Last week, I rated the Cowboys offense top to bottom. Today, I turn the focus to the defensive side of the ball.
I spoke to a source in the lull between the mini-camps and training camp, and he told me Wade Phillips talked of nothing else but his defense. The same defense that he turned loose on Jason Garrett's offense since May. The blitzes have come from all directions, in all flavors and sizes.
Wade wants to recapture that gilded five game stretch from the second Washinton game to the five minute mark of the Baltimore game, when his guys were playing at a top five (actually top two) level and were bagging four QBs per game. Can he replicate that this year? Good health in the secondary would give him a good shot.
Defensive Line ('09 vs. '08)
- Jay Ratliff - Jay Ratliff
- Marcus Spears -- Marcus Spears
- Igor Olshansky -- Chris Canty
- Jason Hatcher -- Jason Hatcher
- Stephen Bowen -- Stephen Bowen
- Junior Siavii -- Tank Johnson
Pretty much a pat hand, with the exception of backup nose tackle. A bit surprised that Spears sits second ahead of Canty? Don't be. Canty has a higher peak because he's the better pass rusher. But Spears was the far more consistent player last year, especially against the run. He's in his contract year and should crank it up even more.
Tank Johnson probably rated higher on this list before the '08 season, probably 4th, but his inconsistency put him on the fast track to free agency. He could play very well, (see the Tampa Bay game) or disappear for several game stretches. I still have questions about Siavii, but the looked okay during the fake games when he had the first or second-team DEs around him. Dallas needs 15-20 high-intensity snaps from him this year.
- Demarcus Ware -- Demarcus Ware
- Bradie James -- Bradie James
- Anthony Spencer -- Anthony Spencer
- Keith Brooking -- Zach Thomas
- Bobby Carpenter -- Greg Ellis
- Jason Williams -- Kevin Burnett
- Steve Octavien -- Bobby Carpenter
- Victor Butler -- Justin Rogers
The backups look iffy, especially the 5 and 6 spots. None of the last four show exceptional pass rushing skills. Butler was clearly the better of the two 4th round rookie OLBs in camp, but hit a wall. He still has a lot to learn about technique. He's relying on raw speed at this point. If former Colt Curtis Johnson has some edge rush in him, he'll move up to spot six in a hurry. The Cowboys need Spencer to take the next step as a rusher, because none of the backups appear to have Ellis' eight sacks in them.
The big disappointment is Jason Williams' high ankle sprain. Williams looked lost the first two weeks of camp, then seemed to really pick the pro game up. He started to figure out where to go and began reacting rather than thinking. At that point, his incredible physical skills showed. Williams has amazing speed for a 240 pounder and can drop or rush with equal intensity.
If he can pick up where he left off next month, he'll push Carpenter for the nickel LB spot before the season ends. He's a good bet to challenge Brooking for his ILB spot next season, health permitting.
Brooking is the plus story thus far on this unit. He looks much better suited to the 3-4 than Zach Thomas, who had never played uncovered in his long career. The run defense on inside plays was much better this summer and Brooking is the main reason why. He may have lost the top gear needed to play in space as the weakside LB in a 4-3 but he looks comfortable in the middle of Wade's 3-4. Brookings best seasons for Atlanta came when he played for Phillips in this same scheme. He's older and a bit slower now, but he's still an upgrade over Thomas.
- Terence Newman -- Terence Newman
- Orlando Scandrick -- Orlando Scandrick
- Mike Jenkins -- Anthony Henry
- Alan Ball -- Pacman Jones
How many of you have missed Anthony Henry the last month? How many of you have thought of Anthony Henry the last month?
Dallas has three outstanding corners. Quick, name the last time that was reality? '93 maybe? But would you rather have Orlando Scandrick or Kenny Gant? Mike Jenkins or Larry Brown?
Scandrick and Jenkins are 2A and 2B, according to the coaches. I have Scandrick in 2 here because he mans the very important slot in the nickel sets. Ball is a step down from the top three, but he proved he can play in a pinch in last year's critical Tampa Bay win. I'm far more confident he'll be active every week than I ever was in the departed Adam Jones. Ball is also the backup free safety.
- Ken Hamlin -- Ken Hamlin
- Gerald Sensabaugh -- Roy Williams
- Alan Ball -- Keith Davis
- Pat Watkins -- Pat Watkins
- Michael Hamlin -- Courtney Brown
Dallas made a lot of modest investments here and they seem to have paid off. Sensabaugh is a far better cover guy than either of last year's SSs. (I'll ask the question again, how many times have you missed Roy Williams the safety this summer? Keith Davis?)
Ball is a decent backup, a big step from '08, when Williams' early injury meant Dallas didn't have a decent starter at the strong safety. Michael Hamlin sits at five because he's out with a broken wrist. He was running at second team SS while Ball was running behind Ken Hamlin at the free.
There isn't much room for injuries here, but the starting five (your third corner is a starter these days) is much better than any Dallas secondary this decade. These guys are the main reason why I think this defense can improve. Dallas has finally patched the holes it has carried for years at safety. It can cover four across. This means Wade can blitz to his heart's content.
And he will.