With Anthony Spencer Gone, Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli Loom Even Larger For Cowboys

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

What was already a big factor for Dallas just got bigger. There will likely be no return for Anthony Spencer, and the Cowboys will have to keep relying on the stellar job being done by defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli.

To: Awards Committee

Subject: NFL Assistant Coach of the Year

For future reference, the names are spelled K-I-F-F-I-N and M-A-R-I-N-E-L-L-I.

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OK, there is no longer an NFL Assistant Coach of the Year award. But for anyone who may be looking to start one, the early leaders for the award have to be Monte Kiffin, the Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator, and Rod Marinelli, his defensive line coach.

I know that many will protest that it is way to early to be talking like this. But with news that Anthony Spencer will indeed have surgery that will take until at least January for recovery, the case for Marinelli as the most valuable assistant coach in the league is getting very convincing, and Kiffin has to be part of the conversation as the overall architect of the defense.

I have been covering what the Kiffin/Marinelli partnership has been doing with the defensive line, and OCC's most recent post on grading the performance of the Cowboys has more evidence for your consideration. But to fully appreciate all that, there needs to be a little perspective. Take a look at this likely two-deep roster for the defensive line as it was just before the start of training camp. (I am making some assumptions on actual position played. In the Monte Kiffin/Rod Marinelli defense, some of the distinctions between end and tackle are a bit fluid, and it is the same with the 1 and 3 technique tackle.)

RDE: DeMarcus Ware, Kyle Wilber

RDT: Jason Hatcher, Tyrone Crawford

LDT: Jay Ratliff, Nick Hayden

LDE: Anthony Spencer, Ben Bass

If you haven't guessed, the names in red are players that are now either out for the season, or, in Ratliff's case, have not taken the field. And given the way things have gone with injuries on the defensive line, I would not bet a single cent that Ratliff is going to see the field this year. Especially since there are optimistic comments coming out of Valley Ranch, which of course is the harbinger for a future trip to the IR.

Two starters and two key backups gone. Now, we see the Cowboys lining up like this (position assignments remain flexible):

RDE: DeMarcus Ware, Kyle Wilber

RDT: Jason Hatcher, Drake Nevis

LDT: Nick Hayden, David Carter

LDE: George Selvie, Edgar Jones, Caesar Rayford

The names that I highlighted in green all have one thing in common. None of them were with the Cowboys on the first day of training camp. They are players who could not make other NFL rosters. Oh, and if that is not enough, Carter, Jones, Rayford and Nevis were not with the team when the initial 53-man roster was made. Nevis was not with the team until today (Tuesday).

And the results: Dallas may be experiencing the best defensive line play it has seen since a certain "D" word was being used to describe things. It's a word I am hesitant to mention because the effects of the Goatmouth are still only dimly perceived and not at all understood, but for those who might not know what I refer to, go here.

The Cowboys may have only played three games, but already the performance of this ragtag bunch of Rushmen, to use the term preferred by Marinelli, is so taken for granted, that the reaction to the news of Spencer's surgery is largely a collective shrug.

It is a bit dumbfounding, especially when there were so many sharpening the knives to go after the Cowboys after the team traded out of the 18th spot in the draft, passing on Sharrif Floyd. As injuries mounted, so did the comments about how the failure to address the defensive line was going to come back to haunt the team. It was easy to envision the plans to hang Jerry Jones in effigy, a sign reading "The Defensive Line Is A Strength Of The Team" hanging around his neck.

Instead, the Cowboys are not just surviving the rash of injuries concentrated on the defensive front. They are thriving. When examined logically, this seems something that can only be attributed to the coaching of Marinelli and Kiffin.

That is bolstered by the fact that we were told this is the way Kiffin's defense is designed. Put pressure on the quarterback, primarily through the front four with some judicious blitzing thrown in, and put the defensive backs in position to make plays. Which is exactly what is happening, according to Brandon Carr.

It's also not a particularly complex system. Carr said the simplicity is allowing everyone on defense to play fast. He can tell the pressure is making the quarterback uncomfortable and rattled in the pocket. The secondary can anticipate where the ball is going when the quarterback's timing gets tampered with.

"We have guys that take pride in getting off that ball and getting after the quarterback," Carr said. "Just like it's my job to go out there and cover, it's their job to go out there and cause havoc in the middle and on the rush. I like it."

That simplicity is, more than the switch from the 3-4 to the 4-3, the most important change Monte Kiffin brought to Dallas. It means the players can learn this faster, which has brought early success. That just feeds on itself as those players start to really believe and play with confidence. And it allows the team to absorb some losses to injury that they haven't seen the likes of since . . .

Well, last year. The injuries were a bit differently distributed, but here it is three games into the season and two defensive starters are missing. Two players who were expected to be stars, or at least major contributors. And instead of seeing the defense start to struggle it seems to be getting stronger as the season progresses. This may be the greatest difference between Kiffin and Rob Ryan. Ryan's defense can work, and seems to be working for the New Orleans Saints, but based on what happened in 2012, it does not weather injuries to the starters all that well. Or at least it didn't in Dallas.

Now, the team has absorbed two major losses and not only maintained the course, but has opened up the throttle. It can't be attributed to talent, because these are the definition of street guys, the same kind of players the Cowboys were using to try to hold things together last season. Scheme may get some credit, but I think it primarily has to come down to the coaching.

Kiffin and Marinelli. If there isn't an award for what they are accomplishing, there should be one.

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