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What Is Wrong With The Cowboys' Defense?

The Dallas defense is on track to have a historically bad season. Here is a look at how things are going so wrong.

Leon Halip

The Dallas Cowboys fired Rob Ryan after last season's defensive collapse and brought in Monte Kiffin to install a 4-3 and then added Rod Marinelli to help him. The results . . . well, not good. The team sits at 4-4, and looks more and more like it is barreling to another underwhelming .500 finish. Along the way, the defensive failures have been, well, historic.

What has happened? This is especially galling when considering that this same team has also shut down three opponents fairly effectively, and held the Kansas City Chiefs, currently the last undefeated team in the league, to 17 points. Of course, they gave up one of those 400 yard passing performances to the New York Giants, but missed out on the golden opportunity of losing a game with a +5 turnover margin.

Even stranger, the Cowboys have a +44 points differential. You don't normally see 4-4 teams with that kind of advantage in the scoring department. Dallas has done very poorly against good teams, and quite well against bad ones.

The striking thing is how unable they have been to stop good quarterback/receiver combinations, even in a couple of cases where they were taking the ball away at a rapid clip.

So what's wrong?

I went off a bit on the offensive side of the coaching staff yesterday. But Bill Callahan was not the only coordinator who seemed to have problems. Kiffin seemed unable to come up with an answer for Calvin Johnson at all. At least part of the responsibility for this has to lie with how he called the game.

There are, however, other things that I think caused this monumentally putrid collapse.

It all starts with the defensive line. And the problems there came in bunches.

This part has been covered before, but it is so central to the current situation, I have to go over this ground again. The plan in the off season, after Kiffin and Marinelli took a look at the personnel on hand, was to go with a starting lineup of DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher, Jay Ratliff, and Anthony Spencer. The key backups were going to be Kyle Wilber, Tyrone Crawford, and Ben Bass, with several other players auditioning for the last roster spot or two.

Remember, Spencer was coming off a career best year, and the Cowboys sunk $10.6 million into putting the franchise tag on him. Ratliff was already well paid, and it was believed he was eager to get back on the field. Crawford and Bass had both looked good in relief roles last year, and were believed to be very good fits for Kiffin's scheme.

Spencer ended up having a worse injury than the team anticipated, it certainly would have been nice to know this before the money was basically taken out behind the team facility at Valley Ranch and used to roast wieners, rather than being available to hire a quality replacement for him. Then Crawford and Bass wound up going down during training camp with truly unpredictable injuries. Then Jay Ratliff decided to let his teammates down for reasons that have so far been less than easy to grasp while also tying up a lot of money.

By the time that Calvin Johnson was ready to embarrass the secondary, Ware had joined the list of injured. That left Hatcher and Wilber of the players they counted on last spring to be the defensive line.

And Kiffin's defense is based on getting pressure up front with the Rushmen, as Marinelli has labeled them. With so many of the players you had expected to be there now off the field, there is only so much that this hastily assembled and constantly changing collection of players, that after all could not make another NFL roster, can be expected to do. They seem to do all right against quarterbacks that don't get the ball out quickly because they have bought into the idea of going after the passer relentlessly, but against the Peyton Mannings, Philip Rivers, and Matthew Staffords of the NFL, they don't do so hot. Even Eli Manning was putting up huge numbers against them. The Cowboys didn't lose to him because he was also very effective in connecting with the Cowboys' defensive backs.

This has gone a long way toward emasculating the Dallas defense. The Cowboys did not acquire any significant help here in the offseason because it just did not look like as much of a priority as several other things. And even if they had drafted one, it would not likely have made much difference. Going for Sharrif Floyd in the first round would have cost them at least one and probably two current starters. Travis Frederick might not have been around in the second round when Dallas came up to pick again, and they could not have gotten both Terrance Williams and J.J. Wilcox without the trade back. I do realize what an impact Floyd has made for the Minnesota Vikings. Without him, they might well be 0-7, instead of 1-6.

Without effective pressure, the really good quarterbacks have a much better chance of carving up the secondary. And by the end of the game yesterday, that group was almost as depleted as the front four. Wilcox was out, and Barry Church and Morris Claiborne were both lost during the game. With Johnson going up against players like Jeff Heath, B.W. Webb, and Jakar Hamilton, and Stafford not effectively pressured in the pocket, the odds of them making some long scoring drives late in the game go up a lot.

Injuries killed Ryan's defense last year, They are doing much the same to Kiffin's this year. When you are in the closing minutes of a game against an offense with the weapons the Detroit Lions have, and only five of the players on the field are who you expected to be starting when the season began, you have real problems.

I hardly know why the injury bug seems to have such an appetite for Cowboys defensive players, but this was a major part of what happened. Add in the fact that Kiffin has not looked good in how he calls the defense against top flight quarterbacks and receivers, and this is not something that could be expected to go well.

The most frustrating thing about the entire situation is that they only needed one play. Just one stop on one of the big plays, especially late, and the game would have swung the other way. But they just could not come up with it.

Now it is up to Kiffin and his assistants to make sure they can at least stop the Vikings, who are running an offense that has very ineffective quarterbacking. They brought in Josh Freeman and benched Christian Ponder, only to see Freeman get concussed and force Ponder back on the field. If the Cowboys get burned by one of those two, or let Adrian Peterson finally get on track the way he did last year, then questions will arise as to whether Kiffin still is able to get the job done.

It is going to be a challenge. Ware is uncertain and Claiborne is expected to be out a couple of weeks, and Church and Wilcox are also not sure-things for the upcoming Vikings game. Even against a weak opponent with its offense in disarray, Kiffin has to make sure he does not let his defense turn into tissue paper again. There aren't going to be any high quality players suddenly appearing out of nowhere, along with the magical salary cap space to pay them. The second half of the season will be played out with what the team has and more injuries are almost inevitable.

It's time for Kiffin and Marinelli to live up to their reputations. If, that is, it can be done with the beaten and bruised crew they have at hand.


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