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It’s no secret when it comes to defense on the Gridiron that you need a quality pass-rush in order for everything else to manifest to its highest potential. Dallas Cowboys‘ defensive line in 2013 had only 3 (George Selvie, DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher) of their 6 D-lineman record more than 2 sacks.
Injuries also played a role in their lack of having a quality overall pursue to the quarterback upfront. Starters, backups and players off the street were called upon to fill in the blanks. 21 different D-lineman had their hands in the ground last season in a new defensive scheme under Monte Kiffin running the defense and Rod Marinelli coaching the defensive line. And when your defense was historically putrid, something needs to change, attitude, technique-wise and the emphasis on what’s being preached to the ears and minds of the personnel from its teacher.
Dallas’ defensive-unit features new faces, some (Ware, Hatcher) have left the building due to cap-restraints, and a major injury at middle linebacker (Sean Lee) leaves Dallas’ defense scrambling for a quality and trust worthy player to fill the empty “Big Shoe” for a defense that now has last years D-line assistant running the show.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is one of the more intriguing stories in the coaches-circle across the NFL training camps this summer, the third defensive coordinator for the Cowboys in as many years that’s trying to put a stamp on turning around last years nightmare as the team gets ready for preseason ball, gearing up for the 2014 season.
Marinelli’s track record in his coaching career dates back to the early 70’s at Rosemead High School before becoming the defensive line coach at Utah State in 76. In 31 of his 41 years of coaching, Marinelli has coached up defensive lines in the college and pro ranks. Most notably, his success as a defensive line assistant in Tampa Bay is where he helped the Buccaneers win a championship in 02. That was achieved by running the Cover 2 defense, and most recently as defensive coordinator with the Chicago Bears running the Cover 2 scheme from 2010-to-2012, his defense often led the league in takeaways, sacks and yards allowed, displaying a model for success.
So what’s the plan?
Well, the defense learned the hard way last season that having depth on the defensive line is the cornerstone in building from the inside out to have success on the defensive side of the ball. Although Ware and Hatcher have departed, two key pieces upfront, there’s a sense of direction that may better the defense in the near future.
There’s an actual plan in place here that can work, and Assistant Director of Player Personnel Will McClay, who had lots of input this offseason in the draft and free agency in building a potential effective group has used the term “rotation” to describe the scheme and approach the Cowboys want to use on their defensive line. And there’s a philosophy behind that rotation and scheme that coach Marinelli and McClay have expressed, and that’s emphasizing the need for speed, intensity, generating turnovers and the proper habits to install an aggressive attitude that’s helped top ranked defenses get the best of top ranked offenses at the end of the day to win Super Bowls.
Last year, in route to their Super Bowl title, the Seattle Seahawks employed a 7 man rotation that featured Michael Bennett, Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril, Clinton McDonald, Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel, Red Bryant, and O’Brien Schofield, a group that registered 33.5 sacks out of the 44 overall team sacks as a swarming group of ball hawks, heavy hitters, and solid tacklers that provided a consistent rush towards the oppositions quarterback that’s made them a fearsome defense.
And even though Seattle’s defense features 3 valuable top-notched assets (Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor) in their secondary, what makes it work so effectively is the pressure they’re getting upfront that gives the Seahawks’ CB’s the luxury of applying their techniques by pressing at the line of scrimmage and forcing route-runners into what I call their “Booby Trap Zone.” Seattle’s scheme provides a mixture of man-press, zone and pressure-packages upfront with some disguised looks to keep opposing offenses timid at their expense.
In Seattle’s Cover 3 Zone, safety Earl Thomas covers lots of ground that gives Seattle much greater positive results using the safety in single-high. Dallas’ defense, in their similar zone scheme in 2013, dealt with much lesser-talented players in the single-high safety look by using a mixture of snaps between Barry Church, Jeff Heath and J.J. Wilcox that took turns playing centerfield, trying to take away the deep middle. One of the concepts of utilizing this is trying to force offenses to move the ball methodically, rather than beating you over the top. Problem is, Dallas’ defense wasn’t very sound at tackling in the open field and allowed many yards after catch in their zone scheme, especially against prolific passing-attacks.
Cornerbacks, Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick didn’t fare well in zone coverage under Kiffin, but with Marinelli bringing some differences to the table, the Cowboys are planning on using their trio in more man coverage this upcoming season. However, this all depends on what the men upfront do, rather rushing 4, 5 or 6, pressure is always a must to provide some relief on making this work as a whole.
What’s also vital in running the Cover 2 is having two safeties that can play the roles of strong and free safety interchangeably. When Marinelli was in Chicago, his two safeties, Chris Conte and Major Wright were comfortable on playing in the box and in open space, but that comfort comes from knowing that you have a solid rush from the rushmen on disrupting the timing of quarterbacks and forcing them to make throws that best suites the secondary on balls coming to them in the zone.
Let’s take a look at the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Super Bowl Championship season for example that ran the Tampa 2 defense when Marinelli was assisting the rushmen.
As a unit combined between down lineman, linebackers or DB’s that rushed after the passer, the Bucs tallied 43 sacks and generated 38 turnovers, scoring 5 times. That “Bad to the Bone” defense featured Hall of Famer Warren Sapp at defensive tackle, one of the better edge rushers in the league Simeon Rice, Pro Bowl DB’s John Lynch, Ronde Barber and linebacker Derrick Brooks that was enshrined in this year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame class. Collectively, everything came together for the defense to take off and grab NFL offenses by the throat with a mixture of speed, intensity, bone-crushing hits and the habit of taking the ball away from its opponents.
Certainly, the Cowboys would like to develop that same dominance that helped propel those teams to a championship, but before they can get to that status, the burning questions remain regarding their new look depth chart at the current moment, defensively.
Will George Selvie improve off of last season’s solid effort? Will free agent acquisitions Henry Melton, Terrell McClain and Jeremy Mincey provide enough productivity?
It would be great for Dallas’ defense to have Melton, a very key part on the interior D-line return Pro Bowl form with Marinelli coaching him again. The same if Anthony Spencer recovers from his knee injury and returns to Pro Bowl status as a rusher off the edge.
Will we finally see the potential of Tyrone Crawford unleash if he avoids injury? Has Rolando McClain truly put his troubles past him and will he land a spot at linebacker?
At the moment, good things are coming from McClain at camp and he’s showing signs of potentially rejuvenating his career.
Will Bruce Carter finally become the big play-making linebacker he’s expected to be? Who will win the starting spot at middle linebacker to fill the absence of Sean Lee?
The list goes on and on. In the grand scheme of things by looking at the depth in place, the Cowboys have created lots of room for competition this summer and head coach Jason Garrett has let his troops know that all positions are open for battle.
I know things look bleak and most expect things to be horrific on the defensive side of the ball, but looking into all of this, there’s a slight shed of glimmer hope and I’ll give them 50/50, for now.
You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and SilverandBlueReport.com @SilverBlueRpt