that’s so en vogue. This should allow for more turnover opportunities, and Marinelli should encourage his players to take those chances. After all, having coached for 41 years, he can see that his unit is not equipped to simply line up and stop opponents.

The plan for new play-caller Scott Linehan is to rein in Tony Romo. (Simon Bruty for Sports Illustrated) The plan for new play-caller Scott Linehan is to rein in Tony Romo. (Simon Bruty for Sports Illustrated)

OFFENSE

We tend to think of Tony Romo as young because, well, his play makes him look a little immature sometimes. Being a great improviser, Romo likes to go sandlot. But he can also incorrectly abandon play structures and get fooled into the same mistakes (like throwing into a Cover-2 trap, where a slot defender peels and goes underneath an outside receiver). This has been behind many of Romo’s infamous late-game turnovers.

The problem is, Romo is not young. He’s 34 and coming off back surgery. This is partly why so many speculated—albeit overzealously—that Jerry Jones would draft Johnny Manziel. Instead, Jones signed Brandon Weeden.

Romo’s proclivity to play out of structure contributes—at least indirectly, and often directly—to the Cowboys’ lack of offensive continuity under Garrett. To help make this offense less randomized, the Cowboys brought in Scott Linehan to call plays and basically run the show that titular offensive coordinator Bill Callahan thought he’d be running (awkwaaaaard).

Linehan spent five years in Detroit designing a passing game around a superstar wide receiver who always attracted double coverage. He has similar circumstances here with Dez Bryant. Something else he has that he didn’t in Detroit is an inside receiving target, tight end Jason Witten, who also draws double teams.

Tight end Jason Witten still demands plenty of attention from defenses. (Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated) Tight end Jason Witten still demands plenty of attention from defenses. (Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated)

The Bryant-Witten combo does wonders for everyone else’s route designs. Second-year receiver Terrance Williams has good physical tools (a similar style to Terry Glenn) and with more consistency should improve on his 736 yards from a year ago. Mighty mite Cole Beasley brings intelligence to the slot, while return maestro Dwayne Harris can offer big-play jolts. Behind Witten, tight ends Gavin Escobar and James Hanna are fluid enough to detach from the formation and win one-on-one battles. The two split time in the new base dual tight end system last season; this season, expect Escobar, a 2013 second-round pick, to garner most of the snaps. Though with fullback Tyler Clutts still on the roster, the Cowboys could sub some of their two-tight end looks for more traditional two-back groupings.

Besides passing game continuity, Linehan was also brought in to establish better balance from the ground game. DeMarco Murray has the talent to be a big-time back but hasn’t exhibited the durability. If he’s healthy, the Cowboys will have a downhill bull with limited lateral agility but just enough wiggle to create big plays. If Murray is not healthy, they’ll be dealing with placeholders like Lance Dunbar (coming off a knee injury) and Joseph Randle.

The bright side is that a mediocre backfield is less of a concern because of what could be the league’s top O-line. If Tyron Smith progresses as much in Year 4 as he just did in Year 3, he’ll be far and away the best left tackle in football. Smith brings sensational athleticism to the running game and, thanks to honed technique, strength to anchor one-on-one against elite edge-rushers.

Smith could find himself in more zone-blocking schemes because last year’s first-round pick, center Travis Frederick, is a tremendous reach-and-seal blocker. This year’s first-rounder, versatile right guard Zack Martin, is a converted tackle who has the feet to thrive while on the move. Some believe Martin will eventually become the right tackle. For now, Doug Free, who last season bounced back from a multi-year slump, holds that job. At left guard is Ronald Leary, who has a disconcerting lack of quickness.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Dan Bailey was successful on all but two of his 30 field goal attempts last season and went a remarkable 16 of 17 from beyond 40 yards. Chris Jones netted a very average 39.1 net yards per punt. In the return game, Dez Bryant can be electrifying on punts, though he’s not worth risking considering that Dwayne Harris also has juice.

BOTTOM LINE

This offense is talented, but that has been the case in the Cowboys’ three straight 8-8 seasons under Garrett. That unit will have to rise to top-three status (unlikely) if it’s to overcome a depleted defense.

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