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Cowboys Defense Hampered By Peculiar Offseason

Leading up to the first preseason game, many Cowboys fans, including a lot of you on the BTB comment threads, could barely contain their excitement to see Rob Ryan's defense unveiled. The reports out of camp have detailed the exotic nature of the scheme and lauded the players for picking it up so quickly. It had to be disappointing, therefore, to see them somewhat confused and out of position last night.

A special target of Cowboys fans' frustration was the secondary, which seemingly picked up where they left off 2010, allowing several receivers to roam free, most notably on a 29-yard pass to Eric Decker, as Gerald Sensabaugh appeared to bust a coverage. Later, Dallas native Matt Willis got behind cornerback Bryan McCann, who found himself alone with safety help after Barry Church bit on a play fake, gathering in a 43-yard Tim Tebow bomb. Both plays had a disconcerting familiarity.

Perhaps more disconcerting was the ease with which the Cowboys gave up rushing yards--especially the first team, which was driven off the ball by the Denver Ones on the opening drive. The Broncos took the opening kickoff and picked up 5 first downs on a 13 play, 74 yards drive. In the middle of the drive, the Broncos ran the ball five consecutive times, gaining 6, 5, 12, 7 and 6 yards. Not pretty; not pretty at all.

And, to add insult to injury, the media has wasted no opportunity to jump on the "Dallas' defense still struggling" meme. Jacques Taylor notes that they are a work in progress, the same term employed by Dan Graziano in his post-game assessment. In addition, the twitterverse was awash last night in snarky comments by national media types who were only casually watching the game. None of these scribes mentioned what I think is the primary reason the defense struggled.

Thoughts after the jump...

A lot of the rust is a direct byproduct of this singular offseason in which there were no OTAs and mini-camps. While that certainly has put the defense behind, I think the fact that free agents couldn't begin practicing with their teams until the official beginning of the league year is a bigger culprit. Think about it: with the Cowboys missing several free agent defensive lineman the first week of camp, the defensive coaching staff didn't have enough bodies to run long series of plays in Ryan's base 3-4 sets. As a result, they ran what they could: exotic sets with one or two DL and as many as six linebackers on the field. The offense responded by setting up in multiple receiver formations (conveniently in one-back sets, as they had two backs sidelined).

The problem, of course, is that these complicated defensive formations are used primarily in obvious passing situations. The bulk of the time, the Cowboys D will be in something resembling a base 3-4 (although there will be a lot of overshifting and scheming for mismatches), precisely the formations they didn't have enough bodies to practice until August 4, when the likes of Marcus Spears, Jason Hatcher and Kenyon Coleman could legally hit the field. As a result, Dallas had been able to practice their base defense for a little less than a week before facing Denver.

According to my notes, Ryan called a fairly (wait for it)...vanilla game plan last night, sticking to the simplest defensive packages--exactly those which were most recently installed and least rehearsed. In the first half, for example, the defense was in base or traditional nickle, except for the following plays: the long pass to Decker on Sensabaugh's bust (when Dallas lined up in a 1-5); the 3rd and 7 in which a Bryan McCann penalty negated an interception (a 2-5); the third and 18 play after Clifton Geathers' sack of Tebow (looked like a 3-2); the final play of the Broncos' third drive, a third and 11 completion short of the first down; two plays after a holding penalty got the Broncos into 2nd and then 3rd and long (both 2-4, an inverted nickle); and two more just before the half, after Tebow's TD run was negated and the Broncos found themselves in longer goal-to-go situations (Ryan unveiled a 2-5 and then what looked like a 1-6). That's seven out of 38 total plays.

The defense is definitely a work in progress, but it's important to understand the non-correlative nature of what they have spent time working on and what they actually ran Thursday night. Nevertheless, I'd bet Ryan and his staff were embarrassed by the results of the game and will be working their charges hard in preparation for San Diego.

I'm looking forward to seeing how the players respond...

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