The Dallas Cowboys hired former Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli this past week to coach the defensive line and, it's assumed, serve as a potential successor to 'Tampa 2' defense creator Monte Kiffin. Marinelli coached a defense in Chicago that in 2012 victimized Tony Romo for five interceptions, including a pick six, en route to a victory at Cowboys Stadium. The move by Marinelli got this Texan transplant in Chicago thinking about scheme and team personality, and whether these things consist solely of particular players on a squad or can be 'transferred' from one franchise to another.
The irony of swapping Coach Marinelli for former Cowboys special teams coach Joe DeCamillis (who's going to be 'assistant head coach' here in Chicago) is not lost on me. Whereas DeCamillis' unit struggled until Dwayne Harris started leading the league in punt returns in late season, Marinelli's D was easily the best in the league through the first half of 2012 and only faltered after multiple injuries to MLB Brian Urlacher and CB Tim Jennings. Marinelli has me much more excited about the Cowboys making the switch to the 4-3 and the potential to make it work in Dallas, including against the 'zone read' and up tempo offenses we're likely to face from the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles (knowing the NFL, they'll schedule both Skins games for December to heighten the rivalry and give RG3 a chance to return from compound knee surgery -- no one except Cowboy fans wants to see us pound Kirk Cousins into the turf when he tries to run the zone-read).
Oddly enough until recently it was the Bears picking up Cowboys players, including ex-Cowboys Roy E. Williams, Marion Barber III and Sam Hurd in 2011. Hurd of course got arrested for allegedly running a cocaine ring between Chicago and Dallas, Barber retired this offseason after taking too much punishment in his short but violent rushing career, and Williams now owns his own trucking company in his native West Texas. But other former Longhorns fullback turned athletic DT Henry Melton are still in Chicago, and the Bears also picked up Cowboys training camp project Aston Whiteside and signed former Cowboy and Abilene Christian track star Raymond Radway to replace Hurd in the special teams gunner role. I still believe once Radway regains his speed he's going to remind Bears fans of another ACU product, Johnny Knox. Unfortunatel Knox was forced into retirement following a brutal hit suffered during a game against the Seattle Seahawks.
Understandably the 'personality' we'd like as Cowboys fans to see transferred to Dallas from Chicago is the hard hitting, turnover-causing style of defense the Bears play. We certainly don't want to see our offensive line continue to struggle as the Bears unit has had for the past two seasons, resulting in injuries to Jay Cutler (who while not as much of a scrambler as Romo, has an equal or better arm). In fact, I expect both the Bears and Cowboys to draft an offensive lineman, probably a tackle early, though in the Cowboys' case D.J. Fluker could be a 1st round target because he can easily slide inside to play guard should Jeremy Parnell or Darrion Weems turn into an NFL starter at right tackle.
The Bears have traditionally drafted lumbering maulers on the o-line but might go for a speedier tackle like Oklahoma's Lane Johnson or the tall and lean tackles like Central Michigan's Eric Fisher or Wisconsin's Ricky Wagner this year. As it is, I expect the Bears to draft Kevin Minter out of LSU as Brian Urlacher's successor and look for a tackle in the 2nd round. New head coach Marc Trestman may bring over his former Montreal Alouttes tackle Jeff Perrett this February prior to the CFL free agency deadline to provide badly needed depth. That would have the domino effect of keeping former Texas Longhorns tackle Jonathan Scott a free agent, who could probably provide the Cowboys with an affordable stop gap in case Parnell or Weems are not ready to start and we only draft an OT later (like Arkansas Pine Bluff's Terron Armstead or Kansas' Tanner Hawkinson).
We've heard from certain BTB writers for quite some time that turnovers are essentially a random phenomenon and cannot statistically be shown to be 'coached' -- and yet our lyin' eyes both from Paul Pausqualoni's 2010 Cowboys Dand the Bears in 2012 seem to suggest otherwise. In fact the Bears defensive players like Charles 'Peanut' Tillman have said repeatedly that they knew their team needed a score from the defense because the offense likely wasn't going to put enough points on the board. Fortunately the Cowboys seem much closer to fixing their offensive issues than the Bears judging by the fact that we have two 1a (Dez) and 1b (Miles) receivers while Alshon Jeffrey has yet to show what he can do and Chicago lacks a true receiving threat at TE (another item on Chicago's draft day wish list). Dwayne Harris has also shown up more of late than the Bears overpaid slot receiver, Earl Bennett. That means if the Cowboys can get anywhere close to Chicago's turnover production from 2012 they will be a much more formidable team overall and should make the playoffs (barring another rash of injuries).
Turnovers of course, start with pressure up front, or with forced throws into traffic that can be picked off or lead to forced fumbles when receivers are not anticipating a hit from physical corners like Brandon Carr or Moe Claiborne. Pressure in the 4-3 comes not from exotic blitzes or putting six linebackers on the field but from the front 4 -- which at this moment without Anthony Spencer consists of Tyrone Crawford (or more likely, Jason Hatcher at end), Jay Ratliff at NT, Sean Lissemore at DT, and Demarcus Ware.
I think Ware will do just fine rushing from the weak side spot even if teams initially roll double teams and chips by the tight end and running backs to his side, as I expect a slimmed down, faster Crawford or Hatcher to get pressure from the other side (plus I expect the Boys to draft a DE like Missouri Western's David Bass or Stanford's Trent Murphy in the mid-rounds should we lose Spencer to free agency). The main problem as always will be getting pressure from up the gut. Jay Ratliff is coming off a rash of injuries but has shown he can still be effective, just not with as many snaps as he used to take inside. But Ratliff's contract and the Cowboys hopes to avoid salary cap jail in 2014 and 2015 come into play with decisions about his future.
I think Rat could be cut in a late training camp move (similar to Jason Garrett cutting Andre Grurode when he wouldn't take a pay cut in 2011), as cutting him won't save any money under the salary cap in 2013 but will in 2014 and 2015. Letting Rat go would be a sign the Cowboys are confident that former 4-3DT Rob Callaway is ready to make an impact in the rotation, that Marcus Spears might be able to stick around one more year on his reasonable contract as a run stuffer, and former 2nd round pick Brian Price (who was with the Chicago Bears) can make a push to start by the end of 2013. (You can click here to read my FanShot about whom the Cowboys should draft to run the 'I-35' package which will be like the Bears' 'Dan Ryan' package or the Giants 'NASCAR package' to rush the passer). 2nd year UDFA DT Ben Bass can compete with the UDFAs we'll bring in for a reserve defensive tackle spot on the practice squad. Again I see Mississippi State DT Josh Boyd, Princeton DT Caraun Reid, Boston College NT Kaleb Ramsey, or S. Utah's Cody Larsen all as potential targets for that developmental DT/NT slot.
But besides interior pass rush, quality safety play (though our own Matt Johnson compares well to Chris Conte in terms of size/speed), what else do you need to have a D that 'Bears Down' on opponents? You need not only your Urlacher in Sean Lee and Lance Briggs in Bruce Carter, but also outstanding play from your strong side linebacker so he's not exposed in covering tight ends and backs the way Dan Connor was for us in 2012. And that's where the draft comes in. Again I don't think barring some major salary cap restructuring and cutting Doug Free after letting Spencer walk we're going to have much cap room to sign a SAM linebacker. I like Justin Durant out of Detroit but he's likely to command more in the market than the front office is willing to pay and seems more like a WILL linebacker in any case.
Fortunately, this year's draft is deep with guys who lack elite speed but have plenty of size (6"2 245) and tackling ability - from Bama's Nico Johnson to South Carolina's DeVonte Holloman or North Carolina's Kevin Reddick. All three remind me of young Bradie James when we drafted him in 2003 to play SAM in Mike Zimmer's 4-3 defense, where he primarily played special teams behind speedy starter Dexter Coakley. James was versatile enough to have a career year for sacks and tackles in Wade Phillips' 3-4 in 2008, his third year as a starter. I believe the Cowboys will address linebacker in the mid-rounds, perhaps as early as the 4th round with Jeremiah Attaochu of Georgia Tech as another outstanding candidate for the SAM LB slot. Drafting a SAM LB will allow the Cowboys to let Alex Albright bulk up to play his college position of defensive end and keep Kyle Wilber as a special teams captain and backup SAM linebacker.