The Cowboys’ defense does not need to become the second coming of the 1985 Bears in order for the team to contend in the NFC East. Based on the strength of the offense, the Dallas Cowboys defensive squad only needs marginal improvement for the club to become playoff ready. Given the abilities of Tony Romo and his offensive cast, scoring will not be a problem. In 2013, Dallas averaged 27.4 points per game to rank fifth in the NFL. Using the high scoring Denver Broncos as a model, the Cowboys have the potential to win the NFC East with modest improvement on defense.
The NFL is an offensive league more than ever. While offenses were more wide open than ever last year, the 2014 season could be even more O-centric now that the league has announced defender contact with receivers after five yards will be called closer. Last year’s Cowboys team was ranked among the bottom feeders on defense, standing at number 26 in the NFL in points allowed. The good news is that no other team in the NFC East fielded a defense in the top half of the league either, with the Redskins porous pass defense pulling them down to the bottom three. On the other hand, the bad news is that Jerry Jones chose not to expend much effort fortifying the defense in the off season. Improvement will need to come largely from within.
The most important positive changes to the defense have been the promotion of Rod Marinelli to defensive coordinator and the acquisition of DT Henry Melton. The Tampa Cover Two schemes favored by previous defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin never worked for the Cowboys. The “bend and don’t break” type system worked in Tampa with the likes of Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber, but did far too much bending and breaking in Dallas. While Marinelli comes from the Kiffin coaching tree and wholesale schematic changes are unlikely, his defense this season will likely be more aggressive in trying to force turnovers.
Marinelli faces a supreme challenge to tweak improvement out of a Dallas Cowboys defense which lost DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher to free agency and with Sean Lee being placed on season ending IR. The name of the game in this year’s training camp is competition among the front seven. Each of the starting spots is wide open. The loss of Ware and Hatcher places more pressure on the secondary to keep receivers covered longer. Marinelli will either need to go for broke and utilize more blitz packages or resort to a steadier diet of nickel coverage. Based on Marinelli’s stint as defensive coordinator with the Chicago Bears, he will probably take more calculated risks than Kiffin in order to generate turnovers.
If the Dallas Cowboys expect to become playoff contenders this season, the defense must improve at least marginally. Monte Kiffin changed the team’s based defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3. Hopefully, the team worked through some growing pains with the new based defense last season. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli must coerce better execution out of a woeful unit missing three stalwarts from the front seven. Because the players have not been upgraded, he will likely need to mix in more blitzes in order to create turnovers.
Commentary by William Costolo