To hear the Dallas Cowboys players tell it, this year’s defense is exactly like last year’s.
“It’s basically the same,” defensive tackle Nick Hayden said. “Little things here and there, but everything’s the same.”
Only the stats tell a different story. The Cowboys ended last season as the third-worst defense in NFL history. They allowed an average of 415.3 yards per game. They allowed an NFL-record four 400-yard passing games. They allowed an average of 27 points.
Nothing about last year’s defense was pretty.
And, by the way, they lost three of their best defensive players in the off-season — cutting DeMarcus Ware, losing Jason Hatcher in free agency and losing Sean Lee to a season-ending injury.
Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones admits being surprised by the team’s 3-1 start.
“I would say yes, pleasantly, but we still had a lot of confidence in this team,” Jones said. “I thought we would be strong offensively all along. I never had any doubt in that.”
The questions were on the defensive side.
Though the Cowboys have 15 defenders who were on the team at some point last season, much has changed. Namely the defensive coordinator.
Rod Marinelli replaced his good friend Monte Kiffin as the defensive play-caller, with Kiffin staying as the assistant head coach/defense.
“He’s so intense,” owner Jerry Jones said of Marinelli on KRLD/105.3 FM. “I was watching him in the coaches’ meeting. He’s soft-spoken, but yet he’s not soft-spoken when he wants to really make a difference and make his point.
“He’s a wiry Vietnam veteran. You see it. You see it in his determination and his eyes, and boy, do those players see it. I know that a couple of his former players like [Henry] Melton when they joined the Cowboys, they did so motivated, because he was going to be here, because they knew what he did as a coach with them as a player.
“It’s intensity. It is creating a complete understanding that the harder you go, the better chance we have and the better chance you have to be what you want to be individually. He’s a great technician. He really can help a player get where he wants to go just by technique. You do all of that, but boy, the main thing is he’s about the motor or the engine or how passionate the player is about getting to the ball.”
The Cowboys rank 25th in total defense, allowing 379.8 yards per game. They allow 18 points a game, not counting the 14 points that came on returns off turnovers by the Dallas offense.
The Saints’ Drew Brees passed for 340 yards against them last week, the most passing yards the Cowboys have allowed this season, but only 84 came in the first half when it was still a game. The Cowboys have eight takeaways, only one behind the league leaders.
Dallas, which had 18 players take defensive snaps last week, has done it with mostly no-names.
Make no mistake, this is not the same defense as a year ago.
“Second year in the system, everybody tends to grow up, and hopefully you learn from the previous year,” cornerback Brandon Carr said. “At the same time, although the tone is similar to Kiffin, as far as the way we hustle and get after the opposing offense, Rod brings that extra maniac level, I guess. It’s fast, intense. He has a way of getting the best out of the guys, and that’s what you’ve been seeing this year. Just guys trying to exceed the expectations and make plays.”
Marinelli has changed things.
He implemented “travel rules” within the Tampa 2 scheme, with the weakside linebacker lined up behind the 3-technique on every play. He said he has the cornerbacks playing a little more man-to-man than zone.
“We’ve cut things down quite a bit,” Marinelli said. “I think it helps, especially when we put our will [weakside linebacker] with the under [defensive tackle]. At least for me, it’s easier. That’s how I’ve always looked at it. And then, we don’t change a lot. Once we get our package right in the off-season, I think you stay with it. So the players aren’t learning something new every week.
“They’re trying to refine their skills. They’re trying to play faster. The more comfortable they get, the faster they’ll play. Then, your hitting starts coming, and your breaks and all those things.”
As part of the defensive coordinator’s weekly “Marinelli Madness” motivational videos he shows the night before games, the Cowboys’ defense watched highlights of Secretariat last week before beating the Saints 38-17.
“The way that race horse came out of the gate,” safety J.J. Wilcox said. “He stayed in front and set the pace for the whole race. He just kept staying in front. That was pretty catchy to me, and that’s exactly what we did.
“We had a great mindset last year, but also we have a chip on our shoulder from being 32nd.”