Since April, when the Cowboys traded up to secure the services of Morris Claiborne after inking Brandon Carr to a free agent contract the month before, much has been made of Dallas' rebuilt secondary. Indeed, a unit that was clearly the weakest link a year ago (anybody remember Terence Newman's final six games?) has become a strength, boasting both talent and depth. Lost in the warm glow of this revival, however, has been the stunning development of the team's linebackers.
On Sunday night, when the rebuilt secondary let the Cowboys down in crunch time, the linebackers - especially Bruce Carter - were marvelous throughout. Collectively, they logged 25 tackles (9 by Carter, who was everywhere), and notched 2.5 sacks. And this merely reinforced what has been happening all season. Bob Sturm, who is, for my money, easily the best of the local Dallas football scribes, tracks impactful "splash" plays made by the defense (tackles for loss, passes defended, runs stuffed sacks, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, third down stops, etc.). As of the second Giants game, DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Sean Lee and Carter were numbers 1-4 in his season ranking; collectively, they have 47.5 of the 102 big defensive plays the team has made this season. Although the injured Lee will soon drop down the list, I'd expect the other linebackers (assuming good health; knock on wood) to finish 1-3 in terms of "splash" plays.
This is an important change. In February, Dallas' linebacking unit had to figure among the league's weakest. Long-in-the-tooth veteran ILBs Bradie James and Keith Brooking were consistently exploited, especially in the passing game; as a result, their contracts were not renewed at season's end. Strongside OLB Anthony Spencer's contract expired, and the team was uncertain whether it wanted to retain his services. As a result of these offseason moves, the team was left with a vast field of uncertainty. Besides all-pro caliber starters Ware and Lee and a scattering of unproven backups, including Victor Butler (who many projected as Spencer's replacement), the linebackers' depth chart consisted mostly of question marks.
Now, especially with the emergence of inside 'backers Lee and Carter (and the prospect of those two manning the middle for the next few seasons), Dallas' "four across" have to be considered among the league's best. Think about it: whose set of four linebackers would you trade for Dallas'?
|Cowboys||Anthony Spencer||Bruce Carter||Sean Lee
|49ers||Ahmad Brooks||NaVorro Bowman||Patrick WIllis||Aldon Smith|
|Cardinals||O’Brien Schofield||Daryl Washington||Paris Lenon||Sam Acho|
|Packers||Nick Perry||A.J. Hawk||Desmond Bishop||Clay Matthews|
|Redskins||Ryan Kerrigan||London Fletcher||Perry Riley||Brian Orakpo|
|Patriots||Rob Ninkovich||Dont’a Hightower||Brandon Spikes||Jerod Mayo|
|Dolphins||Koa Misi||Carlos Dansby||Kevin Burnett||Cameron Wake|
|Jets||Bryan Thomas||Bart Scott||David Harris||Calvin Pace|
|Ravens||Terrell Suggs||Ray Lewis||Jameel McClain||Courtney Upshaw|
|Steelers||Lamaar Woodley||Larry Foote||Lawrence Timmons||James Harrison|
|Texans||Brooks Reed||Brian Cushing||Bradie James||Connor Barwin|
|Colts||Robert Mathis||Cavell Connor||Jerrell Freeman||Dwight Freeney|
|Chiefs||Justin Houston||Jovan Belcher||Derrick Johnson||Tamba Hali|
|Chargers||Shaun Phillips||Takeo Spikes||Donald Butler||Jarrett Johnson|
Looking over this table, I'd take San Francisco's group of fearsome playmakers, and both the Steelers and Texans LBs might give me something to consider, but that's it. There's no other LB unit that I would consider trading for the one currently in Dallas.
And its not just the starters that are capable of making plays. A handful of the untested backups that were little more than unanswered roster questions in February are now playing significant roles. Foremost among these, obviously, is Carter, who has made a huge leap forward. In addition, guys like Alex Albright and Orie Lemon, who looked to be little more than special teamers, have shown that they can be trusted to get in-game snaps. Rounding out the roster is promising rookie OLB Kyle Wilber, the fourth-rounder from Wake Forest.
Much of the credit for the unit's development must be given to Dallas linebackers coach Matt Eberfluss, who came to Dallas from Cleveland with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. When the team announced that it had hired Eberfluss, Ryan termed him "the best linebacker coach in the league" and his "right hand." In his introductory locker room chat with the Dallas media, Ryan crowed, "Getting Matt Eberfluss is a ridiculous hire....he's fantastic; he's smart; he does everything right, and he's a rising star."
In his lone season at Cleveland, Eberflus was responsible for developing a linebacking corps that played extremely well despite the midseason loss of both starting inside linebackers due to injury, which required him to "coach up" his charges to a level that most NFL observers felt far exceeded their talent. Under his guidance, Chris Gocong emerged as a legitimate NFL inside linebacker; David Bowens made a successful transition from an outside spot to the inside, finishing with a career-best 71 tackles, with 5.5 sacks; Jason Trusnik, as street free agent (cough, Ermie Sims, cough) whom the Browns picked up five weeks into the season, went on to make 10 starts at inside ‘backer, compiling 54 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
Mired as we are in another season in which we're almost certain to watch the playoffs on TV without the Cowboys, there's not a lot upon which we can hang our hopeful hats. One notable exception is the prospect of potential superstars Ware, Lee and Carter playing alongside each other (and, perhaps Spencer) for the foreseeable future. Its gonna be a lot of fun to watch.