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Dallas Cowboys 2011 Midseason Review: Defense

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Meet Sean Lee, 2011's first-half MVP
Meet Sean Lee, 2011's first-half MVP

Earlier in the week, I wrote a post offering an assessment of the Cowboys' offense through the first half of the season. Today, I've got the follow-up: a look at the defense, using the same assessment categories. As I suggested when discussing the offense, 2011, a season which began shrouded in uncertainty, remains shrouded. As a result, any questions that wonder, "what do we know about this team?" can receive only incomplete or highly speculative responses. Nevertheless there are some things upon which we can hang our hats. Let's take a look at those, in an effort to ascertain just what we are dealing with as the 2011 season reaches the bend and gets ready to turn for home.

Who makes them go: I’ll offer the same answer here that has applied since mid-2005: DeMarcus Ware. Ware is a supreme, hall-of-fame talent who keeps rival offensive coordinators up nights trying to scheme for his uncanny combination of quickness and power. Since Greg Ellis was released, Ware has been the primary, if not the exclusive, source of the Cowboys pass rush. Without him, I shudder to think of the numbers opposing quarterbacks, with seven to ten seconds in a clean pocket, might put up against this defense. All that said, Ware has been a little bit "sack or bust" this season; I'd like to see him get more consistent pressure, even if it means fewer sacks.

What’s holding them back:
Mediocre defensive end play. For a few years now, we have discussed the fact that Dallas' defensive ends haven't been much of a factor in pass rush situations. Some claim that, as "5-technique" guys, their primary responsibility is to play the run, so they shouldn't pile up huge sack numbers. This may be true--and especially so when both outside linebackers are elite rushers--but, if so, then they have to be superb against the run, be strong at the point of attack, set the edge, etc. This year, the Cowboys' defensive ends have failed to generate much pass rush (they have three sacks among them, two of which were by Jason Hatcher against the 49ers), and have, of late, been getting collapsed against the run. Looking at the tape of Shady McCoy and Mashawn Lynch running against the  Dallas "D," I repeatedly see them run off tackle, into holes recently vacated by Kenyon Coleman and Marcus Spears, who have been rather rudely driven off the point. Not good for a collection of supposed run-stoppers.

Further thoughts on the state of the Cowboys' defense after the jump...

Most pleasant surprise: Abram Elam. Gone is the recurring nightmare image from 2001: a Dallas cornerback trailing behind a receiver as a safety (who has perhaps bitten on a poorly-executed run fake) struggles to get over in time to influence the play. Last season, the Cowboys gave up 57 pass plays of more than 20 yards, good for 29th in a 32-team league. Thus far in 2011, they have given up 24; extrapolated over a full season, that would put them right at the NFL average of 48. What's more, the type of longer passes they've given up has changed; how many times have we seen a safety with deep help responsibilities come over too late? Very few. Elam is certainly not the athlete that, say, Seattle's Earl Thomas is. But he's stealthy and heady--exactly the sort of player you want alongside the superstars around whom a team is built.

Biggest disappointment:
The pass rush in general, and Anthony Spencer in particular. As I have written several times now, the success of this Cowboys squad will be directly proportional to the vehemence and consistency of their pass rush. Although they stormed out of the gates, notching 13 sacks in the first three games, the defensive heat has cooled of late, and Ware has been the only player generating any consistent pressure (seven of the Cowboys eight sacks in the past month were by Ware, who has effectively become a one-man pressure package). For Dallas to control the better offenses (who have the better quarterbacks, natch), this will have to change, and guys other than #94 will have to get into the mix.

Question answered: Can Sean Lee continue to develop as a playmaker? The answer is a resounding "yes!" Last year, Lee showed flashes of playmaking ability, with a couple of impressive tackles for loss and a "player of the week" game against Indianapolis signal caller Peyton Manning. What Cowboys Nation wondered this offseason was: could Lee become that player more often and with more consistency?. Thus far in 2011, he has, rather emphatically, shown that he can, leaving us hoping and praying that he can finish up the season after dislocating his wrist against Philadelphia.

Lingering doubt: Is Jay Ratliff in decline? Ratliff enjoyed a terrific three-year run of excellence: a breakout 2009, and superb seasons in 2008 (7.5 sacks and a 10 AV) and 2009 (6 sacks and a 17 AV, which is extraordinary for a nose tackle). That said, there has been a gnawing suspicion, even as early as 2009, that he has been wearing down. Last season, his game fell off, and we began to wonder if all the double teams had taken their toll on his undersized body. Thus far in 2011, evidence suggests that it has. This is largely substantiated through the eyeball test; although his tackles are up, he doesn't appear to be as quick--and thus is less able to shed blockers and penetrate the line of scrimmage or to collapse the pocket with the same frequency as he has displayed in seasons past.

Most likely combo to see in 2014: Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick--narrowly beating out Lee and Bruce Carter. I went with the cornerback tandem for a couple of reasons. First, we don't know whether Carter will be a player; he could end up being another Jason Williams. But more importantly, I think that Jenkins and Scandrick give the Cowboys on defense what their tackles give them on offense: two young, talented guys at crucial positions in an increasingly pass-happy league. It's been easy to beat up Mike Jenkins, but when he's healthy, he displays elite athleticism, playmaking ability, and plays with a little vinegar. Speaking of vinegar, that's Scandrick's game: he's a tough, competitive guy who plays with a sizable chip on his shoulder. Dallas' 2008 draft was up and down to the extreme; these guys represent the "up."

Defensive coach of the half-season:
The obvious choice is to go with Rob Ryan, but I want to give some love to the lowly position coaches. Three weeks ago, when the Cowboys were routinely stonewalling opponents’ running games, I would have given a nod to defensive line coach Brian Baker. Now, with the recent falloff in defensive line play, I’m going to head in another direction, and look to a guy who’s made last season’s primary weakness—safety play—a solid, steady aspect of the defense, if not a position of strength. As mentioned above, Elam has been a revelation. But defensive backs/ safeties coach Brett Maxie also has Gerald Sensabaugh playing very well (if you doubt that, look at what Detroit did to the Cowboys when he left the game with a concussion);  in addition, rotation guys like Barry Church looks very comfortable in the defense and are making plays, too. And, hey, Danny McCray recorded a sack.

Defensive MVP:  Sean Lee. Certainly, Ware makes this unit run, but the most valuable defender in the first half of the season has been Lee, who has regularly led the team in tackles (he's second on the team, 2 stops behind Sensabaugh), made plays sideline to sideline, leads the team in interceptions (with 3), and has solidified the middle of a defense that, last year, was marshmallow soft (and has been again with him out of the lineup). The key for the rest of the season, of course, is that he be able to play—and at the same high level—with the "Q-tip arm," a heavily-padded cast on his dislocated wrist.

So, whaddya think, BTBers? What above do you agree with? With what do you take issue? Have a take? Go to the comments and let it fly.

Oh, and I almost forgot: Go Cowboys!