Wade, Todd and Reggie, you got some 'splaining to do.
How can a line be so schizophrenic? The Cowboys '08 defensive line was up, way down, way up and then, in the span of two plays, rock bottom.
The '08 season promised improved production from the line, with Todd Grantham replacing Kacey Rogers, who joined Tony Sprano's staff in Miami. There was also some hope for improved OLB play, as Reggie Herring was taking over for Paul Pasqualoni.
The results were mixed. The line started well, then collapsed in October, when the Redskins, Rams and Giants blew them up. In each case, the linemen failed to respond to simple plays run directly at them. Simply put, they were out-hit.
The first Redskins game was a case in point. Washington is left-handed club and makes most of its rushing yards behind LT Chris Samuels and LG Pete Kendall. Samuels rolled Chris Canty in the second half, when Clinton Portis did most of his damage.
The Rams gashed the left side of Dallas' front, overloading their right and running at Marcus Spears and Greg Ellis. Stephen Jackson also had some big cut back runs on these plays.
In addition to erratic point of attack play, the linemen were also bungling assignment. Dallas plays a one-gap scheme, there the linemen, linebackers and strong safety are responsible for a single gap. In mid-season, the linemen were frequently leaving their lanes trying to cover for other players. Consequently, they created new cut back lanes. You may have heard the players and coaches exhorting each other to "just do your job." This is what they meant.
Wade Phillips put on his Mr. Fix-it hat and got the line playing back to its '07 level, when it ranked 6th against the run. In the first five games after the bye, Dallas allowed an average of just 68 yards rushing per game. And they were stopping some quality backs and rushing attacks.
Washington had gouged the for over 140 yards in October, but could muster just 92 yards in the rematch. Frank Gore was held to 26 yards. The Giants attack slowed to 72 yards rushing after ripping the Cowboys for over 200 in their first meeting.
Dallas had the Ravens under control for 55 minutes. The Ravens had 106 yards total, with a long run of 13 yards. Then, the Ravens last two runs popped for 159 yards, bringing the Cowboys run of exemplary defense to a painful end.
I've written that the safeties were the major culprits on those two plays, and there's no sense dragging them into this discussion. The key point is that as run defenders the Cowboys finished with roughly the same numbers as '07, but were unable to overcome that very poor October. Dallas ended that month in the bottom quarter of run defenses, allowing an average of 124 per game.
By season's end, that number was down to 106.6 per game. That's not as good as '07's 94.6, but the line demonstrated in November and much of December that it is capable of playing run defense on par with the Pittsburghs and Baltimores of the league.
In pass rush, the front took one giant step forward and one annoying step backward. Herring was running rushing drills on the first day of camp that Pasqualoni did not include in his repertoire. It took about half a season for the lessons to sink in, but Demarcus Ware finally began to incorporate better hand usage and change of direction into his rushing patterns. He appeared to finally attack left tackles with a game plan, rather than trying to out rush then on every play.
The results speak for themselves. He lead the NFL with 20 sacks, and if he can begin the '09 season the way he ended '08, the sack record will become his. On the line, Jay Ratliff showed by the team made him the first -- and only -- young DL to get a contract extension. His rush skills blossomed and he finished the year with 8 sacks, an unheard of number for a nose tackle.
The overall sack numbers jumped 28%, from a good 46 to a league-leading 59 this year. For their aggression and better technique, the d-line gets the award for the least disciplined unit on the team. They didn't take as many penalties as the offensive line, but when you consider good linemen and lines almost never take penalties, the groups 25 total penalties is unforgivable.
Fans can understand an occasional hands to the face, or seeing a really saavy QB lure the line offsides with a head bob or a staggered snap count. But nineteen offsides penalties is beyond excuse. D-linemen are coached to react to the snap of the football. A count that high indicates a group that is guessing -- and guessing incorrectly. How can you explain seven offsides by nose tackles or DTs in a four man line, when they're lining up right over the ball? You can't.
Penalties, D-line and edge rushers:
The defensive line is the most churned position by armchair GMs, but I suspect there will only be one major change this offseason.
The team experimented with swapping Ratliff to DE and moving Spears to NT in camp. The reasoning is Ratliff is the best rusher in the group, and moving him out in space would give him the room to escape double teams and get more sacks, especially if he's playing next to Demarcus Ware.
But moving him out of the pivot deprives Dallas of its best d-line playmaker. NT is key to the Cowboys run defense. Because it is a one-gap scheme, the NTs are not passive creatures, who drop to one knee and gum up interior traffic. They are responsible for getting off blocks and chasing down plays to either side.
Ratliff was great at this. His tackle totals jumped from 30 in '07 to 51 this year. Look at the games where the Cowboys run defense really clicked and you'll see games where Ratliff AND backup Tank Johnson were chasing down runners.
The problem is that Johnson didn't show up half the time. His tackle totals were okay, but not any better than last year's, when he claimed he was having trouble knocking off rust and adjusting to a 3-4 scheme.
Johnson was yelling in the Philly locker room that he was "out of here" after the embarrassing Eagles loss. I doubt Dallas even asks him to stay. If the team moves Ratliff to DE permanently, it cleans out the NT spot. I think that's too much churn at the foundation of your run defense.
Therefore, I think the Cowboys will try to re-sign Chris Canty to a modest deal and look for a rookie NT in this year's draft. Marcus Spears is in the last year of his contract and he played better this year. There's no need cutting a starter with a relatively small contract unless you have to. Dallas only carries six linemen. The rippers who would toss Canty, Spears and Johnson into the street have to explain how Dallas can replace half this unit in one spring.
MVPs -- I'm giving two. Ratliff, obviously, takes the honor on the line. Ware needs some recognition for his 84 tackles, which ranked third on the team. He's become a complete linebacker and teams no longer try running right at him, as they did early in his career.
Addition by subtraction: Johnson. He was loud, mediocre and mistake prone. When you consider the limited number of downs he played, he was the penalty machine in this group. And he provided the fewest plays for his trouble. So long, Mister.
Project of the year: This one's on you, Wade. Defensive offsides should be the easiest problem to fix. This team can rush. I understand the need to be aggressive and get an edge on pass plays, but I don't believe that a dozen sacks will disappear if the Cowboys rushers stop guessing snap counts.