A year ago, there were questions about how much worse the Dallas Cowboys’ defense could be after a dreadful 2013.
That year is when the defense made career backups such as Josh McCown and Matt Flynn look like Pro Bowlers and ended up allowing the third-most yards in NFL history.
People wondered if simply promoting Rod Marinelli to defensive coordinator would work the magic, especially after losing a few staples such as DeMarcus Ware (free agency) and Sean Lee (injury). The answer was a resounding yes.
Marinelli somehow turned one of the league’s worst defenses from a year before into a middle-of-the-road, bend-but-don’t-break unit that ranked second in the league with 31 takeaways.
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“Last year, it was right to say we were a bend-but-don’t-break team,” safety Barry Church said. “But we’ve added some pieces that make us better and I believe we definitely can take that next step as a defense and become a strength to this team.”
Added defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford: “We’re always trying to shock somebody. We’re always trying to shock the nation. That’s what this defense’s expectations are, they’re high. We’re trying to exceed that.”
It starts up front with an improved line.
Crawford has found a home as the three-technique tackle in Marinelli’s Tampa 2 scheme, the same position Hall of Famer Warren Sapp played during the Tampa Bay Bucs glory years. Crawford has consistently been pegged as a breakout player to watch.
The Cowboys also worked on improving a lackluster pass rush that recorded only 28 sacks a year ago. They signed controversial defensive end Greg Hardy, who is serving a four-game suspension, and drafted highly-touted end Randy Gregory, who slipped to the second round with off-field issues.
In addition to Hardy and Gregory, the Cowboys return veteran Jeremy Mincey and second-year pro DeMarcus Lawrence. Mincey was an insurance signing after losing Ware, but became a valuable player on the field and in the locker room. And Lawrence, who missed the first half of the season with a foot injury, flashed his potential in the playoffs.
“Our pass rush can be a lot better,” Mincey said. “Once the young guys start coming along during the season and growing up and getting a feel for the rush lanes, we can have something special.”
Marinelli said there’s no option but to improve.
“It’s got to. It has to, that shows up on Sunday,” Marinelli said. “All the words don’t matter right now. It’s got to show up. That’s what we’ve been working hard at.”
If the pass rush shows up, it takes pressure off a secondary that ranked 26th against the pass last season.
The Cowboys added depth to the secondary by using their first-round pick on corner/ safety Byron Jones, but then lost cornerback Orlando Scandrick for the season to a knee injury.
The team, though, feels strongly that bust-to-date Morris Claiborne is finally ready to live up to being the first defensive player drafted in 2012, and are confident in Tyler Patmon’s ability to play in the slot.
Brandon Carr, meanwhile, remains a staple on the left side despite having no interceptions last season and being the subject of scrutiny. The safeties remain the same, as well, with Church and J.J. Wilcox.
All of the secondary players are confident they can hold up their end of the bargain.
“I have a ton of confidence, but at the same time we know we have to put the work in,” Carr said. “We can say everything looks good on paper, but we have to come in every day and execute, especially on game days when it counts the most.”
As far as the linebacker corps is concerned, they get an immediate upgrade with the return of Lee. He is healthy and ready to get back into action, filling an important role as the weakside linebacker. Second-year pro Anthony Hitchens is expected to play in the middle until Rolando McClain’s four-game suspension is up with Kyle Wilber on the strong side.
So there is much hope and expectations for this defense that is trying to transition from a major liability into a strength in just two years.
“Everyday we line up, we’ve got to be a factor, not giving up big plays, taking the ball away, just getting better overall,” Marinelli said. “We just want to keep improving, that’s our goal. Not numbers or anything, it’s just getting better.”