Recall that in the five and three quarter game stretch from the Redskins win until the safeties cracked against Baltimore, the Cowboys' D allowed 73 points, an average of just over 12 per game. The D also sacked QBs 32 times in that stretch, an amazing 5.2 per-game average.
One vital adjustment in the late-season resurgence was an increase in the Cowboys' use of the 46 package. The Cowboys ILBs had been pushed around in three early season losses to Washington, St. Louis and New York, and the change in scheme was done to maximize the effectiveness of the personnel on hand.
The 46 had several benefits:
-- it isolated NT Jay Ratliff on centers. With tackles covering up opposing teams' guards, opposing OCs could not scheme to double team Dallas' best rushing lineman. This helped Ratliff up his sack total to 7.5, from 3 the season before.
-- it put more beef in the interior of the defensive line. Chris Canty and Marcus Spears moved inside and gave Dallas more ballast against power rushing attacks.
-- it put Bradie James on the line of scrimmage next to Greg Ellis, improving his rushing effectiveness. James was a highly effective blitzer in '08, getting to QBs from the inside in the base 3-4 set and outside in the 46 set. When Dallas played the Bear package the Cowboys have three OLB blitzing options on the line of scrimmage. James' eight matched Ellis' eight. Their 16 combined sacks complemented Demarcus Ware's 20 nicely.
-- most importantly for this piece,the Bear put Kevin Burnett on the field far more often. Burnett lists at 227 lbs., which is awfully light for a 3-4 inside backer. Donnie Edwards played very well at this weight as an ILB in Wade Phillips' Chargers defenses, but he had the 348 lb. brick wall Jamal Williams in front of him.
Burnett played behind the 298 lb. Ratliff, who was not given two-gap responsibilities very often. When Dallas went 46, all three interior offensive linemen were covered, with Burnett stacked behind them. This gave him the freedom to roam laterally and track down rushers and pass catching backs.
Burnett has been healthy the past two seasons, after suffering multiple injuries in '05 and '06. He showed he could be a very effective nickel linebacker in '07 and last year showed he could produce on 1st and 2nd downs -- if put in a scheme which suited his size.
Burnett will enter free agency in just under four weeks and the Cowboys need to decide if they're going to keep him. The rumors started weeks ago that Dallas would pursue a veteran 3-4 plugger like Ray Lewis. They could, but most of the ILB options -- Lewis, Bart Scott, James Farrior, Eric Barton -- will either be expensive, aged or both. Scott is the only LB on this list under 30 and he's 29.
The cheapest, least-disruptive path may be to keep Burnett and find a big, 330 lb. fire hydrant to cover him. This would allow Burnett to get on the field when Dallas operates in the base scheme and when Ratliff slides over the center in the 46.
Burnett and a high NT draftee like Ron Brace, or Burnett, a draftee and a veteran NT, an old one like Grady Jackson or a younger one like Gabe Watson, would probably cost less than a Ray Lewis, and give Dallas longer-term bang for their free agent bucks.
Bonus: Here's a 2nd round mock, courtesy of the National Football Post's Wes Bunting.
It's not perfect (Dallas picks 51st, not 52nd as he shows) but its valuable for showing relative value, where a player is likely to be selected.
That said, I hate the Herman Johnson pick. This guy has George Hegamin Jr. written all over him. More important for me are these points -- assuming Bunting is anywhere near accurate:
-- Louis Delmas is within reach. He won't slide to 51, but it would not cost an arm and a leg to move up and get him.
-- There's good value with the 51. Alex Mack appeals to me. So does Max Unger. And note Eric Wood, Rashad Johnson and all the NTs are still hanging around. That means Dallas could fill a big need with the 69th pick.