I took this very question to the lobby at the BTB Virtual Office to get the opinions of my cohorts. I asked each of my colleagues for their impressions and the discussion led to the following outcomes.
Dave Halprin - Easy one, DeMarcus Ware. The Cowboys need the Ware of old, he needs to turn back time, past the nagging injuries, and be a one-man wrecking crew like he used to be. The defensive line needs him, without pressure our back seven has the tendency to get toasted. I'm not sure Kiffin can fix that this season, so the obvious way of covering that is to get to the QB. Ware is one of the very best pass rushers ever, and even if injuries/age are slowing him down, if he can have a second half of the season that resembles vintage Ware, the Cowboys defense will be demonstrably better. Given that the Cowboys losses have been by 1, 9, 3 and 1 points, you can see what a little better defense might do for this team.
Tom Ryle - Lot to choose from. I'll go with Tony Romo, in line with what I told Dawn. I think he needs to try and recover his accuracy and confidence. With the injuries to the defense, and with Brian Waters' injury as well, he is going to need to start getting the ball to receivers quickly and keep drives alive. He has struggled since the Denver game, and the team needs him to make sure they put points up on the board to get and keep leads in games. He has been the difference before, and he has to be the second half of the season to make something out of it.
Dawn Macelli - Well, (in Monte Kiffin voice) "Dang it." Dave and Tom took my two best answers.
I am going to go off of the playing surface and say Bill Callahan. The offensive play-calling this season has been questionable at best. Many of us were not happy with how things went under Garrett's direct influence and we were glad to see someone else making the calls from the booth, but some of the in-game choices this season have made me yearn for Garrett to resume those duties, at least on a temporary basis. There were some questions about Callahan's play-calling with the Raiders, and now it seems that he brought those issues with him to Dallas.
Rabblerousr - I'll take Mackenzie Bernadeau. If Brian Waters is indeed done for the season, Bernadeau is going to have to play far beyond the level that we've seen from him thus far if the Cowboys line is to avoid taking a step backward - and to mitigate somewhat a secondary loss: that of Waters' steadying influence on the other two interior O-linemen.
One.Cool.Customer - I'll go with the unknown defensive lineman. When the Cowboys were still holding out hope that Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff would be healthy enough to return at some point, they were content to sign a bunch of late-round picks and UDFAs to provide temporary depth for the defensive line.
Jul 26: DE George Selvie (7th round pick, 2010), Landon Cohen (7th round pick, 2008)
Aug 21: DE Jason Vega (UDFA)
Sept. 3: DE Caesar Rayford (UDFA)
Sept. 7: DT Jerome Long (7th round pick)
Sept. 17: DT David Carter (6th round pick)
After Anthony Spencer re-injured his knee in the Week 2 game against the Chiefs (and was moved to IR a week later), and the situation with Jay Ratliff was getting increasingly murky, the Cowboys changed their strategy for the D-line. No longer were they looking for backups, they were now looking for starters, and began signing guys with high draft pedigrees in the hope that these guys would be able to replicate the performance that had made them high draft picks in the first place.
Sept. 24: DT Drake Nevis (3rd round pick, 2011)
Oct. 15: DE Jarius Wynn (6th round pick, 2009)
Oct. 21: DT Marvin Austin (2nd round pick, 2011)
Oct. 29: DE Everette Brown (2nd round pick, 2009)
The key to slowing down modern offenses is to get pressure on the passer. If the quarterback is pressured or hurried, he's much more prone to make a mistake and turn the ball over or make enough bad passes to make the offense one dimensional. If you give any NFL quarterback enough time, he’s going to pick you apart. Pressure him, force him into making a fast decision and the chances of the QB making a mistake go way up.
More than anything else, the Cowboys' success in the remaining eight games rests on the defensive line's ability to get pressure on the passer. For that to happen, one or even two of the unknown defensive linemen currently on the roster will have to step up in a huge, career-changing way.
In my opinion the answer to this question really lies in OCC's final statement.
"More than anything else, the Cowboys' success in the remaining eight games rests on the defensive line's ability to get pressure on the passer."
We have seen Tony Romo play good football in stretches this year, and we have seen him put together very good second-halves in seasons past, so although he does need to play well for the Cowboys to succeed, I don't think that's a huge step to look to.
However, the only way for this defense to get markedly better in the final eight games is for the defensive line to get appreciably better at rushing the passer. Whether it comes from a member of the "Band of Backups" or from their All-Pro future Hall of Fame all-time sack leader. They have to be able to impact quarterbacks regularly with only four rushers.
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