The things that can distinguish a talented defense from a fearsome one.
As I look back on Dallas’ defenses over the last several years, for the most part, the talent has been there. In fact, the talent seems to be getting better every year as Dallas continues to focus its drafts on this side of the ball. Yet, there seems to be that missing ingredient, that innate aggressive mindset which some teams always walk up to the line of scrimmage with. The Ravens, Steelers, Bears and (ugh) Eagles all come to mind, because they bring a type of physicality and passion for not just making a play, but inflicting harm in the process, to every single play. It's also a reputation that they have to live up to.
It would also seem that each of these teams has vocal, passionate leaders in the locker room that inspire that kind of ‘give no ground’ mentality among their teammates. I wanted to break down our defensive unit and see how our players and coaches do when using this intangible as a measuring stick.
The Line: Jay Ratliff is the heart and soul of the defensive front. He’s a high-motor player who is as active as any Nose Tackle in the league. He is undersized for the position but tends to make up for it with his quickness and strength. The front is in transition as we add Olshansky to the rotation and subtract Chris Canty. Guys like Spears, Bowen, Hatcher and others seem nothing more than role/spot players. This group does not possess a vocal leader or someone who could be the rallying point for the defense.
The Secondary: This is an improving unit and 2009 should be no exception. At the same time, this has been a much maligned group and one that hasn’t played up to its talent levels. The secondary is also in transition as it will have a 50% turnover among its starters. The holdovers, Newman and Hamlin are not known for being overly physical, although Hamlin has been known to lay the wood at times. Newman is a true cover corner and plays the role of team funnyman more than anything else. Scandrick and Jenkins are not entrenched enough yet and Sensabaugh is just arriving on the scene, where it would be doubtful he would come in with guns (get it?) blazing.
The LB’s: This is clearly the strength of the defense, with loads of talent and high expectations. Two #1 picks start on the outside, but Spencer is a relative newbie who is surrounded by some question marks. While DeMarcus Ware is, no doubt, the face of the Dallas defense, his talent is as an uncommon speed rusher and does not bring the same kind of meanness and ferocity that a James Harrison or a Joey Porter brings. So while Ware’s individual play may be superior to his peer group, he doesn’t display a zest for punishing his opponents the way some of his contemporaries do. Inside, Bradie James and Keith Brooking comprise the pluggers. Brooking is new and likely will want to get a year under his belt before being more outspoken. James is vocal and serves as the inspirational leader for the defense. While not known for being an enforcer, Brady is as close as we’ve got.
Coaching: Winnie is the head coach (man, it hurts just to type that). He is also the Defensive Coordinator now that Brian Stewart has departed for greener (get it?) pastures. He is flanked by Todd Grantham, Dave Campo, Dat Nguyen and Brett Maxie. It is notable that none of these guys has ever established the tone or even played in an NFL system where a premium was placed on the physical aspect of the game. They may be sound technicians, but they don’t have a background in coaching up the animalistic side of defensive football in the NFL.
The History: When I think of coaches, I remember Tom Landry’s scowl and his lust for the Flex's defensive dominance. Not long ago, Dave Wannstedt ran the show and I seldom saw him smile as he tried to personify the toughness he wanted to see in his players. When I think of linemen, it was cathartic to watch the anger in the way Charles Haley played the game. I remember Randy White and how he set the tone for a defense that was one for the ages. I saw Charlie Waters and Cliff Harris make opponents walk off of the field with snot leaking out of their helmets just for making a catch in “their” middle of the field. In all honesty, few Dallas LB’s come to mind who conjure up memories of a nasty, aggressiveness about them (maybe D.D. Lewis?), and would love to hear some suggestions.
Those players and coaches not only typified hard-nosed football, they inspired the players around them to adopt a similar mindset until it became not just a part of the team, but something the team was known for. That “mythology” or reputation became something they strived to live up to and further enhanced their passion for the big, bone-jarring hit. It goes without saying that the fans loved it too.
To sum up my thoughts here, on this roster, Dallas’ defense looks and feels more like a defense built on speed and scheme than one that is about laying the wood. In order for Dallas to have a truly dominant and feared defense, it will have to find leaders (coaches and players) who can begin to lead the team in that direction.