Dallas Cowboys' Draft 2010: A Former Oiler Tries the Steelers' Blueprint

The 2008 Steelers offered the latest incarnation of a surprising formula for success.  The team had a mediocre offense, which ranked 20th in points scored and 22nd in yards gained.  It's interior line was sieve-like at times; quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich were sacked a combined 49 times that season. The low point came in a week-three thrashing when the Eagles sacked Roethisberger eight times and knocked him out of the game.  The Steelers running game was equally mediocre; Willie Parker led the team with 791 yards.  

The Steelers nonetheless won the championship because they had an exemplary defense, which ranked first almost across the board:  it was tops in points allowed, first in passing yards and second in rushing yards.  At its heart was a linebacking unit which featured two All Pros -- James Farrior and James Harrison -- and a first year starter, Lamarr Woodley, who sacked quarterbacks 11 and a half times.

The so-so offense/stellar defense approach seems like an outlier, but it was in fact a common way to win a Lombardi trophy in the noughts:

Team Scoring Defense Scoring Offense Sacks Allowed
'08 Steelers   1st 20th 49
'02 Buccaneers  1st 18th 41
'00 Ravens  1st 14th 43

 

These teams fielded the three best defenses of the decade.  All of them had offenses which ranked in the middle of the NFL pack and all three had trouble protecting their quarterbacks.

Which brings us to the 2009 Dallas Cowboys:

2nd in scoring defense, 14th in scoring offense, 34 sacks allowed.

This team carried obvious holes into the 2010 offseason.  It lacked a known producer at free safety.  It had non-existent offensive line depth.  And yet, in rounds one and two, it went by its board and selected a wide receiver and an inside linebacker.  Aside from the obvious defense that it took the best player available in each case (and if you've seen this snapshot of the team's board, that claim is valid) what is Dallas thinking?

I think the Cowboys feel the shortest path to dominance is to finish and then ride the defense.

Like the '08 Steelers -- for Ten Games

At first glance, the Cowboys look like a good, but inferior impersonation of the '08 champs:

  • Pittsburgh '08: 13.9 points per game;  two opponents scored 21 or more; eight opponents held to 10 points or less;
  • Dallas '09: 15.4 points per game; four opponents scored 21 or more; five opponents held to 10 points or less;

The Cowboys defense really impressed after its secondary settled down and OLB Anthony Spencer got a taste for sacking quarterbacks.  In its last ten games, the line was Steelers-like:

Dallas '09, games 7-16: 13.1 points per game, one opponent scored 21 or more; four opponents held to 10 points or less. 


Wade's guys finally found their groove.  That said, they had their weaknesses.  Turnovers were too rare for a defense which produced top-shelf pressure.  And the coverage in short zones, particularly by the inside linebackers, was poor.  Tight ends and running backs regularly put up big games on the Cowboys' back seven.  The Bucs Kellen Winslow and Jerramy Stevens caught nine in week one.  The Panthers Dante Rosario ripped the secondary for a long touchdown.   Correll Buckhalter led the Broncos in receptions and averaged over 10 yards a catch.  Brent Celek had big games against the Cowboys backers and safeties in each of the last two Eagles games.

The inside duo of Bradie James and Keith Brooking are smart and tough, but neither distinguished himself in coverage.  Circle routes by backs, shallow crosses by receivers almost always found space in the short lanes of the Cowboys zone.  The Giants Brandon Jacobs exposed their lack of athleticism when he caught a short pass in the left flat and rolled 74 yards for a score in the week 13 loss.

Rank the Cowboys starters from 1 through 11 and you'll find a list similar to this:

  1. Demarcus Ware
  2. Jay Ratliff
  3. Terence Newman
  4. Mike Jenkins
  5. Anthony Spencer
  6. Igor Olshansky
  7. Gerald Sensabaugh
  8. Keith Brooking
  9. Bradie James
  10. Marcus Spears
  11. Alan Ball

We can quibble over the exact order (and I'm sure you will in the thread) but I want to make two bigger points about this list:

First, there is a clear line of demarcation between five and six and another, in my opinion, between seven and eight.  The top five can be elite players.  What's more, the edge guys are all first round picks and play at the positions of maximum value for a 3-4 defense:  two corners  who can play press coverage, two outside linebackers who can rush. Add a pass rushing nose tackle and you've got the hardest pieces in place. 

Let's move to the bottom of this chart.  Most of the defensive attention has been focused on Ball and free safety, but the inside linebacker spots could both use upgrades.  Brooking played inspired football and gave inspiring sideline speeches, but let's not kid ourselves.  He didn't play at Patrick Willis' level and looks good in comparison to Zach Thomas and Akin Ayodele.  Wade Phillips was surely grateful, but I doubt he's satisfied with this standard of play.  The fact that Brooking turns 35 this year probably made the coach a bit nervous too.

James turns 29 this season and Cowboys fans likely saw his peak in '08 when he registered eight sacks.  That total dropped to two last year and James' coverage continues to be a liability.  He's also been below average on runs directly at him (Thomas, for all his problems, had a better run YPA than James in '08) in recent years. 

Add that Bobby Carpenter was the only dependable backup in the lineup last year and you see that the inside linebacking unit is one drop-off or one injury from becoming a liability.

Which makes the case for 2nd round pick Sean Lee.  He ranked in the top 15 on Dallas' board, meaning the Cowboys feel he could contribute immediately and play at a high level.  He might not be the opening day starter, but I would not be surprised to see Lee replace Brooking at some point early in the campaign.

We should also pay close attention to 2nd year man Jason Williams.  Here's my report on Williams from August 8th, just after he suffered a high ankle sprain in a preseason game against Tennessee:

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.

-- Cowboys Defense: How Deep is Your Squad, BTB, Sept. 8, 2009

Williams' injury was far worse that expected and he missed half the season.  By the time he returned, Williams had lost too much ground for the rookie-averse Phillips to put him in the lineup.  The coach did say recently that the light has gone on for Williams and that he's eager to see the linebacker play this summer.

It would not surprise me to see two new inside linebackers at some point during the coming year.  If the Cowboys can upgrade their linebacker play, this should help as much as improved safety play, especially against the pass, where that leaky linebacker coverage contributed to Dallas' 20th ranking.

Wade made his NFL bones helping daddy Bum's Oilers win their share against the Steel Curtain Steelers.  The draft cards dealt his Cowboys will see Phillips copying his old rival's championship approach as he tries to grab his first title.  Wade wants his defense playing at its December level from game one, and if new linebacker blood can help him achieve this goal, "Doomsday-First," will be the 2010 Cowboys motto.

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