The Dallas Cowboys have a revamped defense.
Four significant secondary contributors bolted in free agency. Three defensive linemen are set to serve suspensions. Anthony Hitchens, a staple at linebacker, is sidelined for the early part of the season.
Nobody knows what to expect from Jaylon Smith, who will start at middle linebacker in place of Hitchens and split duties with veteran Justin Durant. Nobody knows how a relatively inexperienced secondary with the likes of first-time starting safety Jeff Heath and rookies Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis will hold up.
Has there been a time with more uncertainty in defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s 22 years in the NFL?
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“Probably not. Not that I can remember,” Marinelli said before the Cowboys open the 2017 regular season against the New York Giants on Sunday night.
“But I think part of our system is it’s our job to get these men prepared. We have no excuses, none as coaches. They reflect us. If the reflection isn’t good, then that’s on us.”
Marinelli is optimistic, though, that this year’s defense can play better than most expect. DeMarcus Lawrence is healthy and determined to show he’s more of the eight-sack guy of 2015 than the one-sack guy of last year.
Maliek Collins is expected to take strides in his second year at under tackle. For as much inexperience as the secondary has, there are still veterans in Orlando Scandrick and Byron Jones.
And, most important, linebacker Sean Lee is coming off an All-Pro season and his first fully healthy season seven-year career.
Marinelli hopes the defense gets off to a solid start against the Giants. After all, they held them to 20 and 10 points in their two contests last season. However, that wasn’t good enough to win either game.
“The best point total [for a defense] is one less than they have,” Marinelli said. “If they have 30, 29 is a good point total. … Our mentality is to outplay their defense. We have to outplay their defense in terms of points, not yards and all of that stuff. Points and takeaways.”
The Cowboys were one of only six teams with single-digit interceptions last season (9) and finished tied for 19th in total takeaways with 20. As far as scoring defense, the Cowboys ranked fifth in the league holding opponents to 19.1 points a game.