Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Rob Ryan has done a tremendous job with the cards he has been dealt this season. Ryan is fielding a patchwork defense, but he is making it work.
Rob Ryan came to Dallas with a lot of hype and excitement. His hiring came as a surprise because his personality didn't quite line up with Jason Garrett's type of coaching. Ryan's personality didn't prevent Garrett and the Cowboys from bringing in a defensive coordinator who has years of coaching experience. The Cowboys wanted to keep their 3-4 defense intact, and Ryan was a good fit because of his familiarity in the scheme.
Ryan didn't exactly have the type of results that many were expecting him to have in 2011. You really can't critique Ryan's 2011 defense because he inherited a unit that had some major liabilities and weaknesses. Entering the 2012 season, Ryan finally had the secondary he needed in order to run his man-to-man coverage scheme that allowed him to use more pressure up front.
On opening night in New York, Ryan's defense gave you a glimpse of what you could be seeing for the rest of the season. Unfortunately, Ryan was then dealt a terrible hand of cards. Injuries are part of the game, no doubt about that, but Ryan lost five starting players. Barry Church, Sean Lee, Kenyon Coleman, Bruce Carter and Jay Ratliff all played important roles in the defense.
The loss of Church prevented Ryan from relying on man-to-man press coverage because it threw special teams ace Danny McCray into the starting safety position. McCray can't be relied on in deep coverage like Church. Then losing Lee and Carter was a devastating blow that further derailed Ryan's capabilities in being aggressive.
When you really think about it, most of the players Ryan lost were up the middle of the defense. Usually teams want to build from the middle out, so when you lose starters right up the heart of your defense it makes it extremely difficult to be effective on defense.
Jason Garrett has a lot of respect for Ryan, but he truly appreciates the way his defensive coordinator has battled through the adversity and persevered.
"I thought Rob did an outstanding job," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "He has done an outstanding job all year long. Injuries are a part of the game and 32 cities are dealing with injuries. That's just part of what we do. Rob has done a good job of putting the pieces together. A lot of new guys, guys who weren't on our team a few weeks ago, are now playing."
Ryan is fielding a defense that still has a lot of talent in players like DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Jason Hatcher, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, but he has relied on free agents who were signed off the street. Ernie Sims looks like he has finally found a role in the NFL. Eric Frampton was primarily a special teams player for the Vikings, but when he has been on the field he looks like a decent player for the Cowboys. Charlie Peprah could provide Ryan with another safety who can relieve McCray in coverage, and you have to be excited about the future of Sterling Moore.
The Cowboys' scouting department has really done a tremendous job of acquiring talent that nobody else seemed to want. Even their recent acquisition of cornerback Michael Coe looks like a good move. Coe was thrown into the lineup last week against the Steelers and he provided adequate coverage.
If you take a quick glance around the NFL, you won't find another defensive coordinator making his defense work with so many injuries. What Ryan has done this season is truly remarkable.
He's giving the Cowboys a chance to win games and his defense is making plays against good teams. Even Ryan admits that he's had trouble learning all of the new names, but he's beginning to find out what he has in his new players.
"We did struggle for a few weeks to kind of identify who we are," he said Friday. "I feel better. I think I’m calling a better game now that I understand our guys a little better."
Some of the veterans on this team are playing some of their best football of their careers. Anthony Spencer has really thrived in Ryan's system, and he looks like one of the best outside linebackers in football. Alex Albright is really beginning to come on strong. Albright is another great find by the scouting department, but linebackers coach Matt Eberflus had a lot to do with the recruiting of the Boston College defensive end after he went undrafted last April.
That brings me to my next point, not only has Ryan brought in great personnel, he's also put together a great defensive coaching staff. During his brief tenure in Dallas, Ryan made a lot of changes to the coaching staff. Those changes have made the Cowboys a well-coached defense.
Eberflus is going to be a defensive coordinator in the NFL, it's only a matter of time before he advances to that level of coaching. Defensive line coach Brian Baker has been another great addition to the Cowboys because like Ryan, Baker is extremely vocal and passionate. Jerome Henderson has done a fantastic job of turning the secondary into a consistent unit.
Next season Ryan will get some of his injured stars back, but he will also probably inherit more defensive talent from free agency and the draft. Considering everything he has done in 2012, Ryan could probably come back next year and produce one of the best defenses in the league. The future of the defense looks to be very promising under the watch of Rob Ryan.