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Dallas Defensive Line: Deeper Than We Thought, Or Just Better Coached?

Once, Jerry Jones was ridiculed for saying the defensive line was an area of strength for the Cowboys. Lately, some crow is being consumed over the way that was covered.

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Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

It was, for many, another example of how Jerry Jones, owner and GM of the Dallas Cowboys, was once again making ridiculous statements when he said that the defensive line was a strength of the team. Rick Gosselin probably was saying what many were thinking when he put it like this.

Rick Gosselin: This is a small front. When Jerry said that this is the strength of this team, that shocked me. I think whatever pops into Jerry's head, Jerry says.

And this was before training camp, and the loss of Tyrone Crawford and Ben Bass, and the continuing saga of Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff's health. As the start of the season drew nearer, the conventional wisdom when looking at the patchwork of players the Cowboys were going to put up against the New York Giants was that Dallas was in trouble. Especially against the run. After all, Dallas had a couple of players starting the game that were basically castoffs by other teams in George Selvie and Nick Hayden.

Then came the actual game. Eight defensive linemen saw action. Here is the way they were scored by the compulsive video watchers at Pro Football Focus.

Player Snaps Pass Rush Run Defense Overall Grade
DeMarcus Ware 50
+3.2 0.5
Nick Hayden 47 -0.8 +3.3 +2.7
Jason Hatcher 49 +3.7 0.8 +4.7
George Selvie 48 +2.6 0.5 +3.3
Landon Cohen 24 -0.7 0.3 -0.3
Jerome Long 13 -0.6 -0.5 -1.0
Kyle Wilber 11 0.4 0.5 0.9
Edgar Jones 4 -0.4 0.0 -0.4

The four starters were very good, and none of the other players who saw the field embarrassed themselves. It was by any measure a solid, even excellent, performance. And now, some writers are admitting that Jerry Jones knew more about the subject than they did.

Owner Jerry Jones has said all along that the Cowboys had defensive line depth. But no one seemed to believe him.

Until now.

While some writers are apologizing to Jerry, I think that Jerry and the writers are all a bit off base.

This is not a deep line. Talent-wise, the Cowboys do not have very good players to put on the field outside of DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, hopefully to be joined this week by Spencer.

What they do have is perhaps the greatest team of defensive coaches in the NFL in Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli. And they have a system that does not need great talent. What it needs is quickness, discipline, and energy. Those are things that can be found if your scouting department is good, and that the Cowboys have located with the various players they brought in to shore up the defensive front.

An article from the pre-season about DeMarcus Ware, who converted from 3-4 OLB to 4-3 DE, basically explained what was going on.

Ware is the rushman of the rushmen. He views Marinelli as his first full-time pass rush coach in his eight years. In Oxnard, Calif., Ware and Marinelli were often engaged in lengthy discussions about pass rushing.

Oh, yes, that rushman thing. From the very first day with the Cowboys, Marinelli has been setting it all out there for anyone to see. He teaches his players to go fast and hard towards the quarterback, and then react to the run if necessary. Meanwhile, the linebacking corps would be there to fill the gaps when needed. But mostly, those four down linemen . . . er, rushmen, would go hard upfield every play. And in the first game of the season, it worked.

And you cannot overstate the importance of the coaching. One thing you are likely to hear from me over and over this year is that the NFL is a coaches' league. Scheme and teaching are more important than having star talent. A greatly talented player can be wasted in the wrong scheme. The idea is to get the most you can out of the players you have, and to acquire players who fit what you are doing with your scheme. This is what the Cowboys seem to have done on the defensive line, finding high-motor guys who may not have worked in some other schemes, but who are very good fits for what Marinelli and Kiffin want to do. Then, if you also happen to have a superstar like Ware, all the better. But that superstar understands what is going on.

"You talk about fundamentals, and that's what Marinelli is all about," Ware said. "He's installed that through the whole defensive line. It's all predicated on effort, and once you add in the technique and doing it perfectly every time, you make big plays."

That is what that chart up above is all about. Notice that Ware and Hatcher, the two best players the Cowboys had on the D line for the Giants game, were still the best performers. But Selvie and Hayden also did very, very well, and the backups were fairly capable. With the prospect of Spencer getting back on the field soon, possibly this week, and the knowledge that Jay Ratliff may be back after week six, things look a lot better for the rushmen.

That is the advantage of a simple scheme, which was one of the things that Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett talked about in bringing Kiffin in. (Marinelli, remember, was a bit of a surprise bonus hire when Lovie Smith was let go by the Chicago Bears, and Marinelli elected not to stay there, even though he was told he was welcome to keep his defensive coordinator position.) You can get the maximum out of your players. And Marinelli is sometimes described as more of a teacher than a coach. He is teaching these players how to rush that passer. Along the way, he also seems to be teaching Leon Lett how to become a better D line coach himself.

The new (for Dallas) scheme even seems to be an answer for the fact that the Cowboys have a smallish front four on defense, as Gosselin noted above. Jason Hatcher pointed out that this style is easier on him than the 3-4 was.

The 31-year-old Hatcher said the defense's straight-ahead style helps his body avoid a beating.

"You're making guys miss, you're just getting upfield," he said. "You're not just taking a blow every down. So I feel great."

So, in a sense, Jerry Jones was not exactly correct when he said that the depth of the defensive line was a strength of the team. The truth, I believe, is that with Kiffin, Marinelli, and Lett, the team can create the depth it needs as long as it can get players with a few key traits (one of the most important being quickness off the line) and a willingness and ability to learn.

How else do you explain the kind of success they had against the Giants, even with the patchwork nature of New York's line? They certainly weren't any more patchwork than the rushmen lining up across from them. Admittedly, the Kansas City Chiefs look to be more of a test. But the Cowboys have a win under their belt, a belief in what they can do, and a chance to have Spencer in the rotation.

I'll put my money on the rushmen. And the men who created them.


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