The Cowboys have been the season’s biggest surprise, and much of it is due to the outstanding play of a unit devoid of big names and expectations entering 2014. Plus, the Week 7 player to watch and 10 things to keep an eye on Sunday
KANSAS CITY — The Cowboys are starting to earn a bit of a fan club among the rest of the league. When I talk to football people who haven’t studied the 5-1 Dallas start, they either say something like, “What is up in Dallas with that defense? How is it happening?" Or, “I can’t believe Dallas is doing this with that cast of characters. They’re just a bunch of average guys on defense."
But the tape doesn’t lie. The tape loves this defense. And the Giants, who go into Texas on Sunday trying to break the Cowboys’ longest winning streak (five games) since 2007, have certainly noticed that if they don’t play fast on offense, they’ll have no chance to match the Dallas speed and pursuit that has been the hallmark of the 2014 team.
"I appreciate what obviously was so methodical work by their personnel staff," Kansas City GM John Dorsey said this week in his video-watching lair inside the Chiefs practice facility, whipping through some Dallas video from their win over Seattle on Sunday. “People don’t understand what they had to do when they switched from [Rob] Ryan to Rod Marinelli as defensive coordinator. You have to fit a whole set of new pieces together to reflect the new defense they’re playing. They had to figure out the position-specific needs, then go out and find the right players. From what I am seeing here, they’ve done a very good job of that."
I went back to the Dallas starting lineup in October 2012. That was near the end of the Ryan regime. Only one starter—cornerback Brandon Carr—is the same today as two years ago. That’s not altogether fair, because then-and-now starting linebacker Bruce Carter was out Sunday with a quad injury. But you get the point. Dallas has changed for the better, by beating the bushes (street free-agency and a minor trade for Rolando McClain) for seven of the 13 key defensive players who combined to beat the big, bad Seahawks last Sunday. And last year, as Marinelli tried to fit the pieces of the D together overnight, it was clear that the Cowboys couldn’t do such major surgery and play proficiently right away. Not so this year. We’ll get to that in a second, but look at the re-made D, and be honest: How many of these guys do you know well? How many do you know period?
The 13 key defensive players in the 30-23 win over Seattle (UFA—unrestricted free agent; UDFA—undrafted free agent):
|Pos.||Player||Age||Previous NFL teams||How acquired|
|DE||George Selvie||27||4||UFA, 2013|
|DT||Nick Hayden||28||2||UFA, 2013|
|DE||Tyrone Crawford||24||0||Third-round pick, 2012|
|DE||Jeremy Mincey||30||4||UFA, 2014|
|MLB||Rolando McClain||25||2||Trade (Balt.), 2014|
|OLB||Justin Durant||29||2||UFA, 2013|
|Nickel||Sterling Moore||24||2||UFA, 2013|
|CB||Brandon Carr||28||1||UFA, 2012|
|CB||Orlando Scandrick||27||0||Fifth-round pick, 2008|
|SS||Barry Church||26||0||UDFA, 2010|
|FS||J.J. Wilcox||25||0||Third-round pick, 2013|
|Sub-DL||Henry Melton||28||1||UFA, 2014|
|Sub-DE||Anthony Spencer||30||0||First-round pick, 2007|
"We may not be the big household names," said linebacker Justin Durant, who meandered from Jacksonville to Detroit before finding a home in Dallas last year as a sideline-to-sideline linebacker. “But we play hard, I can tell you that. We fly to the ball. Every single guy on this defense embodies the tough, smart and fast guy that coach Marinelli wants in his players. They did a great job finding players who all play this way."
Re-watching the Seattle game this week, two things stood out. The Cowboys absolutely smothered Percy Harvin. “The message before the game was, ‘Everybody rally to him,'" said Durant. And did they. Harvin’s runs: minus-one, zero and zero. Harvin’s receptions: minus-one, minus-four, five. Six touches from scrimmage for a net loss of one yards. Who does that to Percy Harvin?
The second thing: The versatility of the players really stands out. Take Durant. On consecutive plays early in the game, he showed why Marinelli says he’s the best-kept secret in the NFL. Play one: Durant evaded a matador block by Seattle tight end Luke Willson, and then, with Harvin flying around on a Jet Sweep, collared Harvin before he could turn the corner, with help from safety Barry Church. No gain. Play two: Durant dropped into coverage on the fleet Doug Baldwin, staying with him stride for stride, with Church coming for support once Baldwin hit the end zone and Russell Wilson threw for him. Durant dove to try to knock it away and missed by a couple of feet; but as the ball got to Baldwin’s hands, here came Church to knock it away. That’s tremendous deep help.
There are other strong aspects of the defense that surface when you watch plays over and again, but one that is sure to serve Dallas well is its great screen anticipation. Twice against Seattle, reclamation project Rolando McClain destroyed a Seattle screen. Once, McClain switched directions in a split-second by diagnosing what was coming even before the blockers formed the wall for Marshawn Lynch.
One of the things that’s always been true about football is that average players who play with great desire can beat great players who don’t play as hard. Play after play, you see the Cowboys in the right position, and, in Durant’s words, rallying to the ball as a group. Now that they know what they’re doing after not playing as instinctively in what was an on-the-job-training season in 2013, they’re going to be a dangerous group to play.
About Last Night …
New England 27, New York Jets 25. Third-and-goal from the Jets’ 19. Third-and-19 and the Jets allowed the Patriots the winning touchdown on a terrific twisting catch by Danny Amendola. But that should not, cannot, will not erase what just might be a coming-of-age performance by Geno Smith, who was so good and so mature Thursday night. Drives of 12, 10, 12, 11, nine and 12 plays to score—on the road, against the archrivals. Zero turnovers; giving it away had been Smith’s bugaboo. And finally, taking the Jets 48 yards in 66 seconds without a timeout—a good drive, not great—to set up what could have been the winning field goal. But the Nick Folk 58-yarder was blocked, and so the Jets climbed back on the plane to Newark at 1-6. There will be time to debate the fate of Rex Ryan (15-27 in his last 42 games) and the lost cause of a fourth straight playoff-less season for the Jets. But the most important news from this game is the Jets can say Geno Smith played on Tom Brady’s turf and played him fairly even … and looked like he belonged.
Player You Need To Know This Weekend
Josh Hill, tight end, New Orleans (number 89). So the Saints come off their bye and travel to Detroit … but they do it with one strategic hand tied behind their backs. Jimmy Graham will miss this game and likely next week’s home tussle with the Packers because of an injured shoulder, and the Lions have a strong defensive front that is sure to collapse the pocket on Drew Brees more than a few times at Ford Field. Hill, a second-year undrafted free-agent from Blackfoot, Idaho, has been targeted eight time by Brees in the past two games and should see quality time here, particularly with Brees needing a tall short and intermediate weapon in this game. New Orleans has won four straight between the two teams, averaging 41 in the four games. My prediction is such a bold one: They won’t score in the forties Sunday.
Bose Sound Bite of the Week
Eagles coach Chip Kelly, on culture, prior to last week's win over the Giants on Sunday Night Football:
"We've got a good group of guys, don't we? You know why? Cause culture wins football. Culture will beat scheme every day."
Regular Old Quote of the Week
"I put the blame on Ben Roethlisberger. Todd Haley’s not calling the plays [in Pittsburgh’s no-huddle scheme]. Ben is.”
—Former Steeler great Hines Ward, on NBC Sports Network’s “Pro Football Talk Live” show on Wednesday, asked about the criticism of offensive coordinator Haley in the Steeler offensive struggles.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. The Rams’ pass-rush, which is a lost cause through five games. Seattle comes to the Jones Dome to face a Rams defense that has one sack in five games. That is absurd, of course. Four first-round picks on the starting front seven (it would be five if Chris Long were healthy), and particularly noteworthy is the lack of production by richy-rich defensive end Robert Quinn. Great stat from Pro Football Focus this week: Quinn had 90 quarterback sacks-hits-significant pressures last season. He’s on pace for 39 this year.
2. Someone named Manning, three touchdowns from the all-time record. What? You hadn’t heard? By the way, Steve Mariucci will be live from Brett Favre’s house on NFL Network, on what could be the last morning Favre will hold the record for touchdown passes (508) in a career.
3. Vic Fangio’s game plan. Talking to Fangio last week, he made it clear that a huge key to the 49ers playing so well on defense in the absence of NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith was the crew of new secondary players. Watching the Niners totally snuff out the Rams passing game in the last three quarters Monday night, there’s no question the secondary is the big key. Strong safety Antoine Bethea’s making big plays and providing a good buttress in the run game, and cornerback Perrish Cox leads a coverage group that has been a clingy as any secondary in the league. Good test for Peyton Manning in what’s sure to be the game of the week.
4. Reggie Bush playing his old team. One thing I think this morning: I think Reggie Bush’s value to the Saints, and to rebuilding New Orleans, has been understated over the years. I hope when Saints’ fans tune in to Lions-Saints on Sunday, they take a moment to appreciate Bush’s contributions to the franchise. It was Bush—more than Sean Payton, more than Drew Brees—who really provided the impetus and excitement when the team was trying to win back its fans and get re-established in New Orleans in 2006. I know; I was there on draft weekend that spring. Two days before the draft, at a Habitat for Humanity site in the Lower Ninth Ward, Payton and GM Mickey Loomis met visiting president George W. Bush. "How about this?" Bush said, smiling at the kid coach. "A 42-year-old guy from Eastern Illinois, coaching the Saints, living his dream." And as he left the site, Payton joked, "Maybe we can meet the other Bush on Saturday." As I wrote in Sports Illustrated the next week:
He got his wish. The two rookies, coach and running back, made their first stop on the road to rebuilding at Emeril's, the famed restaurant favored by Saints players and staff. When Bush walked through the front door just after 10 o'clock, it took only seconds for diners to recognize the man in the mustard-colored suit, rise and applaud. "Reh-JEE! Reh-JEE!" they cheered as one, while digital cameras flashed at the shyly smiling Bush. And then these fans, who've had so little to celebrate for eight months, launched into a popular local chant, one that Bush was hearing for the first of what will surely be many times. "Who dat! Who dat! Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints!"
It was the drafting of Bush that made the season-ticket totals spike that spring. So even though Bush never had a 1,000-yard rushing season in his five Saints seasons (in fact, he never had a 600-yard rushing year), he was a good piece to the puzzle on the field and a major element off it.
5. Andrew Luck, padding his stats? Two weeks ago, Bengals at Colts looked like solid gold in Week 7. Now, not so much. The Bengals have allowed 80 points in the past two weeks (they’re 0-1-1, not coincidentally, in that time), and Luck, who leads all quarterback with 1,987 passing yards, should continue what’s shaping up to be the first 5,000-yard passing season of his young career.
6. Vontaze Burfict, looking for another ankle to twist. Burfict got fined $25,000 by the league for intentionally twisting the ankles of Cam Newton and Greg Olsen of the Panthers last Sunday. Tape the ankles tight Sunday, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen and Andrew Luck.
7. The Falcons, trying to stop the bleeding. Uh-oh. Are we about to start a Mike Smith Watch? Dating back to the end of the 2012 season, Atlanta’s won just six of their last 23 games. The Falcons (2-4 this year, losers of three straight), are at Baltimore and home to Detroit before the bye, and being on a 6-19 stretch entering said bye would not sit well with owner Arthur Blank.
8. Tony Sparano’s tough road. The Oakland interim coach opened his tenure last week with a narrow loss to 5-1 San Diego, and he’s got 4-1 Arizona coming to the Black Hole on Sunday—followed by the next four games all against teams with winning records today. Watching Derek Carr last week, I say the Raiders are going to steal two or three of those six.
9. The heat getting turned up in Pittsburgh. Read my Twitter feed. Steelers Nation wants Todd Haley gone first, followed by Mike Tomlin, followed by Kevin Colbert … and a Monday night home loss to the reeling Texans would add volume to the screeching—especially with Indianapolis and Baltimore on deck.
10. I mean, I’m just saying … Tennessee at Washington: Tennessee is 0-2 all-time at Washington. Washington is 0-2 all-time at Tennessee. Quirky.
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