SAN ANTONIO -- The Dallas Cowboys may not have had much of a choice when they brought back Marcus Spears, Jason Hatcher and Gerald Sensabaugh in free agency.
But at least there were benefits.
They knew the players, the players had experience, and it wouldn't take them long to get up to speed.
But the signings also represented more of the same. More of the same defense that last year gave up 436 points, the most in franchise history.
More of the same defense that couldn't muster the fight to carry the team when quarterback Tony Romo was lost for the season.
More of the same defense that was humiliated in a 45-7 loss at Green Bay.
If cornerback Terence Newman recovers from a groin injury and linebacker Keith Brooking is over a hamstring injury in time for the season opener, the Cowboys will open with 10 of their 11 defensive starters from last season. Abe Elam is the only newcomer, replacing Alan Ball (who is also back) at a safety spot.
The Cowboys are putting their faith in the players they know.
And a defensive system they don't.
"We like the new scheme that we have. We really do, and we think it's going to help," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said.
New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, hired to replace former head coach Wade Phillips in running the defense, is being counted on to turn it around with his system, which emphasizes unpredictability and unexpected pressure on the quarterback.
"Last year was a little bit predictable, I guess," Sensabaugh said. "Last year's defense wasn't trying to trick the offense, it was just more like we're going to win our one-on-one battles. This defense, it looks like it has a little bit of trickery to it."
Many of the same faces will be in place, but they won't all necessarily be doing the same things as last year.
Linebacker DeMarcus Ware will have some coverage responsibilities, far more than last season.
Nose tackle Jay Ratliff might not rush straight up the middle. He might slide over a gap or two on third down.
The safeties will have to be prepared for free and strong responsibilities on every play, considering the offense could be adjusting to the defensive looks until the last possible second.
"Yeah, it's the same players, but not the same mentality," Ware said. "It's a different motivation and almost like a rebirth."
To get it done, Ryan is giving the players a lot of freedom when they line up.
"This is what he calls a player-friendly defense, because a lot of the times, the player himself has that liberty to make checks and put himself in the best position," cornerback Orlando Scandrick said.
But a scheme alone won't fix everything, secondary coach Dave Campo said.
"Oh, yeah. We've got to play football," he said. "Our guys know that. They're professional people. They've got to play well.
"Really, people make schemes, to be perfectly honest with you. But I think the more tools you give a guy, I think that gives them an advantage. If that quarterback doesn't know what's going on, you're going to win a lot of ballgames."
Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407