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Could The Experts Be Wrong About The Dallas Defense?

The defense is the biggest question mark for the 2014 Dallas Cowboys, but there are some inside Valley Ranch who believe the experts could be wrong about the defense.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

New defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is naturally going to refrain from predicting doom and gloom for his defensive charges. After all, no player will be motivated to perform for a coach that would come right out and say "We suck!' That's a given, but now the man in charge of the Dallas Cowboys defense is being joined by his key on-the-field leader in praising the potential of this group of athletes. Earlier this week, veteran safety Barry Church took advantage of the opportunity to address the concerns many observers have about the defense. His comments originally aired on ESPN Radio affiliate FM 103.3 and were transcribed by Todd Archer of and the Dallas Morning News.

Church, who has emerged as the leader of the Cowboys secondary, will be expected to step up once again and lead the entire Dallas defense in the wake of Sean Lee being lost for the season. It is a role that he filled last season once Lee went down with injury, so it is fairly safe to assume that he will once again step up this year. The former Toledo Rocket, who joined the team as a UDFA out of college, has been vocal in his support for his teammates on defense, especially those with whom he works most closely in the secondary.

Addressing concerns that he is working by himself at safety, Church pointed out that second-year man J.J. Wilcox is working hard and making great strides in developing his game. Remember, Wilcox is a former running back and only had one season of defensive experience in college before joining the Cowboys. He was long on talent and instincts but short on technique. Still he acquitted himself well enough to earn a starting role before off the field events cut short his rookie campaign. Church now tells up that Wilcox has impressed in the offseason so far.

"Just an explosive playmaker. Those are the words that come to my mind when I think of him. This whole offseason, he was all over the place -- getting interceptions, locking up tight ends -- so I feel like he’s going to be a big playmaker for us on the back end. I’m excited to see what he can bring to the table this season."

Those are words that we all want to hear about the other Cowboys safety, but of equal concern has been the play of the cornerbacks, especially 2012 first-round draft pick Morris Claiborne. Claiborne has been less than stellar in his first two seasons, and there are rumblings that Dallas might well have selected a bust. Claiborne's development had been hampered by injuries, and now that he has had a healthy offseason in which to better himself, he is earning the respect of his teammate in the Cowboys defensive backfield.

"To me, he’s had the best offseason out of anybody in our secondary and anybody on our defense. He’s turned his body around. He’s completely focused. Before, I would have to give him the check for the defense a couple of times. Now, I’m just like, ‘Boom, here’s the call,’ and he’s ready to roll. ... Now you’re starting to see some of the productivity he can bring to our defense."

The final piece of the defensive backs puzzle, free agent acquisition Brandon Carr, has not met expectations either. Church reports that he too is making strides to better himself, and that he seems driven to perform as advertised in 2014.

"I expect him to live up to that contract, and I know he will. He’s been putting in a lot of work this offseason. Me and him especially have worked on our footwork drills, man-to-man drills and lifting together and running together. I feel like he’s got just a whole new focus going into this season. He wants to, like he said earlier in one of his interviews, take over the league. I feel like he can be one of those top-3 corners in the NFL. I feel like he’ll show everybody this year. I definitely have the faith in him to live up to that contract, and I know he will."

While on the face of things, this could bode well for the Dallas secondary, it is not only the DBs who are a concern in this defense. There is plenty of opportunity for guys to step up in every unit. The greatest area of opportunity will naturally be in the unit most immediately hampered by Sean Lee's loss; the linebackers. Bruce Carter was expected to become a superstar in the 4-3 defense last season, but he lost his starting role to journeyman Ernie Sims. Motivated by being benched for the first time in his football life, Carter has returned with a vengeance, and that effort has not been lost on Church. The linebacker is not quite there yet but he has made progress and he is still striving to get better. Church says Carter is stepping up to the challenge.

"Definitely with the loss of Sean Lee, it’s time for him to step up and be that focal point of the defense, and I feel like he’ll be able to do that. He’s making a lot of the checks out there. He’s the head of the huddle for the defense, so I feel like this offseason really generated a lot of confidence for him, and I feel like going into the season that’s going to work for him. He’s going to get better and better as the season progresses."

One final thought from Church was centered around the team's efforts to replace a Hall of Fame caliber talent in DeMarcus Ware. Rookie DeMarcus Lawrence will have his hands full, and will likely never fill the shoes that his predecessor wore. That is to be expected, after all DWare was a once in a generation type of guy for Dallas. Still, Lawrence can be a star in this defense. He too is working hard, and is making progress for the team.

"Definitely, it’ll take some time. DeMarcus Ware, he’s a one-of-a-kind guy. It’s definitely going to take more than one year to replace a guy like that, but DeMarcus Lawrence has got the talent. He’s been out there working against one of the best offensive tackles in the game in Tyron Smith every day in practice. He’s taken a couple of lumps from him, but he’s definitely won some of those battles, too. That definitely shows me that he has the talent, and he has the will to do it. We’ve just got to see what he can do when the pads come on, but I definitely see a productive guy in DeMarcus Lawrence."

Barry Church stands resolute in his support of his colleagues on the Cowboys defense. It is obvious from both his tone and his words that he expects the team to experience considerably more success than do the pundits that are already writing the Cowboys defense off. Last year was a dismal performance and Church would be among the first to acknowledge that fact, but he feels that 2014 will show much improvement. If every member of the squad displays the same passion and determination that their leader does, this year's edition can be more than enough to get the job done.

With Church helping to light a fire under their collective hiney, I can well imagine that the defense will be giving it their all.

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