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Seven Practices Later and What Do I Know?

I wrote about it yesterday, but the image still is with me. Bill Parcells is watching his team go eleven on eleven Friday morning and as he watches the cycling of players and plays, he looks dejectedly downwards and shakes his head.

I laid responsibility for his malaise on Drew Henson's shoulders, but Henson is not the only player having his ups and downs. I've decided to play devil's advocate today and play the what if game -- what if the many changes brought on this offseason are not working?

If you want to play the pessimist there is a lot to stoke your dark mood. Jason Ferguson and Marco Rivera spent most of the week riding the exercise bikes. Jacob Rogers is out for the year. Free safety is Keith Davis and a lot of nothing else. For all the good that the organization has done, can the team take a step forwards?

I think they can, but my guess is that the biggest improvement will come in a way opposite from what most people expect. The lion's share of moves this offseason have come on the defensive side of the ball. Ferguson and Anthony Henry got big deals. Aaron Glenn was signed late to provide help in the nickel. Four of the top five draft picks are on defense. Hence, most people think the biggest improvement will come on that side of the ball.

I do too -- but not right away. I think that the team's start will depend on how ready the offense is. And for all its problems against Arizona, I think the offense is closer to being an effective unit than the defense.

The wide receiver position took a lot of knocks because no draftees were added. But the passing game has some real weapons, even if they're not shiny fresh and new. Jason Witten is shiny and new, and he's going to keep getting better. His blocking looks improved and he's already developed a rapport with Bledsoe, who can spot him anytime and anywhere. Bledsoe also has an understanding with his old Pats teammate Glenn, who was easily the most effective wideout in camp. Add in Patrick Crayton, who looks better every day and the steady Eddie Keyshawn Johnson, and I see a unit that can move the ball. Julius Jones is a known talent and the offensive line was able to create running space all week, even when backups Tyson Walter and Rob Petitti were manning the right side of the line.

The one hold up is, of course, right tackle. We'll learn a lot Monday night about the Rob Petitti experiment. Hope that Seahawks DC Ray Rhodes throws the kitchen sink at him, so that the Cowboys coaches can get a true assessment of his development. There is no question the man has skills. The bigger issue is whether the team can depend on them to develop in a timely fashion this year. If Dallas can find somebody -- anybody -- to play RT, the offense has the talent to put points on the board.

The bigger questions are on the defensive side of the ball, where the far bigger renovation project is going on. One positive is certain, health permitting -- the secondary will be much better. Anthony Henry has right corner nailed down. I don't know if the team is already shying away from him, but Terence Newman got far more action on his side of the field than Henry got on his. Aaron Glenn gives Dallas experience in the nickel. Roy Williams gets to be Roy Williams again, stalking the "box."

Free safety is still a concern, but Keith Davis has the job, no matter that Parcells wants him on special teams. He's simply too much better than Lynn Scott or Ike Reese to keep on the bench. The bigger concern is finding a decent backup. Reese doesn't make any mistakes, but he doesn't make many plays anymore either. Davis is the only FS I saw breakup passes this week. Parcells mentioned back in minicamp that Davis has a nose for the ball and compared that nose to Lester Hayes'. After watching him for a week, I second the complement. Davis finds the ball. He plays with a lot of aggression. However, I don't know how he compares to other top notch FS because there's nobody in camp to compare him to.

The really big changes are coming on the defensive front seven and here is where I think the early results might be disappointing, in that the renovation is too severe to be completed in such a short period of time.

Here's the bottom line. We can argue about the percentages played, but the Cowboys will be a 3-4 defense this year. They practice it at least twice as much as the 4-3. All the technique drills for the linemen were for the 3-4. Almost all the technique drills this past week for the linebackers were for the 3-4. When the defense did go with four linemen, it was for passing downs, when the team would go 4-2-5.

The good news is that the kids have talent. Kenyon Coleman looks like a natural 3-4 tackle. He was tried at both LE and RE and to my eyes is a much better fit in the scheme than Greg Ellis, who is having his trouble manning up against Flozell Adams. Chris Canty has that look about him. He gets pentration. He gets to the running backs. He bats passes down when his rush is stopped. Every time the linemen go 3 on 2, with two DL squaring off against three OL, you hear Parcells praising something he does.

The x-factor is Marcus Spears, who is getting close to practicing. If he can hold the point at LE, Dallas suddenly has three prototype young DEs. And this does not take Jay Ratliff into account. He's getting lots for work as a swing lineman as a DE in the 3-4 and lining up inside in the 4-3.

The biggest area of concern is the linebacking corps. The inside positions look pretty good. Dat Nguyen is Mr. steady and Bradie James, Scott Shanle and Ryan Fowler are all coming on. Outside, however, the position is unsettled. Demarcus Ware has the talent to become a perennial Pro Bowler, but he has a lot of work to do, on both his pass drops and his rush technique. Al Singleton mans the other spot, but I think it's just a matter of time become Kevin Burnett takes over. However, Burnett's size makes him better suited to play inside. Kalen Thornton backs up Ware and he's in the same position. He's a converted college 4-3 end who looks stiff in coverage.

But coverage technique is not my biggest concern. The 3-4 relies on the backers to produce a rush. Right now, Ware is the only guy in that unit who impresses me coming at the passer. And I'll repeat, he's still got a lot to learn as a rusher. If he can't get to the QB, which LB will?

That is the biggest question I brought home to Texas with me. But after paragraphs of discussing the glass as half empty, I'll end by offering an it's-half-full tip: I didn't see the Cowboys spend one minute in camp this week working on their 3-4 blitz package. Not one. My guess is that they'll install those next week once they're behind Valley Ranch's closed doors, away from snoops like me. The pass rush may struggle again this Monday night, but wait until next week's game against Houston before you edge over to the panic button. We probably won't see the real 3-4 package unwrapped until then.

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