In my last article here, I discussed how the Dallas Cowboys are doing with their defensive line what they did three years ago on the offensive side of the ball: Tear it down and start over.
After the 2013 season, Dallas certainly needs to put together a much more effective bunch of rushmen. In the defense Rod Marinelli wants to run, everything starts with the pass rush you get from your linemen, and if that is not working, it is almost impossible to get the rest of the defense to go. With all the players that are gone, or never showed up last season, the Cowboys really have no choice but to rebuild this unit. But this is a matter for some concern, as some expressed in the comment thread for that last article, since the offensive line has become a four year project, absorbing three first round picks. The Cowboys certainly can't wait for three or four years to get something out of the line.
I don't think it is going to take that long. First, the offensive line was coming together nicely in 2013. The selection of Zack Martin this year is more about him being the best player not named Johnny Manziel left on the Dallas board, combined with a theory that you can never have too many excellent offensive linemen.
But the approach being taken to the defensive line is more intensive. I talked a little about that, but I think I can make myself clearer. And there are some other factors to be considered.
First there is the coaching, and the time available for that to take effect. The FPWs also got into a bit of discussion about this, and Joey Ickes brought up how last season, players were coming in and getting less than a week of coaching and practice before being put on the field. Dawn Macelli pointed out that Marinelli has a full preseason to try and get this bunch ready to go.
OCC countered that with an observation that Marinelli is not going to be as focused on the line. He now has to concern himself with the entire defense. Getting the rushmen ready this season is going to be largely the responsibility of Leon Lett.
Based on what I have been reading, that is not an issue. For those who don't remember, Lett, called the Big Cat, was a very good defensive tackle for the Cowboys (and one season for the Denver Broncos) whose reputation is forever marred by letting a receiver named Don Beebe catch him from behind and strip him of the ball when he was about to score a touchdown in Super Bowl XXVII against the Buffalo Bills, and by turning the ball over to the Miami Dolphins in the Thanksgiving Snow Bowl game. Quietly, Lett has become an important part of the Dallas coaching staff, and he is hard at work with the linemen. Here is a quick Twitter exchange I was involved in about his role.
"@Hamiltonb40: @BryanBroaddus Can DeMarcus Lawrence be that fear factor that were missing on this D ?" Leon Lett will help him a lot.— Bryan Broaddus (@BryanBroaddus) May 22, 2014
"@TomRyleBTB: The Big Cat is a lot bigger and more important part of the coaching staff than many people realize, methinks." Very true— Bryan Broaddus (@BryanBroaddus) May 22, 2014
That's all just to say that I think the coaching end of things will be taken care of. Not only is Marinelli still supervising Lett, he also can get a little help from Monte Kiffin, who still has a thing or two he can teach. And this year, the Cowboys will hopefully not lose almost all the DTs and DEs they were depending on before the season even starts.
This is one reason why the Cowboys have so many D linemen on the roster. They are determined to be able to survive attrition. That means that there will be players coached in what the team needs them to do. They will have practiced what they need to do, and not be someone who is having to look at the back of his teammate's jersey to figure out who is playing next to him while trying to remember the plays and responsibilities he learned five days ago. And it is not just numbers. Almost all the defensive linemen on the roster now are better than most of the parade of players that went through Valley Ranch in the search for someone that could play last season. No one is seriously arguing that this is untrue. That's how bad it got in 2013.
As mentioned above, the acquisition of DeMarcus Lawrence is going to be big. Hopefully, so will the signing of Henry Melton. But more and more, voices on the team are also saying that Tyrone Crawford, who missed the entire season after a freak Achhilles injury in training camp, is going to open some eyes while playing a major role on this defense. Tony Romo has already labeled him as the guy that will surprise people this year. And Marinelli is looking at the possibility of moving him around.
The Cowboys had visions of Crawford at a multitude of spots along the defensive line before he went down in 2013. This season, it sounds like he'll begin as a three-technique defensive tackle, but he's got to be prepared to move around.
"I could see him playing inside and some outside," Marinelli said. "I like to probably start him inside at the under, and he's always got to know the left end position also... I want these guys to compete for a job."
Even the most cynical are nearly compelled to agree that the Cowboys are in much better shape this season with regards to the D line than they were last year, even without Jerry Jones telling how much of a strength of the team it is. Even the losses of DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher don't drag the team down that much in my view. Both had their own injury issues, especially Ware, and at times they were all the threat that the D line could muster. I would rather go into a game with four competent and healthy players than with a couple of aging stars and a pair of nobodies off the street.
If the defense can improve this year, it will almost certainly open the opportunity to win more than eight games. And it doesn't have to become a top 5 or top 10 defense. They were at the bottom of the league in almost all measurements. If they can just approach average, and the offense can perform as well or a bit better than in 2013, the team should finally improve the 8-8 record that has been doing the albatross impression in Dallas for so long.
For these reasons, I don't think a one year turnaround is too much to expect defensively, especially if you are putting competence as the goal this year rather than excellence. This group can give the team what it needs this season and still have a lot of room to grow in the next few years. Exactly how much it improves this year will have a lot to do with how far the team as a whole can go.