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Cowboys Replacement Rushmen: Getting The Job Done

Most of the names are unknown to the majority of fans. But Dallas' motley assortment of defensive linemen have started to come together.

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Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Overreaction is one of the most hallowed traditions for sports fans, especially for football fans, who have so few games on which to base their opinions. A case in point is the way opinions have swung violently about the cobbled-together defensive line the Dallas Cowboys have been forced to use as player after player has fallen to injury.

Starting the season, with what eventually became season ending injuries to Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff, Tyrone Crawford, and Ben Bass, all who were projected to start or play a major role for the team, the way the backups stepped up and filled in the first three games was a pleasant surprise. People (like me) began talking about how Rod Marinelli was working his magic and making something out of nothing with a bunch of street free agents and castoffs from other teams.

Then came the back-to-back losses to the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos. With Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning carving up the defense without a great deal of pressure, the doubts didn't just creep in. They kicked the door down and helped themselves to the contents of the refrigerator. Without an effective pass rush from the defensive line, Monte Kiffin's defense is just not going to work well. Doom and gloom began to build and the ever-present fingers of blame were quickly pointed at the staff in general and Jerry Jones in particular for failing to address this issue in the offseason.

What a difference a couple of games make. Now the Cowboys have gone two weeks without surrendering a passing touchdown and only one rushing score on a breakdown against the Washington Redskins. They harassed Robert Griffin III, knocked Nick Foles out of the game against the Philadelphia Eagles, and gave Matt Barkley a very rude awakening with three interceptions in one quarter of play.

If it all starts up front in the Kiffin defense then things are starting to come together for the team. And these players, disparaged as scrubs who really did not deserve to be playing in the NFL by some, are beginning to prove they are worthy of that Star on their helmets.

The best defensive performance of the season, against the high-powered offense masterminded by the newest NFL coaching legend, Chip Kelley, came with DeMarcus Ware, the best pass rusher the team has, sidelined for the first game in his probable Hall of Fame career. And the numbers are starting to show that there may be something to this 4-3 scheme that Kiffin and Marinelli have brought to town.

It really shouldn't be a great surprise that things are taking a while to come together. It is commonly stated that it takes a season and a half for a team to really learn a new scheme. This bunch is still on the steep part of the learning curve and some have had almost no time to learn. Jarius Wynn was signed days before the Eagles game, and still managed to team up with George Selvie for the sack that sent Foles to the locker room. Drake Nevis was playing in his second game with the Cowboys. As they get more familiar with the assignments things should only improve. Kiffin talked about the effect learning what you are supposed to do is having with the defense overall.

"I think our guys are learning our system," Kiffin said.

"Like I say, you see a little, you see a lot. You see a lot, you see nothing. Well, we were seeing a lot earlier in the year. We were seeing a lot, but we weren't seeing anything. Just see a little bit, read your keys and you have a chance to see better."

Call it the zen of the Kiffin defense. It certainly started to click as they shut down a team led by a quarterback that was the FedEx Air Player of the Week the game before.

While the team is relying on players like Selvie, Kyle Wilber and Nick Hayden to get the job done, it does have the advantage of veteran Jason Hatcher who is having the best year of his career. He has not only put up his best sack total of any season with only seven games played, he has become a clear leader for this team. And part of being a leader is facilitating the integration of so many new faces into a cohesive unit.

Hatcher took the defensive linemen to a Dallas comedy club Thursday night, a get-to-know-you night out on the town.

"A lot of guys just got here, and I just talked to them," We were getting to know each other as men off the field. That carried on to this game. We just played our heart out for each other. I'm proud for each and every one of them tonight, man. Every one of them. It was a special feeling when you can bring guys together and make them play as one."

Hatcher's repertoire certainly includes leading by example. Although the totals are incomplete for the week at the time this was written, Pro Football Focus has him ranked number one in the league out of 67 defensive and nose tackles. (Of course, that is somewhat balanced by Hayden coming in dead last, but his scores don't seem to be having the same effect as Hatcher's, for some reason.)

Most of the replacement Rushmen don't fare so well, but with Hatcher and, when he comes back, Ware on the line, they are a stronger unit than might be expected. And one of those replacements is starting to emerge as a solid performer in his own right. Selvie has climbed to number 13 on the list of 4-3 defensive ends (Ware is 4) out of 47 listed players. He has five sacks (or four and a half; PFF does not award half sacks), five quarterback hits, and an impressive 21 quarterback hurries as counted in the PFF scoring system. That last figure, although a bit unique to PFF, is the most impressive since he is second only to the Minnesota Vikings' Brian Robinson in that category. (I wonder how that is going to factor into the game the Vikes have against the New York Giants? Monday Night Football may see a lot of Eli Manning sad faces. But I digress.) Selvie had his best game of the season in Phladelphia

Pressure was key against both Griffin and Foles. Accounts of the Eagles game point to how off-target Foles was, completing only 11 of 29 passes, but he was under constant attack. Three sacks, nine hits, and 17 hurries as PFF saw it had to have been a major part of his poor performance. Dallas pressured him and he cracked.

There is still over half the season ahead and there are no guarantees that this bunch will not regress at some point. But the arrow is pointing in the right direction and these new teammates should get better as they become more comfortable with the scheme. The credit belongs to everyone involved, Kiffin, Marinelli, the veteran Cowboys and all the new faces. It was a great performance against Philly, and hopefully they can take the show successfully on the road again against the Detroit Lions.


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