Dallas Cowboys: Brian Urlacher

Marinelli likes that D has much to prove

July, 9, 2014
7/09/14
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IRVING, Texas -- Rod Marinelli likes what he saw from his Dallas Cowboys defense in the spring.

The defensive coordinator liked that he has more players along the defensive line. He likes the linebackers’ “movement skills.” He likes how cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne can play man-to-man. He likes the growth J.J. Wilcox made at safety opposite Barry Church.

[+] EnlargeBarry Church and Morris Claiborne
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsDallas defensive backs Barry Church and Morris Claiborne didn't have much to celebrate during 2013.
But there’s something else Marinelli likes about the group.

“I think there’s something to prove a little bit,” Marinelli said. “Not something to prove from last year, but there are some guys coming here off the street with something to prove. There are some guys in contract years with something to prove. There are some guys coming out saying, ‘I want to be a better player,’ who have something prove.

“You get that many guys wanting to prove something, then you can become better. Right now what I like is how hard they’re going after their craft.”

Last season was a mess for the Cowboys' defense. It has been referenced so many times this offseason that “32nd-ranked defense” has been tattooed on everybody. The Cowboys gave up 6,279 yards in 2013 a year after giving up a franchise-record 5,687 yards. Five quarterbacks had four-touchdown games against the Cowboys. Two times in a three-week span, they allowed more than 620 yards. The New Orleans Saints had 40 first downs.

“It definitely bothers us,” Church said. “I’m speaking for myself, but it definitely bothers me. But there’s nothing we can really say or prove different. We were 32nd in the league and we weren’t that good on the defensive side of the ball. This year, the only way we can counter that is by playing good and becoming one of the better teams in the league at taking the ball away and against the run and the pass.”

It’s not just the players. The tag falls on the coaches, too.

“Nobody wants to look at last year and take ownership of that, but we have to,” secondary coach Jerome Henderson said. “And we’ve got to get better from there, and we cannot let that happen again.”

Oh, and now the Cowboys have to show they can be better in 2014 without the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks, DeMarcus Ware, who was cut, last year’s leader in sacks, Jason Hatcher, who signed as a free agent with the Washington Redskins, and their best playmaker, Sean Lee, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in organized team activities.

But the sense is that Marinelli likes it this way. He had ubertalented defenses with the Chicago Bears with guys like Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman. He won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with guys like Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Simeon Rice, John Lynch and Ronde Barber.

He doesn’t have an Urlacher, Sapp, Brooks, Briggs, Rice or Lynch with this group.

He has Henry Melton, whom he coached to the Pro Bowl with the Bears, trying to prove he can come back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He has Bruce Carter trying to prove he is a big-time player in a contract year. He has Claiborne, a former sixth overall pick in the draft, trying to prove he is not a bust. He has Carr trying to prove he is worth the five-year, $50 million contract he received in 2012. He has George Selvie trying to prove he was not a one-year wonder after putting up seven sacks last season. He has Tyrone Crawford trying to prove he can come back from a torn Achilles.

He has low-cost free agents such as Terrell McClain, Jeremy Mincey and Amobi Okoye trying to prove they can be prime-time players. He has Justin Durant trying to prove he can be a middle linebacker and Kyle Wilber trying to prove he can be a strongside linebacker. He has Rolando McClain trying to prove that a player who has retired twice in the past year has the desire to keep playing. He has DeMarcus Lawrence trying to prove that a second-rounder can make an impact as a rookie. He has Wilcox trying to prove he can play strong safety.

He has guys like Church and Scandrick trying to prove that they can put up solid seasons in back-to-back years.

So much to prove. So much to forget.

“The first thing you do is you take it as coaches and players and you take accountability for it,” Marinelli said. “And no excuses. Now we look forward. Now it’s about the expectations of this group and with expectations you have to execute. It’s that simple. That simple, yet that hard.”

Cowboys keep filling holes; one more left?

July, 2, 2014
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IRVING, Texas – When Jason Garrett said goodbye to us all after the Dallas Cowboys’ minicamp ended on June 19, he was asked about the state of the roster.

“We’ll continue to make evaluations of individual guys, where they stack up, if they belong on the roster, who else is on the landscape,” Garrett said then. “You’re always trying to do that. Feel good about how guys have come in here and worked. A lot of young guys got a lot of work over the course of the OTAs and minicamp. A lot of veteran players worked hard, felt competition. That’s a good thing for our team and we want to continue to do that. Whether the competition comes from within or without, it’s our job to make sure we’re always trying to put the most competitive situation available out there on our roster.”

[+] EnlargeRolando McClain
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliThe Cowboys hope recent acquisition Rolando McClain can help fill the void left by the injury to Sean Lee.
Since then the Cowboys have added two veterans: guard Uche Nwaneri and linebacker Rolando McClain.

The player acquisition business is 365 days a year. It never stops.

In Nwaneri the Cowboys have a veteran with 92 starts to his credit. The loser of the left guard battle between Mackenzy Bernadeau and Ronald Leary would be the top backup on the inside. The other backup candidates are inexperienced with Brian Clarke, Andre Cureton and Ronald Patrick. At the least, Nwaneri gives the Cowboys a lineman to help the backup quarterbacks have a chance in preseason games. At the best, he is a possible starter.

Trading for McClain is something of a gamble because of his past and his two forays into retirement. Does he truly want to play? If he does, then maybe the Cowboys have hit on a player who will be just 25 years old when training camp begins at a position of need with Sean Lee out for the year.

For all of the talk of Brian Urlacher joining the Cowboys, signing a 36-year-old with a bad knee after sitting out one year made less sense than adding a soon-to-be 25-year-old who sat out a season.

So where do the Cowboys look next for help before camp starts?

In the minicamp post referenced earlier, I mentioned they could look at linebacker, interior offensive line and tight end for help. Two of the three have been checked off. All that is left is tight end.

Why tight end?

They have a need for a blocker behind Jason Witten. That’s not Gavin Escobar’s forte. James Hanna is willing but that’s not his strength either. Jordan Najvar is an undrafted free agent. There aren’t many current candidates available to fit the bill in price or job description, but the Cowboys could spend time in training camp looking at other rosters for help.

Cowboys' Twitter mailbag, Part 1

June, 13, 2014
6/13/14
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IRVING, Texas -- Part 1 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it we discuss:
  • The state of the Cowboys defense.
  • Adding a new name to the veteran linebacker mix.
  • The future of B.W. Webb.
  • Tony Romo's two back surgeries.
  • Bruce Carter's performance in organized team activities.

Away we go:
@toddarcher: The odds say the defense can't be worse than it was last year, but I was saying the same thing about the 2013 defense compared to the previous year. Look where that got me. The Cowboys don't have a pass-rusher better than DeMarcus Ware on the current roster. They believe Henry Melton can be a younger (and better fit) version of Hatcher, but he's coming back from knee surgery. They will not have Sean Lee. It's hard to say the defense will be better. There are questions at every level and with almost every player. The safest picks are Barry Church and Orlando Scandrick. You know what you will get from those guys. Do you know what you'll get from anybody else? I'm not so sure. I'm playing the odds and say they will be better, but I don't see them cracking the top half of the league. If they can get in the low 20s, then they'll have a chance to make the playoffs. @toddarcher: Well, James Harrison doesn't play a position of need here in this scheme. If they were in a 3-4, I'd say yes. He was marginal last year in Cincinnati in a 4-3. Too many times we get caught up in names when it comes to the Cowboys. That's why everybody mentioned Brian Urlacher. Harrison was a great player, on par with Ware. He made a ton of disruptive plays. But he's not that guy anymore. And he doesn't fit a need. The strong-side linebacker in this scheme is going to play 40 percent of the snaps. It will be either Kyle Wilber or DeVonte Holloman, and Wilber will get my vote. Harrison had his time. He's not a guy the Cowboys need to go after. @toddarcher: If I was putting together a 53-man roster right now, Webb would not be on it. Sterling Moore has been better. Tyler Patmon, who was at the rookie minicamp on a tryout basis and earned a job, has been better. We haven't seen seventh rounder Terrance Mitchell since the rookie camp because of league rules, but I'd put him ahead of Webb right now. You're just not seeing progress either outside or in the slot. I hate to give up on a guy in his second year, but sometimes it's just obvious. He has the athletic ability but it's just not translating. He was getting virtual one-on-one coaching last year when he was forced to play and he struggled. Right now he would be my fifth or sixth corner at best. He has to have a really good training camp and preseason to make the club. @toddarcher: It's still a surgery. They still had to knock him out. It still kept him out for an entire offseason. Jerry Jones likened it to a toothache, but it was enough to keep him out of everything. Was it as serious as the one he had last December? No, but it's still something. It's still accurate. @toddarcher: I wish I could say he's been different than in the past, but he's been about the same. I'm not meaning to sound down on him, but it's difficult to cover Jason Witten. I haven't noticed him on backs as much and he struggled there last year. But he's been in position a few times and not made a play. He's made some plays. It's been OK. He needs to be better than OK. That doesn't mean he has to turn into Derrick Brooks, but he has to take a step forward. Sometimes he will do something and you'll say, Wow. Other times you're left wondering what he was watching.

Cowboys' front seven ranked last

June, 9, 2014
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IRVING, Texas -- Last week, Pro Football Focus rated the Dallas Cowboys' roster at No. 18 in the league and that's in large part because of the projected starters on offense.

On defense, the only starter with a “good” tag is defensive tackle Henry Melton, and he is coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Three projected starters were listed as below average, and six were projected as average.

None of this is really new, but to show just how stacked it might seem against new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is this review of the Cowboys' front seven from Mike Tanier from Sports on Earth.

Tanier puts the Cowboys dead last in his front seven rankings.

Here's what he wrote:
32. Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys lost DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and (in the saddest, most ridiculous minicamp story of the year) Sean Lee from a defense that allowed 2,056 rushing yards and recorded just 36 sacks last year. Henry Melton arrives as a younger, more system-suited replacement for Hatcher, but everything else is a shambles. Bruce Carter, Justin Durant and DeVonte Holloman form the most anonymous linebacker corps in the league, and only Carter has any significant starting experience. Anthony Spencer may start the season on the PUP list as he battles back from microfracture surgery on his knee. And of course, the Cowboys are so cap-stressed that they wouldn't be able to sign a veteran reinforcement, even if one becomes available this late in the offseason.

The wisest thing the Cowboys could do is insert rookies Demarcus Lawrence and Anthony Hitchens into the rotation quickly and let them learn on the job. The Cowboys did not get into this predicament by doing the wise thing. But they are so thin and talent-poor that they may not have a choice.

One quibble I would make is that they could have attempted to keep Ware, signed Jared Allen, Julius Peppers or pick a veteran in free agency if they wanted to by doing more poorly structured deals that affected their ability to do business in the future. They chose not to go that route and likely won't do it for a Lee replacement, be it either Jonathan Vilma or Brian Urlacher.

And if a veteran of some substance becomes available later, they could always find room by restructuring the contracts of Jason Witten or Brandon Carr. Money wouldn't be an issue, in my opinion.

Marinelli did a great job with the Bears in part because he had a younger and healthier Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Peppers and Melton in the front seven and solid role players such as Corey Wootton, Israel Idonije, Stephen Paea and Nick Roach.

From the looks of the Dallas defense right now, the Cowboys will be asking a lot of role players to play prominent parts, especially on the front seven. Marinelli has to turn a defense that is built on "maybes" and "hope so's" into one that can be competitive.

Cowboys' Twitter mailbag, Part 1

June, 6, 2014
6/06/14
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IRVING, Texas – Part 1 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it we discuss:
Check back for Part 2 on Saturday.

Away we go:
 

Jerry Jones says no to Brian Urlacher

June, 3, 2014
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GRAPEVINE, Texas -- You can most likely scratch free agent linebacker Brian Urlacher off the Cowboys’ list of potential players to replace Sean Lee.

“No,” was Jerry Jones’ response Tuesday afternoon when asked if the Cowboys are working on a deal for Urlacher.

SportsNation

Which Cowboy has the best chance at replacing Sean Lee?

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Lee is out for the season with a torn ACL and team officials are still determining when surgery will occur.

“We’re working through it,” said Stephen Jones, the Cowboys’ executive vice president. “I mean obviously we’re not playing football games tomorrow and we’re not going to training camp tomorrow. We’re just taking a long hard look at anything.”

Replacing Lee will be difficult.

Fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens, DeVonte Holloman (a 2013 sixth-round pick), and eight-year veteran Justin Durant are the in-house candidates to replace Lee.

The Cowboys are working with their current roster first to see if a starter can emerge for the 2014 season. If not, then signing a free agent is a possibility.

Linebacker Ernie Sims, who played with the Cowboys last season and is another possible replacement, signed with the Arizona Cardinals on Tuesday.

“Until we decide one way or the other what we’re going to do with players that are on our team we really hate to comment on things like that,” Stephen Jones said.

Urlacher, a 13-year veteran with the Chicago Bears, didn’t play last season but is open to returning for the right opportunity. Urlacher knows the 4-3 scheme because he played under it in Chicago with Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.

“Someone actually tweeted me something about it,” defensive tackle Henry Melton said when asked about his former teammate with the Bears. “I haven’t heard any truth behind (Urlacher playing) it but 'Lach' knows the defense and he would be a good replacement, I feel like he would fit in.”

Lee replacement search in-house for now

June, 2, 2014
6/02/14
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IRVING, Texas -- Don’t buy that Brian Urlacher, Jonathan Vilma or insert-veteran-linebacker-here jersey just yet.

Before the Dallas Cowboys look outside the building for MLB Sean Lee’s replacement, they want to see what Justin Durant, DeVonte Holloman and Anthony Hitchens can do.

SportsNation

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“We have some young guys we feel good about, so we want to give those guys every opportunity,” coach Jason Garrett said. “We have some veteran players who weren't completely healthy all last year, so we want to make sure they have an opportunity to work at some of those spots inside and just see who on our football team right now rises to the occasion. We've got to make sure we give them every opportunity. We’re always looking at the landscape of players -- free agents on the street, trade opportunities, anybody who we think can help our football team at any position. We’re always doing that. But we like the guys we have right now and the competition we have going.”

Durant took the first-team snaps at middle linebacker during Monday's organized team activities. He started one game at middle linebacker last year when Lee was out with a hamstring issue. Holloman started two games last year after Lee suffered a neck injury.

Garrett has yet to rule Lee out for the season, saying only that Lee has a “serious knee injury.” Lee tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on May 27 in the first OTA. Garrett said the team is still developing a plan for Lee. The team generally waits a few weeks to perform a surgery so the swelling goes down.

In the offseason, the Cowboys cut veteran DE DeMarcus Ware and veteran WR Miles Austin and opted to not re-sign veteran DT Jason Hatcher. The Cowboys passed on free-agent DEs Jared Allen and Julius Peppers and did not look at veteran safeties.

Last year, the Cowboys signed offensive lineman Brian Waters the week before the season started. He had not played in 2012, but in 2013 he played in seven games for Dallas (with five starts) before he tore his triceps.

“If you look at our team, we have a really young roster,” Garrett said. “If you go position by position on both sides of the ball, there aren't many guys who have played that long in the National Football League, and we think that’s good. Some of our best players are guys that have been around a little bit, and we think that’s good, too. We’re always looking for a combination of veteran guys who have been around a little bit and younger guys who are developing into their prime, and then you have to have some role players, as well. You start with 90 and then you try to make the best decisions you can with the players you have. And then if there’s a reason to go outside at some point, you go ahead and do that.”

Cowboys' Twitter mailbag, Part 2

May, 31, 2014
5/31/14
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IRVING, Texas -- Part 2 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it we discuss:

If you want to read Part 1 of the mailbag, click here.

Away we go:

Lee replacement plan in-house for now

May, 29, 2014
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IRVING, Texas -- While the Dallas Cowboys have not officially said so, Sean Lee tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on Tuesday, according to sources, and the defense will be without its best player.

The Cowboys have yet to use the bat signal to call all unemployed middle linebackers.

The current plan is to go with what is on the roster.

They have DeVonte Holloman, who started the final two games of last season at middle linebacker after Lee suffered a neck injury. They have Justin Durant, who started one game in Lee's absence last season. They have rookie Anthony Hitchens, their fourth-round pick.

With eight more organized team activities, followed by six practices during a three-day minicamp next month, the Cowboys will soon have a better idea about where they stand regarding a replacement for Lee.

After that, perhaps they will look off campus for help.

Veterans like Jonathan Vilma, Erin Henderson and Pat Angerer have been mentioned. Even Brian Urlacher's name has come up.

Urlacher's connection to Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli makes it interesting, but would it be appetizing? Urlacher did not play last year. He turned 36 this week. His knee gave him issues in his final seasons with the Bears.

Last year the Cowboys signed guard Brian Waters before the season started. He did not play in 2012 but managed to play in seven games and start five before a torn biceps ended his season. He was 36 then.

Often, past success outweighs present ability when fans yearn for a player to be signed. Urlacher is not the same player who dominated the NFL for years, just as Waters was not the same player last year that he was earlier in his career. He was solid and he helped Dallas, but he was not the same Pro Bowl player.

Vilma and Angerer have health issues. The Minnesota Vikings released Henderson in January after a DUI arrest.

At the end of May, there are no magic solutions to replace Lee.

The Cowboys will see if they can get by with Holloman, Hitchens or Durant, who did not take part in Tuesday’s practice because of an undisclosed injury. They will study the rosters of the other teams hard over the course of the summer to see if they can find (or need) an upgrade.

The players mentioned today -- Urlacher, Angerer, Henderson and Vilma -- are likely to be available when training camp begins or even later.

If the Cowboys need them in July or August or September, they can make the call.

Cowboys offseason wrap-up

May, 22, 2014
5/22/14
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» NFC Wrap: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Grades

With free agency and the NFL draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple months away, we assess the Dallas Cowboys' offseason moves.

Best move: The Cowboys could not make big splashes in free agency and their 8-8 record kept them in the middle of the pack in the draft as well, so the best move was not one regarding personnel. It was coaching. Elevating Rod Marinelli to defensive coordinator after the Cowboys finished last in the league in 2013 was their best move. With the Chicago Bears, Marinelli had a difference-making defense that could create turnovers at will. He also had Pro Bowl-quality players such as Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. He does not have that in bountiful supply in Dallas, unless Sean Lee can stay healthy or Henry Melton returns to form from injury.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellWill the Dallas Cowboys regret not re-signing DeMarcus Ware?
Riskiest move: DeMarcus Ware put up 119 sacks with the Cowboys from 2005-13, but the club believed it was time to move on after Ware had just six in 2013. A quadriceps injury forced Ware to miss the first three games of his career in 2013 and he was slowed by other maladies. The Cowboys did not make an attempt to offer Ware a reduced contract and simply cut him. Within 24 hours he was signed to a three-year deal by the Denver Broncos with $20 million guaranteed. For this 4-3 scheme to work, there must be an accomplished right defensive end. The Cowboys believed Ware’s time as a dominant pass-rusher was over but did not pick up his replacement until the second round of the draft, selecting DeMarcus Lawrence.

Most surprising move: With the 16th pick in the first round, the Cowboys had a chance to select Johnny Manziel to be Tony Romo’s eventual successor. It seemed to be a perfect marriage of the attention Jerry Jones seeks and the spotlight Johnny Football enjoys. Jones passed on Manziel, recommitting his faith in Romo, who signed a six-year, $108 million extension last season, and making a smart move in picking up Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin. He will be a Day 1 starter and give the Cowboys three first-round picks on their offensive line, which will help Romo and potentially help a defense if the Cowboys can control the clock.

Numbers game: The emphasis of the Cowboys’ offseason has been about the defense, but they have taken a quantity-over-quality look. They had some interest in Peppers and Jared Allen after releasing Ware, but only at a reduced rate. The Cowboys signed Melton, who is coming off an ACL injury, to a one-year deal with an option for three more years if he plays at a high level. They signed Jeremy Mincey and Terrell McClain to low-risk deals. They kept Anthony Spencer, who is coming back from microfracture surgery, on a one-year deal. They even signed Amobi Okoye, who did not play last season due to personal medical issues, in hopes a reunion with Marinelli will rejuvenate him. The flashiest addition might be Lawrence, and it is difficult to expect rookies to hit the league running.

Cowboys' Twitter mailbag, Part 1

April, 25, 2014
4/25/14
1:00
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IRVING, Texas -- Part 1 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it we discuss the Cowboys possibly taking a safety in the first round, why Caleb Hanie was brought in, drafting a cornerback in the first round, Rod Marinelli’s ability to adapt and Tony Romo as a free agent.

Part 2 of the mailbag will be delivered on Saturday. If you have a question, fire one off to me via Twitter (@toddarcher).

Away we go:

.

A look at Rod Marinelli's scheme

February, 11, 2014
2/11/14
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IRVING, Texas -- Since Rod Marinelli was named the Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator, I've been asked more than a few times if the defense will look different in 2014.

Since Marinelli worked with Monte Kiffin in Tampa Bay for so long, the easy answer is no, it won't.

From 2010-12, Marinelli served as coordinator for the Chicago Bears after his stint as the head coach of the Detroit Lions. He had incredibly successful defenses. They forced a ton of turnovers (59 fumbles, 65 interceptions), scored 13 touchdowns and, most importantly, allowed the fourth-fewest points (904).

In 2012, the Bears had four Pro Bowl players in cornerbacks Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman, defensive end Julius Peppers and defensive tackle Henry Melton. They had a league-high 44 takeaways and finished in the top 10 in rush defense, pass defense and points allowed.

I wanted to get a feel for a Marinelli defense versus a Kiffin defense, so I watched two Bears games from 2012 against the Cowboys and Green Bay Packers. The Bears intercepted Tony Romo five times and forced a sixth turnover in their 34-18 win at AT&T Stadium in Week 4. The Packers game came in Week 15 and Chicago did not have Brian Urlacher. The Packers won, 21-13.

[+] EnlargeRod Marinelli
AP Photo/James D. SmithThe Cowboys' defense under Rod Marinelli shouldn't differ much schematically from the one the Cowboys ran under Monte Kiffin.
Like Kiffin, Marinelli did not employ a dime defense (six defensive backs) in either game. He played a nickel defense when faced with three-wide-receiver sets or empty packages. He brought five or more on a pass rush just 17 times in 98 pass plays.

Here's the breakdown:

Green Bay

Three-man pressure: None.
Four-man pressure: 34
Five-man or more pressure: 9

Dallas

Three-man pressure: 1
Four-man pressure: 44
Five-man or more pressure: 8

The Bears sacked Aaron Rodgers three times. They got Tony Romo once. While the Bears showed A-gap pressures with Urlacher and Lance Briggs against the Cowboys, they never brought both of them up the middle. Twice they brought the cornerback off the slot for a blitz. Most of the time Briggs was the extra rusher. The only time the Bears brought six rushers in the game came on Tillman's pick-six of Romo after a miscommunication with Dez Bryant.

Against the Packers, Marinelli used some zone blitzes, dropping Peppers into coverage with the slot corner and Briggs or Nick Roach bringing the pressure. He was more willing to bring both linebackers on blitzes up the middle against the Packers. Most of the pressure packages came on third-and-long, however the one time he brought seven rushers against Rodgers came on third-and-5 and the Bears got a stop.

Chicago played mostly zone in the two games I watched, which might not make guys like Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne happy. Kiffin was reluctant to play man coverage at times and Carr and Claiborne never really earned trust to play it more.

Against the Cowboys, Marinelli allowed his cornerbacks to press more (12 times, including eight in the first half). He did not want Bryant and/or Miles Austin to get a head of steam going off the line of scrimmage, which helped put pressure on Romo almost from the outset.

Against the Packers, the Bears played only four snaps of press coverage, two in each half.

The key to the defense was the line play. That's nothing new. That's what helped the Seattle Seahawks win a Super Bowl. That's what helped the Bears lead the league in takeaways in 2012. For this defense to work, the front four must get pressure, as witnessed by the low total of blitzes.

The Bears could get pressure with or without playing games up front with twists and stunts. It wasn't necessarily sacks. Remember, Romo was sacked just once in the game, but the Bears took it to the Cowboys' offensive line by just being active. Rodgers also felt pressure, although not as much.

So I'll go back to the original question: Will the Cowboys' defense look different in 2014? Schematically, I'd say not so much. And that's OK. The key, as it always is, will be the players playing it better.

“There's a certain philosophy, a certain defense they believe in,” linebacker Sean Lee said, “but we obviously have to get great at that base [defense] if we want to be able to build off that. I think Coach Marinelli has had a ton of success in the past. He's a great coordinator and we're going to have to find a way to improve individually if we want to play well within this defense.”

Words in Tampa sound familiar to Cowboys

January, 7, 2014
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IRVING, Texas -- When the Dallas Cowboys made the switch to the 4-3 scheme last year, they thought they had the pieces in place to make a smooth transition.

Nobody could have seen what happened to the defense in 2013, finishing last in the NFL.

Carr
Revis
But when Monte Kiffin was hired last January, we all tried to make the pieces fit, comparing the Cowboys players to what Kiffin had during his run with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or what Rod Marinelli had with the Chicago Bears. DeMarcus Ware would be Simeon Rice. Jay Ratliff would be Warren Sapp. Bruce Carter would be Derrick Brooks. Sean Lee would be Brian Urlacher.

The secondary was an issue. The Cowboys had man-to-man corners in Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, and they didn’t really have a John Lynch at safety, but they liked Barry Church.

Kiffin told his guys to study up on what the Seattle Seahawks did defensively as a sign that they would not be a traditional Tampa 2 team.

Now that Lovie Smith has taken over the Buccaneers, the same comparisons are being made. Gerald McCoy will be Sapp. Lavonte David will be Brooks.

So who’s Darrelle Revis?

“We're a 4-3 team,” Smith said in his introductory news conference. “There's a reason why we have Tampa-2 associated to one of our coverages, but I just want you to know, especially [in reference to cornerback] Darrelle Revis, we don't play Cover-2 every snap. We have a place for a great cover corner that's physical and can do all things.”

Now Revis is better than Carr and Claiborne. I’m not making the player-for-player comparison. If he’s not the NFL's best corner, he is at least in the conversation, and he was coming off a knee injury. I’m making the style of play comparison.

But there was a frustration from Carr and Claiborne about the lack of man coverage the Cowboys were playing, especially early in the season. Players want to do what they do best, and too often they felt like they had to play off and soft in zone coverage.

So Smith might be able to promise Revis that he will be able to man his own island, but the proof will be when the games count, because coaches want to do what they know best.

That was part of the Cowboys’ growing pains in 2013.

Welcome to Soldier Field

December, 9, 2013
12/09/13
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CHICAGO -- Welcome to Soldier Field where the Dallas Cowboys have a chance to maintain pace with the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East with a win against the Chicago Bears.

On Sunday, the Eagles beat the Detroit Lions in a snowstorm, forcing the Cowboys to beat the Bears to maintain first place -- albeit via tiebreaker -- in the NFC East with three games to play.

Attacking on offense: The conditions could play a factor in Monday night's game with the cold, wind and field conditions. Does that mean the Cowboys will run the ball more?

“I think you go in saying you want to do both,” quarterback Tony Romo said. “You always want to run the ball, be balanced and attack when you can. We'll take that approach.”

The Cowboys have run the ball better in the past three games, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. DeMarco Murray has an outside shot at 1,000 yards despite missing two games, but the Cowboys will miss Lance Dunbar. He suffered a season-ending knee injury on Thanksgiving after finally showing the change of pace the Cowboys thought they would have all season.

Now the running game will be Murray's. Can he handle the load?

The return of the quarterback: No, not Romo. We're talking defense and the return of Sean Lee.

The middle linebacker missed two games with a hamstring injury and the Cowboys were able to win both games. But Lee is their best play maker. He is the team leader in tackles and interceptions. He is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss.

Against a team where middle linebackers have dominated for years -- Bill George, Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, Brian Urlacher -- Lee will get his chance to show his worth to the Cowboys.

He will be a three-down linebacker and he said the hamstring feels fine. The cold weather will force him to do some extra warming up, but he does not expect it to be an issue.

“I thought we did a great job adapting, guys coming in and playing unbelievably,” Lee said. “Hopefully we can build on the success and continue to go forward.”

Former teammate, now enemy: Say hello to Jay Ratliff. Oop. Jeremiah Ratliff.

Released by the Cowboys in October, Ratliff signed a one-year deal with the Bears in November and will play in his second game of the season. This has not gone over well with owner and general manager Jerry Jones.

The Cowboys did not believe Ratliff would play this year based on what Ratliff told them. And here he is on the field against the Cowboys in a pivotal December game. Ratliff was a declining player with the Cowboys and was barely a factor last week against the Minnesota Vikings.

But you know he will want to be a difference maker tonight.

5 Wonders: Sean Lee's sack total

August, 13, 2013
8/13/13
9:00
AM ET
OXNARD, Calif. – The Cowboys are closing in on their return to Texas after their California summer vacation (aka training camp), but there are plenty of things to wonder about -- and not just the heat back home.

For the third time in training camp, we bring you Five Wonders:

PODCAST
Sean Lee joins Fitzsimmons and Durrett to discuss the Cowboys' upcoming season and his role on the team.

Listen Listen
** LB Sean Lee was credited with a sack and a forced fumble by the stats crew Friday in Oakland, but after looking at the replay, it looked like Jason Hatcher poked the ball free from Matt Flynn before the big hit from Lee. In his first three years, Lee has filled every defensive category but sacks. In 35 games, Lee has yet to record a sack. But I don’t wonder whether Lee will get a sack this year, I wonder how many he will get. Brian Urlacher had eight as a rookie in this scheme, but in five of his last seven years in Chicago, he did not have a sack. He had four in 2010. Monte Kiffin was aggressive in preseason game No. 2 against the Raiders, and Lee has a knack for timing. Seattle’s Bobby Wagner had two sacks last year in this scheme playing the Mike spot. I can see Lee getting about three this year if Kiffin keeps up with his aggressiveness.

** Before camp, when we wondered about position battles, I don’t think we had strongside linebacker on the list. We had free-agent pickup Justin Durant as the guy. Heck, I wasn’t sure Ernie Sims would make the team. But I wonder if the coaches have opened this starting spot without any of us noticing until recently. And with Sims suffering a groin injury Sunday, I wonder how long the competition will last. The Cowboys hope Sims can play in the fourth preseason game against Cincinnati, but who knows whether he will be back. Before Sunday, Durant had worked all camp -- save for one vet day -- as the starting Sam linebacker with Sims as his backup. In the Hall of Fame Game against Miami, Durant was the only regular to play. In the second preseason game against Oakland, Durant started but Sims was on the field in the second series with the starters. Durant really has not done anything to lose a job that we all thought was his entering camp, but Sims has had an impactful camp. He has been around the football and has created turnovers in practice. The groin injury, however, might change all of this.

** In two preseason games, the Cowboys have had 58 pass plays. So far, tight ends Jason Witten, James Hanna, Gavin Escobar, Dante Rosario, Colin Cochart and Andre Smith have been targeted nine times. Given how much we have talked about “12 personnel” and how much the Cowboys have used “12 personnel” in practice, I wonder if the team is just keeping most of it under wraps in the preseason. Against Miami in the Hall of Fame Game, the Cowboys used the two-tight end package a bunch and ran the ball more than they threw it. Against Oakland, the starters were in 11 personnel (three wide receivers) more. There is no need to tip teams to what will be your base formation when the regular season begins.

** Last year, the Cowboys kept safety Matt Johnson around essentially for the season even though he hardly practiced because of hamstring and back injuries. Johnson earned a scholarship year in part because he was a fourth-round draft pick and teams don’t want to give up on draft picks. Offensive tackle Demetress Bell is not a draft pick and the team does not have a financial commitment to him, but I wonder if the Cowboys will keep him around even though he hasn't done much of anything in camp. After signing, he needed extensive conditioning work when the team got to Oxnard, Calif., and the Cowboys did not want to put him at risk. He’s in better condition now and the Cowboys’ backup tackle situation is not good. Jermey Parnell is the third guy but a hamstring injury has slowed him through the first three weeks. The other backups, Darrion Weems and Edawn Coughman, have not impressed, either. Even if the Cowboys sign Brian Waters, they could keep nine or 10 linemen on the 53-man roster. Bell might not have to do much to be one of those guys.

** I wonder if people realize how out of date the Cowboys’ Valley Ranch complex is. There is no doubt it is serviceable, but most of the BCS college programs have better facilities than the Cowboys. You think of Valley Ranch as this magical place because of the history of the franchise, but it is just not as functional as it needs to be, which is a big reason why we will see the team move its practice facility to Frisco, Texas. It’s not just the lack of an indoor facility, though that is a big part of it. They don’t have a place to cook their own food, they need more space for rehab programs, and the player lounge is hardly even a room. We make too much of these things when it comes to free agency because money speaks the most, but there’s a reason why the Cowboys have taken their high-prized free agents to Cowboys Stadium first on their visits. When the team moves to Frisco in the future, the facility will match the stadium.

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