Cowboys Offseason Headscratcher: Defensive Line Questions Answered?

Tyrone Crawford is one of several young Cowboys D-linemen who have improved. - Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

In mid-February, the Cowboys had numerous questions along the defensive line. Now, four months later, many of those have been answered. Might the defensive line - gasp! - actually be one of the team's strengths?

When the Cowboys fired Rob Ryan and announced that they were going to hire Monte Kiffin, the immediate and natural reaction was to play the puzzle pieces game, fitting former 3-4 front seven players into the new 4-3 scheme. This was a fairly easy game for the linebackers; it was clear that Sean Lee and Bruce Carter would man the MLB and WLB positions, and do it well. Where it was not so easy was at defensive line, where the Cowboys seemed to have a collection of 'tweeners, 3-4 OLBs who were undersized for 4-3 ends and five techniques who were neither big enough to play D-tackle nor quick enough to serve as the super-fast upfield rushers that power Kiffin's system.

Before free agency and the draft, I authored an "offseason plan" post in which I looked at the state of the Cowboys roster. At that point, in mid-February, the defensive roster was, frankly, in a bit of a shambles. I've reproduced the depth chart here, as a reminder (asterisks represented players I thought might be cap casualties; players in bold were "sure things"):

Starter Backup Third String
LDE ???? Tyrone Crawford ***Marcus Spears
LDT Jason Hatcher Sean Lissemore Rob Callaway
RDT ???? ***Jay Ratliff Brian Price
RDE DeMarcus Ware ????
SLB ???? Alex Albright Kyle Wilber
MLB Sean Lee Dan Connor Orie Lemon
WLB Bruce Carter ????
LCB Brandon Carr Sterling Moore Vince Agnew
FS Barry Church ???? *Danny McCray
SS Gerald Sensabaugh Matt Johnson
NCB Orlando Scandrick
RCB Mo Claiborne Orlando Scandrick

This table reminds us that we didn't know what would happen with either Anthony Spencer's contract nor Jay Ratliff's status. Marcus Spears was still on the team and Kyle Wilber was still thought to be a candidate at outside linebacker. Huge questions loomed about whether youngsters like Tyrone Crawford and Ben Bass were better fits at end or tackle. And, speaking of defensive tackle, the position was a series of open questions: which player or players might best fit as the three technique, the Kiffin defense's proverbial "motor"? Who had sufficient size and bulk to take on two blockers as the one-tech?

Now, after OTAs and minicamps, many of these questions have, thankfully, been resolved. Spencer has been franchised; Bass and Crawford will play tackle and end, respectively; for the most part, Ratliff will be the three-tech, and Hatcher will line up opposite him as the one-tech (another clarifying discovery is that the one-tech in Kiffin's system isn't a space-eating run-stuffer; rather, he's a quick penetrator who splits double teams rather than trying to stand them up). And, lastly, Kyle Wilber will back up DeMarcus Ware as the weakside end.

Reports out of the offseason camps have been positive. Although the old heads, Ware (injury), Ratliff and Spencer (rest) didn't get a lot of snaps, they looked good in limited action. And, perhaps more importantly, the young'uns acquitted themselves well in their stead. Let's review the news from minicamps and OTAs:

The starters present a potentially formidable unit. Ware is going to shine lined up out wide in the Simeon Rice role. But he might not be the best end on the team; former scout Bryan Broaddus felt that Spencer was "the best defensive player on the field" after converting from OLB:

There is something about him when it comes to putting his hand on the ground and getting up the field. There is explosiveness there that these coaches are going to take advantage of. He has a real understand of [how] to use pass rush moves as he is going up the field. No defensive linemen showed the quickness that he showed today. He is the type of rusher that leaves blockers reaching for him. He gives them no hitting surface and when a tackle can't get his hands on the rusher, he is going to allow pressure...that happened several times today.

In addition, Hatcher and Ratliff appear to be well-suited to the new scheme; numerous reports claimed that they were a disruptive presence throughout the practice. In particular, both were able to explode up the field, beating blocks to get into the backfield quickly to make what could have been tackles behind the line of scrimmage. And it appears that Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli will be mixing and matching them according to the situation or opponent; on several occasions Ratliff was at the one and Hatcher at the three, and both made things difficult for the likes of Travis Frederick and Ronald Leary.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether they will have similar success against the Carl Nicks' of the NFL world. But I do think that what Kiffin's scheme asks of them is a strikingly good fit for their skill sets. What made Ratliff such an outstanding nose tackle, for instance, was his ability to attack gaps and get pressure inside as a nickel rusher. Now he'll be doing that on all three downs. In fact, I believe strongly that, had he been in this system for the duration of his career, we'd be talking about Ratliff as a Hall of Famer. Hatcher, who has enjoyed a late-career efflorescence as a pass rusher, will also benefit from a scheme that asks him to hit an opponent's shoulder rather than stand him up.

And the backups have shown some game as well. When Ratliff was out of the lineup, Hatcher moved over to the three technique, and Sean Lissemore and Nick Hayden worked as the one. I must admit that I was concerned about whether Lissy might be a good fit for this scheme, but he seems to have found a home. Reports are that he's supplemented his strength at the point of attack with surprising quickness and the ability to split double teams and get upfield.

Not to be outdone, Bass has flashed as a reserve three-tech. The second-year defensive lineman was all over the field, penetrating, getting to the quarterback for sacks, blowing up running plays and even forcing an interception. On one occasion, he did a nice job of disengaging from a blocker on a screen pass and running down jitterbug Lance Dunbar in the flat. On another, a "Fire Zone" blitz that required him to drop into coverage, he was able to run with Gavin Escobar 15 yards down the field. Impressive.

Moreover, the Cowboys might have found something in Hayden; Broaddus gave him a ringing (and, for Marcus Spears, stinging) endorsement:

Hayden wears Marcus Spears' old number of 96 but he has managed to get into the backfield more these last few days than Spears did in the last three seasons. Hayden has lined up as the one technique behind Robert Callaway and has been just as productive and at times even more...I have seen him line up in the gap and at the snap, split Phil Costa and Nate Livings getting to Kyle Orton before he could get rid of the ball. In the Team period, he managed to beat another double team, this time between Darrion Weems and David Arkin.

And its not just the backup tackles that have flashed in practice. Reports are that Tyrone Crawford looks leaner and quicker than he did at the end of last season, when he was playing around 295-300 pounds. This is not to say he's lost power. Reports from practice are that he's rushing with both speed and power. This is important; in Kiffin's scheme, the defensive linemen, and the ends in particular, are instructed to attack up the field at the snap, and play the run on the way to the quarterback. Not only is this exactly what Crawford was asked to do in Boise State's defensive system, but it plays to his strengths; he can jet upfield, yet is powerful enough to control the blocker while he is going upfield.

On the other side, Kyle Wilber appears more comfortable playing with his hand down than he did when playing linebacker in 2012. Whereas Crawford has slimmed down, Wilber has put on about ten to fifteen pounds of good weight, going from the 240's to 255. More importantly, he has shown surprising quickness off the snap and, on several occasions, was able to beat Tyron Smith off the snap and get the corner. Jimmy Johnson always said that players make their greatest leap forward between their first and second years in the league. While Crawford and Bass have certainly improved since their rookie years, Wilber may well have made the biggest leap.

Could it be that Jerry Jones was on to something when he opined, shockingly, during the draft that defensive line was one of the team's strengths? Only time will tell; but from this vantage point, the team appears to have settled a lot of questions - and found some promising answers.

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