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Why Improving Is Not That Hard For The Cowboys' Defensive Line

While most are focused on the two star players Dallas has to replace on the defensive line, they ignore how poorly the rest of the departed linemen performed.

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Getting the Rushmen ready to rumble.
Getting the Rushmen ready to rumble.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Part of the narrative this season (especially outside of Dallas) is that the Cowboys are going to have a terrible, terrible defense again this year. A large factor in that thinking is that the team is going to be sorely pressed to replace the production represented by DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, who are now plying their trade with the Denver Broncos and Washington NFL franchise, respectively.

Here at Blogging The Boys, we think somewhat differently. We actually believe that the defensive line is likely to improve. Partly that is because we really can't face the alternative, especially during Kool Aid season. But there are other reasons. Kegbearer recently laid out his reasoning for why he thinks Rod Marinelli can create the more potent pass rush he needs to make his style of defense work.

I have another take on the issue. Talking about how badly the loss of Ware and Hatcher will affect the team is far too narrow a view. First off, there are serious arguments to be made that both of them were likely to be in decline. The Sporting News just released its list of the ten worst free agent acquisitions of the offseason, and they included Hatcher on it. The Sporting News praises the Ware move to Denver, but they are not counting the nagging injuries that have derailed Ware for the last one and a half seasons. Whether he can stay healthy at his age is a big question.

But that is not the key point in my thinking. Everyone dwells on what the team lost in terms of production in Ware and Hatcher, but they are just two of the twenty players that Marinelli, Monte Kiffin, and Leon Lett were trying turn into Rushmen. When you look at all of what the Cowboys are trying to replace from last season, the chances of serious improvement suddenly look a lot better. I put the actual production of all the defensive linemen that Dallas tried to use last season into a table to illustrate this.

Returning defensive linemen are noted in silver. (Kyle Wilber is now a linebacker, so he is not included among this year's Rushmen. Also, I was unable to determine how his stats broke out by position since he switched from DE to OLB during the season, so his numbers are overstated here.) All stats are from Pro Football Focus.

Player Snaps Sacks QB Hits QB Hurries Tackles
Nick Hayden 943 0 7 16 30
Jason Hatcher 773 11 7 33 22
George Selvie 762 8 11 32 31
DeMarcus Ware 648 6 8 34 26
Kyle Wilber 511 2 4 15 31
Jarius Wynn 280 2 1 5 6
Drake Nevis 262 0 0 4 14
Everette Brown 159 1 2 6 4
Caesar Rayford 147 0 0 5 2
Corey Irvin 119 0 1 1 4
Edgar Jones 74 0 0 1 2
David Carter 51 0 0 1 0
Jerome Long 46 0 0 0 0
Jason Vega 46 0 0 1 2
Landon Cohen 38 0 0 0 1
Anthony Spencer 38 0 1 1 2
Martez Wilson 36 0 0 1 0
Frank Kearse 35 0 0 1 1
Everett Dawkins 20 0 0 0 0
Marvin Austin 15 0 0 0 1

Looking at the table hammers home one inescapable truth: For the most part, the defensive line last season was hot garbage for the Cowboys. In a system that depends on the front four to pressure the quarterback and get sacks, the guys rushing the quarterback from the line were pretty much ineffective. They accounted for only 30 sacks, or less than two a game, and the hits weren't much more frequent. This is simply not enough pressure to make Kiffin's or Marinelli's defense work.

The Cowboys are not just trying to replace Ware and Hatcher. They are looking to replace another three to perhaps nine players, depending on who eventually winds up on the roster this year. Only Selvie and Hayden of the returning names seem probable. Rayford and Wilson have some tough competition to even make the team, and Spencer is a maybe at best to even see the field. For that matter, Hayden could find himself off the team. He was not seen as very productive by outsiders (PFF rated him one of the very worst defensive tackles in the league), and his numbers do not show a lot of pressure from him. While he would not be expected to be one of the sack leaders playing from the 1-tech, which is going to face two blockers on most plays, there is still a good chance that the Cowboys can find two or three players at the cocked nose who can do a better job of penetrating than Hayden.

Something else that becomes evident is that the idea of waves of defensive linemen didn't quite work out last season. The injuries to Spencer, Tyrone Crawford, and Ben Bass, along with the sulking refusal to play on the part of Jay Ratliff, made that unworkable. The coaches tried to bring in fresh players. A review of the snaps played, again from PFF, shows that Hayden, the player who had the heaviest workload, still only played about 75 to 80 percent of the snaps in most games. The target seemed to be to have the starters play between two-thirds and three-fourths of the snaps, with fresh bodies taking the others. In most games, they came pretty close. For instance, in week four against the San Diego Chargers, the percent of snaps played was Ware 76%, Hatcher 78%, Hayden 72%, and Selvie 61%. The problem was, as the table illustrates, that the players coming in to relieve the starters on the rest of the plays were just not getting the job done. (Wilber may be the one exception, but again, the numbers for him are not broken out between DE and OLB.)

That is why I think the Rushmen are going to do a much better job of living up to their name this season. The top players may not be as good as Ware and Hatcher in their prime (not that there is any certainty that Ware and Hatcher are going to be anywhere close to that this year), but the others may be better than just about anyone else the team had in 2013.

If the Cowboys can accomplish that, then the defensive line as a whole could easily be better than it was in 2013. Too many of the players Dallas had to grab off the street and throw immediately onto the field were simply bad. If the team is able to make sure it at least puts mediocre talent on the field across the line, that may actually accomplish the goal of improving the talent over what it had last season. And if players like Henry Melton, DeMarcus Lawrence, Crawford, Bass, Terrell McClain, Ben Gardner, and Ken Bishop live up to what the coaches seem to think they can do, they might be much more than just mediocre.

Let everyone else predict doom and gloom for the Cowboys' defense. Hopefully, the Rushmen can all get together and have a good laugh about it during the season.

Preferably standing over the quarterback they just sacked.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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