Pre-Training Camp Practices: What We Learned About the Cowboys Defense

Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers! During OTAs and this weekend's mini-camp, we learned that forcing fumbles and interceptions will be a focus for the Dallas Cowboys defense going into the 2010 season.

But doesn't every defense aim for more turnovers? Of course. For the Cowboys, though, the defense took a huge step in '09 to be considered one of the better squads in the conference. They ranked second in scoring defense in all of the NFL and first in the NFC. They have outstanding pass-rushers on the outside, as well as up the middle. And the young secondary was one of the most improved parts of this team last season. Between scheme and personnel, the Cowboys seem to have all the ingredients necessary to force more turnovers.

Since Wade Phillips' arrival at Valley Ranch, he has invested many draft picks on the defensive side of the ball. Some high picks, such as Anthony Spencer and Mike Jenkins, have solidified themselves as playmakers. And this season, we will learn more about the "red-shirt" draft class of '09 and see if this April's defensive rookies can compete for substantial playing time.

On the defensive health watch, only Orlando Scandrick (finger), Akwasi Owusu-Ansah (shoulder), and Stephen Hodge (knee) were not practicing fully by the time mini-camp ended. All are expected to return for training camp.

Back in the Secondary

In all likelihood, FS Alan Ball will be the only new starter on defense for the 'Boys. The competition at the free safety position will be a doozy to watch during training camp, especially with second-year player Mike Hamlin eyeing the job. Although the coaches like Hamlin's skills, we learned that one thing Coach Phillips likes about Ball is his competitiveness.

Once upon a time Ball was a 7th-round selection hanging with the team on the practice squad. Now, he's developed into a versatile player that the coaches deem ready to start.

"I told him like I do all those guys," Phillips said. "If somebody picks you up then you're on their team, which is good. If not you're on our practice squad, which is good. So it's a win-win. And I thought he was going to hit me.

"He was mad. It's one of the few players who didn't make our team who was mad because he didn't make our team when he thought he could and he should. But I mean that just shows you the mentality ... He's got something some guys don't have, and I think he's showed it everytime he's played."

Also in regards to Ball, we learned that he will still be used at both the CB and FS positions.

According to secondary coach Dave Campo, Ball handled everything thrown at him in terms of assignments and responsibilities. Ball did the double duty of working at both free safety and cornerback in the nickel pass defense because of Orlando Scandrick's injured finger.

"We're getting a good felling for what he [Ball] can and cannot do," Campo said. "No. 1, I trust him. You know you're going to get his best effort. You know he's smart. You know he's going to study. He's made a lot of progress."

We learned that if Mike Hamlin doesn't snag the starting FS from Ball this season, he could very well earn himself some playing time soon.

The coaches are still intrigued by his potential. They especially like his playmaking ability. It'll be interesting to see what happens with Gerald Sensabaugh's contract situation. If that doesn't get worked out, Hamlin might end up as the starting strong safety. He has the size to play there.

For now, he's the challenger to Alan Ball at free safety, but Ball is the clear favorite.

We learned that the Cowboys are still looking for somebody to step up and grab the fourth CB spot.

Coach Wade Phillips said he's pleased with his three main cornerbacks: Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick.

There is concern about the fourth cornerback. Phillips called the players battling for the fourth cornerback spot "up and down." Bryan McCann, Cletis Gordon and Marquis Floyd all have attributes the team likes, but they need to be more consistent.

We learned that the coaches may take their time in developing Awkasi Owusu-Ansah.

"It's going to take him a while," Campo said. "You don't just walk out there. It's not a book game." To make up for what he's missing on the field, Owusu-Ansah is in Maxie's pocket during team drills, getting good mental reps.

"Maxie's talking to him about the coverages and all that stuff," Campo said. "I think he's ahead of a normal guy coming in. He's really a smart kid. Now, ahead physically? I don't think so. You're coming from a small school, it's going to take him a while to get going. Competing against this type of athlete, it's going to take him a while to get the speed of the game."

On the Defensive Line

Up front, we learned that Coach Phillips was impressed with how Junior Siavii played when coming in for Jay Ratliff during last season. Siavii was afforded extra reps during OTAs while Ratliff was out recovering from elbow surgery.

Coach Wade Phillips said he did not appreciate how well Siavii played in a backup role last season until reviewing the game film.

The Cowboys listed rookie Sean Lissemore as a nose tackle when drafted in the seventh round, but he has been working as an end.

On the defensive ends, we learned that Jason Hatcher rotated in some with Igor Olshansky on the first-team unit. Opposite them, Marcus Spears hasn't yielded his starting spot to Stephen Bowen or anybody else. But the DEs will probably see a good deal of rotation, perhaps more than last season. Regardless, they all look to that beast inside for leadership.

Second-year end Marcus Dixon has also been highly impressed with what Ratliff brings to the table in his first year with America’s Team.
   
"He brings an awful lot of leadership. He’s a guy you can always depend on to do the right thing on and off the field," Dixon said.

"He’s always trying to coach the other guys up because he knows he’s elite at the position. You’ve got another coach in the classroom. On the field, he brings intensity and makes you want to go out there and make a play. You just feed off the energy. He brings that every single day. It makes you want to take your game to a different level. When you’ve got a guy like that on your team and in your classroom, you want to be better every day."

At Linebacker

At outside linebacker, we learned that DeMarcus Ware is awesome. Wait...we already knew that. Well, we learned that opposite him--on the strongside--is a guy in Anthony Spencer who we may call "awesome" Anthony by the time this season is in full swing.

Spencer's 98 tackles last season ranked third on the team. He also had a team-high nine tackles for loss and a career-best six sacks.

"He's comfortable and a real smart guy," coach Wade Phillips said of Spencer. "He doesn't make many mistakes at all. He was a force the second half of last year."

Also at OLB, we learned that Brandon Williams has recovered well enough from his ACL surgery to make a push to be the defense's #3 pass rusher behind Ware and Spencer.

But with his quick first step, the Fort Worth native, said he's asked to play the pass more in 2010.
Ware said he might need to take a snap or two off during regular season games, and it would seem that Williams will get the call over Victor Butler, who started for Ware in New Orleans, when he recovered from a severe neck injury.

"I'm preparing myself for anything and do what I'm supposed to do," Williams said. "I have to be a professional and I'm willing to do that."

Williams said his left knee is fine, yet during the mandatory minicamp last week, he only practiced in the mornings. However, the coaches have hopes for Williams to become a third outside pass rusher they can count on.

Regarding all the talent at ILB, we learned that the Cowboys are looking for ways to get more than two on the field in certain packages.

During several 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills, the Cowboys mixed their inside linebackers between Bradie James, Sean Lee, Jason Williams and Brooking.

During one 11-on-11, James, Lee, Brooking were the inside linebackers with DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer the outside linebackers.

And we learned that, like Jason Williams, second-round pick Sean Lee has some wheels for an inside 'backer.

Maybe it’s because he’s from Penn State, which has produced some talented linebackers (like Shane Conlan and Jack Ham) who rely on brains and brawn over speed to become stars as professionals, but rookie Sean Lee is faster than he looks.

When the team broke into 11-on-11 drills, he regularly slipped through blockers to get into the backfield, and looked smooth dropping into pass coverage. At one point, he looked like he was cruising in second gear while shadowing tight end Scott Sicko before leaping up to knock away the pass.

Finally, we learned that Keith Brooking's knee is feeling better after having some "clean-up" arthroscopic surgery.


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