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Give The (Old) Man A Rest: The Cowboys Still Searchin' For A Nickel Linebacker

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As we near the NFL season's quarter pole, one of the Cowboys' mini-narratives is the fact that Keith Brooking, our resident defensive greybeard, has been on the field far too much. In the first three games, he has played nearly every defensive snap, which is cause for concern. Why? We need look no further than 2009, when a fresh-legged Brooking led the early-season defensive charge. By the end of the year, even though he was spelled on passing downs by Bobby Carpenter, the then 34-year-old Brooking was a tired player. Although he was still the team's de facto spiritual leader (recall his pre-game fire-up sessions: "we're gonna...hit 'em in the mouth!"), number 51 didn't play with the same quickness and pop that he had exhibited earlier in the year.

In 2010, Brooking, now a year older, has been on the field even more. Although the Cowboys brass maintains that they want to take him off the field on passing downs, he has remained a three-down player. His fellow inside 'backer, Bradie James, no spring chicken himself, could stand to be spelled for 10-12 plays a game as well. So why are these guys playing 60+ plays per game at one of the game's most physically demanding positions? This workload comes as a result of necessity, not design. We can trace the genesis of this situation back a couple of years--to the moment when Kevin Burnett elected to go to San Diego for less money but a greater promise of a starting job. Burnett was capable in pass coverage; consequently, his loss was greeted with anxious sighs across Cowboys nation--until it became apparent that Brooking, and then Carpenter, would be suitable, if not comparable, replacements. A year later, Carpenter's trade was met with a degree of celebration proportionally equivalent to the hand-wringing that greeted Burnett's departure.

This is due in part to the fact that two weeks before Carpenter was released, the Cowboys had drafted Sean Lee. The thinking was that Lee would immediately step in to the third linebacker role, which would include duty on the nickle. For the better part of the preseason, however, he was injured; when he returned, it was clear that he was not only battling the rookie learning curve, but was laboring behind it. Speaking of injured and behind, the other viable candidate to assume nickle LB duties was 2009 third-rounder Jason WIlliams, who was injured early in his rookie campaign and has been behind ever since, in spite of elite athleticism that would seemingly suit the role of cover linebacker. To complete the backup ILB trifecta, Dallas added offseason afterthought and preseason sensation Leon Williams. To date, none of these guys has been able to supplant Brooking or James on third downs.

Let's look at the Houston game to see why. Throughout the game, Wade Phillips ran out the Williamses, Jason and Leon, to spell Brooking and James. In many of these instances, the backups acquitted themselves well. For example, on the Texans' first drive of the third quarter, they deployed a run-heavy formation with two running backs and two tight ends. Phillips countered by taking Terence Newman out of the game and bringing in J. Will and L. Will; they helped stop Derrick Ward at the line of scrimmage. Later in the quarter, Leon Williams was in the game on the play in which Mike Jenkins got his interception; he returned to action as the third linebacker on the goalline defense that kept Houston out of the endzone.

On the other hand, a sequence in the third quarter reveals why putting backup ILBs in the game gives the Dallas braintrust a queasy feeling. On the Texans' drive that began with about a minute remaining in the third quarter, Phillips decided to insert the Williamses for Brooking and James. On first down, an Igor Olshansky offsides gave the Texans a first and five. On the next play, Houston went to one of its staple runs, a stretch play that strings out the defenders before Arian Foster cuts sharply to the weakside of the play. The key to stopping this cutback is for the middle linebackers to avoid overpursuing. Leon Williams, at left ILB, did a good job maintaining lane integrity, but RILB Jason Williams overpursued the play and got sucked in, allowing Foster to cut back to an open field for fifteen yards. On the next play, Brooking and James were back in the game.

The problem, as this foray into mediocrity suggests, is that the backups cannot be trusted not to blow an assignment and contribute to a big play. This doesn't mean that Wade and his crew have given up all hope; in a recent presser, he reported that he has considered having Lee or the Williamses play first and second downs, leaving Brooking and James as full-time third down 'backers. The drawback to this solution is that his defense, with subbies at ILB, might not be able to get to third downs if they continue to make mistakes. If "we can't stop the plays on first and second down, we may go the other direction," Phillips conceded, "It just depends on who comes along and how well they come along." Translation: we have no idea who might step to the forefront; we are hoping and praying that somebody does.

In a recent story, I noted the difficulty the Cowboys special teams has had in replacing its core special teamers, one of whom was Bobby Carpenter. Thanks to the excellent work of Joe DeCamillis in developing a crop of fine young maniacs, the special teams seem to be finding their sea legs. But, in addition to being a special teamer, Carpenter had a clearly-defined role on the defense, and he did it fairly well. The difficulty that the Cowboys have had in finding a nickle linebacker in 2010 suggests that we were perhaps a bit premature in breaking out the pompoms upon learning of Carpenter's demise. 

To be a playoff team, the Cowboys need Brooking and James to be as healthy and ready to wrangle in December as they have been in September. In other words, they must find another Bobby C.--a player whom they trust enough to let the aged vets sit in their sideline rocking chairs for a few plays every game, talking about how they used to walk to school 20 miles in the snow. Uphill.

Will one of the backups gain the coaching staff's trust? If so, who will it be? My money's on Lee, who will be playing on first and second downs after the bye. Whatever the case, I will be following this storyline with great interest in the weeks to come.