Most of the Cowboys storylines through the offseason and preseason have focused on the improved secondary, the status of the offensive line and the third wide receiver spot. A story that has received almost no attention outside of hardcore fan circles are the upgrades the Cowboys have made at inside linebacker.
After the NFC Championship game between the 49ers and Giants, Jerry Jones talked about what he wants the Cowboys’ inside linebackers to look like – fast from sideline to sideline - like the 49ers' duo of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.
It looks like Jones may be getting his wish this season, as the Cowboys pair Sean Lee with Bruce Carter, who "might be able to backpedal faster than Bradie James and Keith Brooking can run straight ahead at their advanced age," as Tim McaMahon of ESPNDallas writes. While Carter didn't run at the NFL Combine due to a knee injury that dropped him into the second round of the draft, he reportedly ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at North Carolina. And that speed is showing up:
"We are faster," Jones said last week on KRLD-FM. "There's no question when you look at No. 54, Carter, out there. He's the fastest inside linebacker in the NFL, maybe the fastest linebacker, period.
"With him and Sean Lee out there, it's a big difference ... I'm very pleased with what we've done to the interior of our pass defense."
Jason Garrett also liked what he saw from Bruce Carter in Carter's first NFL start.
"You can see Bruce is somebody that can really run to the football," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "He makes a lot of plays sideline to sideline. I also thought he covered well."
Prior to Wednesday's game, Carter had one NFL tackle to his name. He added five more against the Giants, and showed that he can also be counted on in pass coverage, something that Rob Ryan remarked on earlier last week as well:
"I think Bruce can be special in coverage, I really do," Ryan said. "I think he can be a special blitzer. We’ll find out. It’s good to get him out there. He’s come a long way from that injury that he had. He’s worked really hard with Matt Eberflus and Sean Lee, his two coaches, so he’ll be ready to go."
One of the reasons public opinion has been a little lukewarm towards Carter is that many fans and observers are having trouble figuring out exactly what the Cowboys plan to do with Carter. Is he an inside linebacker, or will he be used more to rush the passer? Is he a runstopper, a nickel linebacker or maybe even a three-down guy? The key point here is Carter's versatility. He can cover, he can rush, he can stop the run (he stuffed Bradshaw twice at the line of scrimmage on Wednesday). And any lingering doubts about who won the training camp competition for the spot next to Lee are now settled: Carter played on 30 snaps, Dan Connor on four.
To anybody watching the Cowboys' defense last season, the dropoff between Sean Lee and whoever was playing next to him was blindingly obvious - and that was when Sean Lee was playing with a cast on his hand for a large part of the season. In Carter, the Cowboys are adding a second linebacker with first round talent to the mix. And that alone should see a significant improvement for the Cowboys defense: the benefits Sean Lee brings to the Cowboys defense are already significant; adding a player with similar potential will step-change this defense.
San Francisco may currently get the popular vote for the best ILB duo in the league, but don't be surprised if Lee and Carter challenge hard this year for the title of "best ILB duo in the league". This year we'll probably see a Cowboys inside linebacker unit the likes of which we haven't seen in quite a while.
To paraphrase something Coty Saxman wrote a while back: Pairing Sean Lee with Bruce Carter won't make the streets of Texas any safer, but having a pair of inside linebackers capable of impacting any and every play might just prove to be the missing piece for the Cowboys.