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Friday Cowboys Musings: Where Hast Thou Gone, Anthony Spencer?

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Most, if not all, of us would agree that the defensive performance against the Giants was a bust. Coming into the game, I expected Eli Manning and to have success against the Cowboys secondary who, for some reason, don't match up well with his stable of good young receivers (I fear Hakeem Nicks will be a Pro-Bowler for the next decade). What surprised me, however, was the relative ease with which the Giants ran the ball. In particular, they continually gashed the Cowboys off-tackle; Ahmad Bradshaw repeatedly scooted outside (or, as we shall see, inside and then outside) of containment to find good yardage outside the numbers.

it didn't take long for the Monday Night Football announcing team, lead by ESPN's resident football egghead, Ron Jaworski, to identify the culprit: Anthony Spencer. Jaworski and partner John Gruden noted that Spencer repeatedly ran himself out of the play by bursting straight upfield at the snap or by dancing away from blocks rather than engaging New York's offensive tackles. Instead of establishing an edge--the defensive end/outside linebacker's primary responsibility--he was in effect helping the Giants to creating huge running lanes for Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs.

That the Giants were able to exploit Spencer's upfield surge was no accident. I'm guessing there were numerous runs on offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride's playsheet designed to do just that. If that is indeed the case, its because the New York coaching staff saw something in their film study that they could exploit. In other words, they noticed that, in recent weeks, Spencer's first move has usually been upfield. As a result, they installed a package designed to make him--and, by extension, the Cowboys--pay for over-committing to the rush.

That this happened to Spencer, of all people, is particularly discouraging. During his rookie season and the better part of 2008, the book on Spencer was that he was the toughest defender against the run. Jason Witten remarked upon numerous occasions how hard it was to block number 93. In large part, this was due to Spencer's excellent hand usage; unlike most young players, he used his quick, strong hands to establish position and gain leverage, thus neutralizing larger, stronger tackles.

These reports were all well and good for Cowboys Nation; what we all wanted from Spencer, however, were sacks--and he was finding these hard to come by. This fact was attended by several explanatory narratives: he was frequently very close to he opposing QB, but was just short; he was playing the run on the way to the pass, and was therefore a step late; the sophistication of the NFL game was causing him to hesitate slightly--just enough to mark the difference between a hurry and a sack.

Whatever the case may have been, these narratives were dispelled during the 2009 season. After a first half in which the close-but-no-cigar Spencer continued to tempt us, he broke out. Over the last ten games last year, (including playoffs), Spencer was arguably the Cowboys' best defensive player. He was brilliant at setting the edge on running plays and then, at the last moment, throwing aside his blocker to make or significantly impact the play. More importantly, he started getting to the quarterback. Spencer and Demarcus Ware quickly established themselves as one of the league's best outside rush tandems; at season's end, Philadelphia was forced to resort to a "pass defense formation", scooting their running backs up just outside the tackles to help stop Dallas' fearsome twosome. That left six defenders to cover two receivers and a tight end; is it any wonder the Dallas D dominated the hated Iggles offense so completely?

As this thumbnail history shows, Spencer's pass rush has improved steadily over his time wearing the star. Now, however, he appears to have become so pass rush focused that its hurting his play--and that of his defensive mates. Watching Spencer's play in last week's defensive debacle, I wondered: is this by Wade Phillips' design? In other words, is Spencer focusing on the pass rush out of a sense of collective desperation--i.e., because they aren't generating much? In a recent post, I looked at the construction of the Cowboys defense. My conclusion was that they are built to succeed on the perimeter, at the rush and cover positions. In this pass-happy era, this philosophy works quite well--but if, and only if, the rush ends generate pressure (preferably a lot of it).

One of myriad defensive problems this year has been a lack of consistent quarterback pressure. Sure, Ware has eight sacks, but few of them seem to have come at key moments. Spencer has two--and one of them should have been a penalty, as he grabbed Jay Cutler's facemask on the opening play against the Bears. Nobody else on the team has more than one. If I were Wade Phillips, I might ask Spencer to eschew the run as well, especially if I knew that the alternative would be watching my vulnerable secondary get torched (exactly what he has witnessed, in fact). If this is indeed the case, then this illustrates how, on struggling teams, solving one one problem (lack of a pass rush) often creates another (getting gashed in the run game). It sure feels like a long way from the dominating performances against Philly.

I'd prefer to believe that Spencer's embarrassing game against the Giants is at least partially the result of scheme. The alternative is that he's freelancing outside of the system, perhaps in order to boost his stats. I'm going to hold onto the belief that, with a performance upgrade at a couple of other defensive positions, we'll see the late-2009 Spencer again.

Eyes closed, fingers crossed...