Back before the start of the 2013 season I wrote an article entitled “Dallas Cowboys Defensive Line Under Pressure” in which I outlined my concerns about the starters and depth at DL for the Cowboys. Many analysts were focusing on the safety position as the biggest gap in Dallas’ defense, and while I did not necessarily disagree with that assessment, I had more questions about injuries and depth along the front four. Some were claiming that new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli would be able to mask any deficiencies along the D-Line, but I did not agree with that position.
In the August article I referenced Sports Illustrated Author Tim Layden in his must read book for any NFL fan, Blood, Sweat, and Chalk: Inside Football’s Playbook, where Layden describes in eloquent terms the “Five Commandments of Tampa Two”. I wrote that defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s scheme requires “frequent and sustained pressure on the opposing team’s quarterback. The Tampa Two defense is fundamentally a zone defense, which as with all zone defenses carries holes between the covered zones. If the opposing QB has time in the pocket to pass, he will slice a defense up. This, in my mind, is the biggest potential fail point for this year’s Dallas Cowboy defense.”
My gut said to me in preseason that Kiffin’s scheme was not going to work with the personnel. Defensive end DeMarcus Ware was coming off a below average 2012 year with 11.5 sacks in an injury riddled season where he sustained shoulder and elbow injuries (sound familiar?), and I questioned if DeMarcus could continue his torrential career sacks pace. The other two key linemen were defensive end Anthony Spencer (lost for the season to injury) who also had a career year with 11 sacks but, again, could he recreate that production?
Projected starting defensive tackles Jay Ratliff (lost for the year due to injury and eventually cut) was oft injured throughout 2012, and Jason Hatcher had everything to prove in his contract year. Ratliff and Hatcher each had significant questions surrounding their status entering 2013. The one player I thought might be able to make a difference from a depth perspective was defensive end George Selvie who was showing flashes of brilliance through two preseason games, but that was playing against second and third string opposing offensive linemen.
If we take an accounting of the projected starter’s productivity for the Cowboys 2013 season, the numbers total a horrible 6 sack year for DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer played in one game, Jay Ratliff did not play in a single game, and finally Jason Hatcher was arguably the defensive MVP with 11 sacks. Many are saying Ware’s productivity will only decline as his body breaks down with age, Ratliff is already cut, Spencer is gone, and Hatcher will need a new contract to retain his services.
2013 starting defensive tackle Nick Hayden was not as productive in rushing the quarterback, but did a fine job in run stuffing and often times commanded a double team. Starting defensive end George Selvie was an outstanding pickup by the Cowboys pro personnel department and had the team’s second most sacks with 7. Both Hayden and Selvie are under contract and will provide great depth along the defensive line in 2014.
The bottom line is that the entire defensive line will need to be overhauled in the offseason through the draft and free agency. Whether or not Ware can regain his form, or if a deal can be struck with Hatcher remains to be seen, but as far as I can tell the Cowboys need to draft themselves, at a minimum, a DT and a DE.
Regarded as one of the premier NFL draft experts, local writer Rick Gosselin in a recent Sports Day DFW online Chat had this to say when asked if the Cowboys first three 2014 draft picks should be two defensive linemen and a safety,
“I’d mix in another offensive lineman. I think they need to come away with at least three DL and two OL in this draft. Until the two lines get fixed, this team won’t get fixed. The NFC East has long been a division that rewarded the teams that won the line of scrimmage. This is a cold weather division where size and might count, especially later in the year. But, yes, a safety would also be on my wish list as well as another tight end (just kidding)…”
I absolutely agree with Gosselin in that the Cowboys should remain 100% focused on rebuilding the defensive line through the draft, and I also like the idea of another couple offensive line picks too. It looks so far like team Owner/President/General Manager Jerry Jones will retain the services of Monte Kiffin as his defensive coordinator, which means the same requirement of constant and sustained QB pressure will have to be fixed for the 2014 season. If Dallas cannot get difference-making “rushmen” as defensive line coach Rod Marinelli refers to them, then Cowboys fans could be staring at a fourth straight 8-8 season or worse.
Follow Matt Thornton on Twitter: @MattsCowboys