When Jerry Jones declared after the first day of the draft that the organization considered that "the defensive line is a position of strength for us," Cowboys fans and media responded with a similarly slack-jawed disbelief. At that moment, it appeared that the D-line was rife with questions about who would play where and, perhaps more troubling, had the unenviable combination of age and a lack of depth. How, we asked, could Jerruh utter such heresy? Surely this was a weak defense of the decision not to select Sharrif Floyd?
With the benefit of hindsight, now that minicamps and OTAs have wrapped up, it appears that the team might have known something we didn't. In a recent edition of our summer-long "headscratcher" series, I recapped the defensive line reports from offseason workouts - and the news is almost universally good. First, it appears questions about who would play where have been answered; in particular, positional 'tweeners such as Tyrone Crawford and Ben Bass seem to have found homes, and Kyle Wilber looks to be a capable backup for weakside end DeMarcus Ware.
And the starters can be a quite formidable bunch. Ware is going to shine lined up out wide in the Simeon Rice role. But he might not be the best end on the team; former scout Bryan Broaddus felt that Spencer was "the best defensive player on the field" in the aforementioned offseason camp work. In addition, Hatcher and Ratliff appear to be well-suited to the new scheme; numerous reports claimed that they were a disruptive presence throughout the practice. In particular, both were able to explode up the field, beating blocks to get into the backfield quickly to make what could have been tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
To my mind, this last bit is the best news. Kiffin's system depends on consistent quarterback pressure, and relies on the front four to get it so that the rest of the defenders can play coverage, giving rival QBs tight windows in which to throw. I feel confident that Ware and Spencer will thrive in Kiffin's scheme; what it asks of them is a strikingly good fit for their skill sets. What made Ratliff such an outstanding nose tackle, for instance, was his ability to attack gaps and get pressure inside as a nickel rusher. Now he'll be doing that on all three downs. Hatcher will benefit from going up against the ofensive line's weakest positions, center and right guard, rather than its best, left tackle. He, too, will be better in a scheme that asks him to use quickness to hit an opponent's shoulder on the snap rather than stand him up.
In recent years, the Dallas pass rush has consisted largely of Ware, with Spencer providing some occasional pressure, when he wasn't covering backs and tight ends. But inside pressure has been largely nonexistent. As a result, opposing quarterbacks have been able to step up into a clean pocket, away from Ware and Spencer, and find receivers downfield. As O.C.C. made painfully clear in his own "The Cowboys Make the Playoffs If" post, the pass defense numbers have not been pretty of late; other than 2007, the Cowboys haven't finished in the top half of the league in defensive passer rating, and in four of the last seven seasons, they have been 20th or worse. That's ugly.
As Cool notes, "At the end of the day, if the Cowboys want to make the playoffs in 2013, they'll have to fix their pass defense. How they go about that, via an improved pass rush or an improved secondary, is largely a philosophical question." This chicken-and-egg question has been long debated, and I've oft wondered why. The obvious keyis the pass rush. And the Cowboys recent history offers a salient example.
The notable exception to their recent passer rating woes is 2007, when Dallas finished fifth. Was this due to their having a strong defensive backfield? Hardly. Due to injuries to starting corners Terrence Newman and Anthony Henry (who, even when healthy, was gimpy) journeyman Jacques Reeves started thirteen games. The nickle corner? Nate Jones. They were joined in the defensive backfield by Ken Hamlin and a declining Roy Williams, backed up by washouts Pat Watkins, Keith Davis and Courtney Brown. Yikes; is it any wonder that, in the next offseason, the Cowboys drafted two corners (Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick) and brought in Pacman Jones? They knew where the weak spot was.
Yet they succeeded in '07, largely because of a dynamite pass rush. Ware, Spencer and Greg Ellis combined for 29.5 sacks, but the key was the inside pressure provided by Ratliff, then a second year player, as well as defensive ends Hatcher and Chris Canty. One of the main reasons the outside linebackers had such high sack totals was because opposing signal callers couldn't step up into the pocket to avoid them as they sped around the edge. And that's the key to success in 2013: a crumbling pocket in the quarterback's face.
That's why I think its crucial that Ratliff and Hatcher stay relatively healthy. Reports out of the various camps are that Sean Lissemore has been good and Ben Bass has looked terrific. Certainly, the hope is that they will provide important depth and quality rotational snaps. But if either of them is forced to start for an extended period, I think there will be a marked and noticeable dropoff, not only in the quality of the starters, but in their ability to stay fresh and provide pressure late in games.
When studying Kiffin's defenses, one thing that leaps out is the fact that the three-technique defensive tackle is the "motor" that makes the entire mechanism run. I believe that Ratliff (and, when he needs a breather, Hatcher) can both provide sufficient horsepower to motor the Kiffmobile. Without them? Engine trouble and a return to the bottom of the defensive passer rating, whether or not they have one of the league's best cornerback pairings.
I agree with O.C.C. that passer rating differential is the key to success in 2013. The offense is going to get yards and score points. They key is the defense. And from this vantage point, I think they can be really good. Their front four can be very, very good; they have one of the league's best linebacking units, and Carr and Claiborne form one of the NFL's strongest cornerback duos. And, unlike many pundits, I think their young safeties will be more of a strength than they are a liability.
So, here's my prediction: the Cowboys will make the playoffs if they can get 14 starts/ healthy games each from Hatcher and Ratliff. I'm not saying they won't make the playoffs if they receive fewer from either of them. But it will be a much dicier proposition - and all the more so the more games they miss.
Agree? Disagree? You know where to find me.