One of the most disappointing aspects of the Dallas Cowboys historically bad 2013 defense was the performance of their pass-rush. Rod Marinelli is highly acclaimed in coaching circles and among players as one of the best at teaching and motivating Rushmen. So the question must be asked, how can the defensive line coach responsible for a defense that ranked 25th in sacks turn things around now that he will be running the defense? Is there hope for a Dallas pass-rush without their former star players DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher?
To understand what might be, we must first examine what has been. The defense suffered as the injury plague of '13 took its toll and took out starters, primary backups, and even some of the street free agents that were called upon to fill in the ranks. All in all, 21 defensive linemen played snaps for the Cowboys in 2013. Most regrettable, only six of them managed to bring down a QB. At first glance, the coach that is to lead this defense to the promised land, or at least out of the waste land, didn't manage to accomplish much in his first year.
However, Jason Hatcher managed to thrive in a first-year scheme change and was tied for the league lead in sacks by a defensive tackle. Hatcher was improving as of late and was playing solid football in the Cowboys 3-4 defense, but Marinelli should get credit for helping Hatcher perform as one of the best at his new position and cashing in during free agency. George Selvie also came out of nowhere and the perennial backup was forced to start for Marinelli and proved a capable Rushman. Yes, D Ware was again hampered by injuries and had a pedestrian sack total in 2013. But can the rise of Hatcher and Selvie provide insight into the potential Marinelli can tap from those skilled enough to be in the NFL?
To get a better idea of what we should hope for the Cowboys pass-rush to accomplish in 2014, let's take a look at some teams from last year as examples. No one assumes Marinelli should be able to transform the star-lacking Rushmen into a Top 10 unit, but let's see how an average and a solid pass-rush from 2013 proved themselves. The Super Bowl champion Seahawks had a phenomenal defense, yet they barely managed to break into the Top 10 in sacks. The Ravens pass-rush was only average last year, but even that small improvement for the Cowboys would be a blessing to most fans.
|DAL - 25th||SACKS||SEA - 8th||SACKS||BAL - 16th||SACKS|
|D- LINE||28||D - LINE||31||D-LINE + Edge||32.5|
|J. Hatcher||11||M. Bennett||8.5||T. Suggs||10|
|G. Selvie||7||C. Avril||8||E. Dumervil||9.5|
|D. Ware||6||C. McDonald||5.5||A. Jones||4|
|K. Wilber||2||C. Clemons||4.5||C. Canty||2|
|J. Wynn||1||T. McDaniel||2||P. McPhee||2|
|E. Brown||1||R. Bryant||1.5||D. Tyson||2|
|O. Schofield||1||H. Ngata||1.5|
|LB - DB||6||LB - DB||13||LB - DB||7.5|
|B. Carter||2||B. Wagner||5||D. Smith||5|
|O. Scandrick||2||B. Irvin||2||C. Upshaw||1.5|
|D. Holloman||2||OTHERS||6||C. Graham||1|
As you can see, the injuries clearly had an impact on the Dallas Cowboys defense. Only three Rushmen managed more than two sacks, and there is a blatant absence of "off the bench" d-line sacks compared to SEA and BAL. However, it is quite surprising to see that the d-line production in total is not far off. Unfortunately, the reality of the 2014 situation is that it's very possible with the loss of Ware and Hatcher the Cowboys won't have anyone that can come close to double digit sacks. Something both SEA and BAL had last season, each with a pair of guys fighting to accomplish the feat. It seems the only way the Cowboys will be able to improve their pass-rush enough to be above average is to greatly increase what was dearly lacking last season... strong rotations to provide more Rushmen with the ability to get to the QB for a handful of sacks.
While the Cowboys two best players may not be battling to reach double digit sacks, they could very well get to the twenty-mark with their top three Rushmen. If George Selvie continues to improve and again reaches seven sacks, and a healthy Henry Melton and rookie DeMarcus Lawrence challenge to match that total, the Cowboys could find themselves having enough to provide a competent rush. But the team will still require the depth of the d-line rotations to account for another dozen sacks. Do they have that kind of fire-power?
Last season Marinelli was not left with much to work with, but a healthy depth chart in 2014 might provide him enough potential Rushmen to at least improve upon the pass-rush from 2013. If Rod and Leon Lett can coach up the rotations and use them to their advantage, then guys like Tyrone Crawford, Jeremy Mincey, and Terrell McClain should be able to manage a few sacks each. Then a guy like Anthony Spencer could provide some late-season support, or unknowns like Ben Bass, Ben Gardner, Martez Wilson, or Caesar Rayford could make a splash play. Is it conceivable that the seven players remaining in the ten-man rotation can combine for double-digit sacks? If the coaching is as good as many expect, then the idea seems probable.
However, that will not be enough to make the team above average in sack totals. While 30+ sacks from the d-line would compare favorably to the SEA and BAL 2013 comparisons, the Cowboys were also a little short in pass-rush help from their backers and backs. This could be the unlikely place the Cowboys find some additional big-play moments. Could the defensive coordinator change bring some more blitzing?
Rod Marinelli is known for trusting his front-four to provide the pressure, much like Monte Kiffin's Tampa Two, but Rod's willingness to trust his corners in man-coverage while utilizing a single-high safety also allows him to blitz more often. While it is not a great deal, it could be enough to increase the Cowboys LB-DB sack totals in 2014. We can look to Marinelli's Chicago defense in 2012 to get some ideas. According to Todd Archer:
Against the Cowboys, Marinelli allowed his cornerbacks to press more (12 times, including eight in the first half). He did not want Bryant and/or Miles Austin to get a head of steam going off the line of scrimmage, which helped put pressure on Romo almost from the outset.
Three-man pressure: 1
Four-man pressure: 44
Five-man or more pressure: 8
While the Bears showed A-gap pressures with Urlacher and Lance Briggs against the Cowboys, they never brought both of them up the middle. Twice they brought the cornerback off the slot for a blitz. Most of the time Briggs was the extra rusher. The only time the Bears brought six rushers in the game came on Tillman's pick-six of Romo after a miscommunication with Dez Bryant.
If Marinelli allows Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne to play more to their strengths, then the 2014 Cowboys should be running more press-coverage. This could lead to some more blitzing opportunities as Rod tries to get his Rushmen home before the opposing receivers have a chance to get clear. Orlando Scandrick has also shown a knack of getting home on a slot-blitz and Bruce Carter has the athletic ability to create some pressure of his own.
I don't think many expect the Cowboys to create some phenomenal pass-rush in 2014 and creating pressure for opposing quarterbacks is far more involved than just tallying up the sack numbers. But a consistent pass-rush should be able to reach 40 sacks and turn some of those pressures and twists and stunts into QB hits and other splash plays. And it does seem possible, dare I say probable, that Rod Marinelli can help this version of his defense improve on their totals and become more dangerous. They may lack the star power, but they should have better depth and find more opportunities to get home with an improved secondary and a bit more blitzing.
What do you think? Can the Cowboys create a dangerous pass-rush in 2014?