Dallas Cowboys: Rod Marinelli

IRVING, Texas - No one has said the Dallas Cowboys have a great defense, which makes sense because they don't.

Then again, their offense is so good this defense doesn't have to be great.

It just needs to be solid -- and it is.

[+] EnlargeRod Marinelli
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsRod Marinelli's defense isn't great, but it's been good enough to help Dallas to an NFL-best 6-1 record.
Focusing on how many yards the Cowboys allow per play (6.1) or their puny sack totals (6.0) is a poor way to determine this unit's effectiveness.

We know it's a flawed unit -- it has been that way since Day 1 of training camp -- so it's important to understand what defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is trying to accomplish.

Ask any defensive player and he'll tell you the first tenet of the Cowboys' defense is to play as hard as humanely possible until the officials blow their whistle. That's why several times this season, a Cowboys' defensive linemen has rushed the passer than helped make the tackle 20 yards downfield.

Effort can indeed hide a lot of flaws.

The Cowboys were the worst in the league in allowing 79 plays of more than 20 yards last year. Understand, that virtually every scoring drive involves a big play because it's so hard for offenses to consistently drive the ball the length of the field.

This season, Dallas has allowed 22 plays of 20 yards or more. Only seven teams have allowed fewer.

The lack of big plays the Cowboys have allowed corresponds with the Cowboys ranking in scoring efficiency. The Cowboys have yielded just 15 touchdowns in 75 possessions.

Detroit, San Diego, Indianapolis, Baltimore and Philadelphia are the only teams better, and they have combined win-loss record of 25-9.

And only four teams have more the 12 turnovers the Cowboys have forced, impressive considering their lack of a consistent pass rush.

This defense, as currently built, is going to give up yardage, but if the Cowboys keep the big plays to a minimum and keep forcing turnovers, then it'll be good enough to win games with this offense.
IRVING, Texas -- Here's a look at the snap counts played for each of the Dallas Cowboys' defensive players on Sunday:

Crawford
While there has been no grand proclamation, Tyrone Crawford seems to be the starter at the three-technique defensive tackle -- the most important line position in the Cowboys' scheme -- not Henry Melton.

Don't forget, Melton was a Pro Bowl player in 2012, but missed the final 13 games of last season with a torn ACL. He signed a one-year deal with a team option for three more years at the end of the season.

A groin injury limited him in the preseason and at the start of the season, which is why Crawford was moved from end to tackle. He played 43 snaps Sunday, second behind Mincey, and he finished with five tackles.

Melton has been practicing each week, but hasn't been able to get the starting job from Crawford. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinell said Melton is at his best playing 38-40 snaps a game.

He played 31 on Sunday, the first time in three games he's played as much as 30 snaps, while Crawford has played at least 37 snaps in each of the last five games, including four with more than 40 snaps.

Justin Durant, as has become the norm, played every snap. Rolando McClain, who only practiced Friday, played all but four snaps as he continues to manage a groin strain.

Brandon Carr 63
Orlando Scandrick 63
Justin Durant 63
J.J. Wilcox 61
Rolando McClain 59
Barry Church 56
Sterling Moore 51
Tyrone Crawford 43
Jeremy Mincey 44
George Selvie 37
Nick Hayden 31
Henry Melton 31
Anthony Spencer 29
Terrell McClain 21
Lavar Edwards 16
Kyle Wilber 12
Jeff Heath 10
Anthony Hitchens 2
Tyler Patmon 1
Three thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys' 20-17 overtime win over the Houston Texans:

1. I think we spend so much time talking about the three first-round picks on the Cowboys' offensive line that we lose sight of how much left guard Ron Leary has improved since making the team as an undrafted free agent and spending much of his rookie season on the practice squad.

He did an excellent job, for the most part, in his battles against J.J. Watt. He played with power and toughness. He’s a big part of the offensive line success and he’s only 23.

McClain
2. I think it’s amazing that Rolando McClain has become the unquestioned leader of the Cowboys’ defense, considering he didn’t really join the team until training camp.

He brings a physical nature to the defense we haven’t seen in years. When he hits people, he knocks them backward. And at 6-foot-4 with long legs, he covers a lot more space than you think, which is why he can be effective in pass coverage.

He says he really enjoys playing with this group of players and the Cowboys. I would bet it’s because he finds the structure under Jason Garrett and the culture Garrett is creating much like the structure and culture he had at Alabama under Nick Saban.

3. I think the Cowboys’ defense is really starting to understand how to play the Tampa 2 scheme under Rod Marinelli.

These guys are flying to the ball. When an opposing receiver catches the ball, there are four to five defenders on him immediately. Maximum effort won’t compensate totally for talent deficiencies, but it can hide a lot of flaws.

This defense is playing as hard as it can, and Marinelli is getting the unit to maximize its potential. With the offense this team has, the Cowboys’ defense doesn’t have to be great for the team to win. It can be average. Right now, it's a little better than that.

KEY STAT: 15

The Cowboys rank last in the NFL in creating negative plays with only 15 so far -- and it’s not just because they have only five sacks.

Dallas has dropped opposing runners for losses just 10 times in 117 carries. This is not good for a defense that’s based on having a disruptive line that wreaks havoc and forces offenses into long-yardage situations on second and third downs, at which point the Tampa 2 scheme is at its best because it takes away the deep ball and forces teams to throw underneath.

If the Cowboys can create more negative plays, you’ll see this defense take another step forward.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Tyrone Crawford

For some guys, like Crawford, it takes the Cowboys a while to figure out how to maximize their talent.

Now that Dallas understands he fits much better at defensive tackle than defensive end, you’re going to see him making much more of an impact. Henry Melton's groin and hamstring injuries provided an opportunity to play tackle and Crawford has responded well.

He has good pass-rushing moves for a defensive tackle and average moves for a defensive end. He can also play with power, and his average quickness at end translates to good quickness at tackle.

This is a good find for the Cowboys because it means they don’t have to rush Melton back into a larger role. Melton has played 24 and 20 snaps the past two weeks, while Crawford played 42 and 45 snaps.

Cowboys stay focused on turnovers

October, 2, 2014
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Houston has fumbled six times, losing two, in four games. The Cowboys will looking to add to that total this week.

If it happens, it won’t be by accident.

The Cowboys have discussed the way several Houston players don’t keep the ball close to their body when they’re carrying it, so defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli wants them attacking it every play.

Jason Garrett talks about the importance of winning the turnover battle all the time. He calls it among the most important stats in the game.

He’s right.

Teams that win the turnover battle are 43-10 this season. Dallas is 3-0 when they win the turnover battle, and Houston is 2-0.
Michael Sam, the NFL’s most high-profile practice squad player, is doing a good job in practice, but you shouldn’t expect him to join the active roster anytime soon.

Injuries, of course, always present an opportunity. Other than that, though, the best thing Sam can do is continue to learn the system, maximize his time in the weight room, and be ready to earn a spot on the roster next season.

Sam
 The Cowboys didn’t rush the passer well last season, and they didn’t sack Colin Kaepernick in Week 1. Sam, a seventh-round pick of the St. Louis Rams, was released after the final preseason game.

He signed with the Cowboys because they’re looking everywhere for a pass-rusher, and the SEC's 2013 Co-Defensive Player of the Year showed a knack for doing that in college.

“He’s done some good things," said defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. "The only thing he really gets is some of our individual periods, and then he gets some one-on-one rushes on Wednesday, and I think he’s gotten a little bit better.

“But it’s tougher for a practice squad guy because these other guys here, they’re pounding … all week long in terms of fundamentals and game-planning and those things. So it’s a little tougher, but he’s got movement. I like his quickness and his instincts. He’s got really good work habits, so just keep working to develop him.”

Marinelli, Cowboys seeking turnovers

September, 12, 2014
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The Dallas Cowboys didn't force a turnover against the San Francisco 49ers. No one should be surprised they lost.

Dallas has lost 18 consecutive games when it didn't force a turnover, a span of 76 regular-season games. The last time the Cowboys won a game in which the defense failed to force a turnover, they needed 250 yards receiving from Miles Austin to rally against the Kansas City Chiefs in October 2009.

It hard to win in the NFL without turnovers because of the momentum they generate and field position they produce, which is why defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has increased the focus on turnovers the week.

The Cowboys work on turnover drills during the individual period of every practice, but the intensity has been increased this week.

“We ended up playing solid as a defense. We didn't make enough plays,” Marinelli said. “We kind of played the defense.

“We hustled. We hit. We were fairly physical but we need the back row to get the picks and lock them down. We need the front to make the sack fumble and the linebackers to get a pick when they have it. We gotta get the playmakers to step up, and that's the challenge this week.”
OXNARD, Calif. -- Three thoughts on Day 10 of Dallas Cowboys training camp:


1) One way the Cowboys can improve their defense is to be considerably better against play-action passes.


Last year, they were awful.

Opposing quarterbacks passed for 1,088 yards, while averaging a ridiculous 9.0 yards per attempt with eight touchdowns and two interceptions.

Before you start criticizing the cornerbacks, understand the linebackers and safeties usually bit so hard on the run fake they left the cornerbacks exposed. A cornerback forcing a receiver inside who doesn’t get the help he expects is always going to look bad.

With Rod Marinelli in charge of the entire defense this season, the Cowboys have changed how they’re playing and some of the coverages they're using in certain situations to be more fundamentally sound.

2) The combination of an improved offensive line and Scott Linehan’s creativity has running back DeMarco Murray poised to have a huge year.

You’re certainly entitled to criticize him for his inability to get through a 16-game season unscathed -- he’s missed 11 games in three seasons -- but Murray has a career average of 4.9 yards on 542 carries.

He was terrific last year with 1,121 yards rushing, 53 receptions for 330 yards and 10 touchdowns.

He’ll be 27 before next season and running backs notoriously become significantly less productive when they hit 30. As a player who’s had an injury history teams will be even more leery than usual when it comes to signing him to a long-term deal.

But if he puts up numbers this year as a 26-year-old in his prime should put up, then someone is going to play him whether it’s Dallas or some other team.

3) Jason Garrett has put together a diverse coaching staff, which can only help.

This isn’t about race, although the Cowboys do have four African-American coaches on their staff. This is more about age and pedigree.

The Cowboys have three coaches in their twenties, two in their thirties, 10 in their forties, including Garrett, five in their fifties, one in his sixties and two in their seventies.

Some members of Garrett's staff played in the NFL and some didn’t. He has some who played big-time college football and some who played for tiny programs. He has guys who were drafted and played in the Pro Bowl and guys who were role players.

What that does is allow the staff to relate to the players on several different levels.

Each player learns differently. Each player has a different background. The more diverse the coaching staff, the better the odds a player will find someone on the staff he can relate to -- even if it’s not his position coach.

Key number: 257

The Cowboys’ defense was on the field for 1,094 plays last season and 257 of them -- 65 runs and 192 passes -- gained 10 yards or more.

That’s 23.4 percent. Wow.

The 65 runs of 10-plus yards they allowed ranked second only to Chicago’s 84. Philadelphia (202) and Minnesota (200) were the only teams that allowed more pass plays of 10 yards or more.

The Tampa 2 scheme is designed to stop big plays because the safeties and linebackers are supposed to keep plays in front of them. The biggest indictment of Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator is that he couldn’t get his players to play the scheme the way it was designed.

Player to Watch: Ron Leary

The third-year guard from Memphis missed much of the first two weeks with a strained hamstring, but Garrett said he didn’t think it would hurt him too much in the competition at left guard.

That’s an indication he'd prefer Leary to win the job. To do so, he’ll have to earn it because Mackenzy Bernadeau has been doing a good job in addition to his duties as backup center.

Leary plays with power and has a nasty streak the Cowboys like. He started 16 games last season and helped Murray rush for 1,121 yards.

He does a good job of anchoring in the middle of the line, making it difficult to pressure Romo up the middle

Rod Marinelli wants habits formed in camp

July, 21, 2014
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IRVING, Texas -- Every day in practice, the defense opens practice the same way. The players run over bags at full speed with coaches on either side, hollering encouragement.

Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli wants his defense to be fast and furious. The drill might seem monotonous, but Marinelli is trying to perfect habits.

Head coach Jason Garrett has called Marinelli a great speaker and his speech on habits is at the top. Marinelli said it is more than an oft-repeated coaching mantra: you are what you repeatedly do.

“It’s also the day to day grind of this thing and that’s what you have to be able to teach,” Marinelli said. “The habits are easy to understand in a classroom setting. It’s a whole different world when you’re come out there in the heat, in the pads and you’re trying to be able to keep doing the same things over and over but better.

“Tedious repetition of the simplest movements every single day. That is tough to do. That is really tough to do but that’s what you shoot for. In this system it’s really important because we’re based so much on fundamentals. The standard is us as coaches. We have to set the standard in terms of that because you see over the course of the year your drill work can start going downhill a little bit. You can’t allow [bad habits] to creep in on you. What happens is you get guys starting to get beat up and they can’t practice as well. ... It sounds incredible but you lose them quick. You’ve just got to stay on them.”

Marinelli wants his guys to enjoy the grind, no matter how difficult.

“If we do it day to day, reps, reps, reps after reps, then it’s like branded in us and we do it in games,” defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford said. “It’s great. I believe in it. I know all the players believe in it.”

Camp preview: Dallas Cowboys

July, 17, 2014
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NFL Nation's Todd Archer examines the three biggest issues facing the Dallas Cowboys heading into training camp:

The health of Romo: Ever since he became the starter in 2006, how Tony Romo goes is how the Cowboys go. He is coming off his second back surgery in less than a year, but he was able to do much more this offseason than he did in 2013, when he had a cyst removed. The Cowboys kept Romo out of any competitive drills in the spring in order for him to be fully healthy by the time they got to training camp. Using last year's camp as a guide, Romo did not miss a day of work, and the Cowboys don't believe he will need to be eased into the full practice load this summer either. Because a big part of Romo's game is his ability to move and create in open space, however, they will be cautious if there even hints of more soreness than just the aches and pains of training camp. All offseason, the Cowboys have not expressed any worry about Romo, who turned 34 in April, being able to return to form. He will get his first chance to show it on the practice fields in Oxnard, California. If he can play at a high level -- he had 32 touchdown passes and 10 picks in 15 games last season -- then the Cowboys should be able to contend for a playoff spot in a division that is not as strong as it has been in the past.

Marinelli to the rescue: The Cowboys' defense was historically bad in 2013, and they enter this season without their all-time leader in sacks (DeMarcus Ware), last year's leader in sacks (Jason Hatcher) and their best playmaker (Sean Lee). Rod Marinelli takes over for Monte Kiffin as the defensive coordinator and will bring subtle changes in coverages, fronts and blitzes, but the core of the 4-3 scheme will remain the same as when that coaching duo was together at Tampa Bay. The Cowboys did not make any splash signings in free agency, but their most important was Henry Melton. If he can come back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and play the way he did under Marinelli in Chicago, the Cowboys have a chance. Marinelli also plans to lean more on cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne in man coverage, but Carr and Claiborne have to play much better in 2014 than they did in 2013. There could be as many as seven new opening day starters on defense this season than in 2013, and it is up to Marinelli to make it work. He had more talent with the Bears when he was running their defense, but the players believe in what he is selling.

Plan of attack: From 2007 through 2012, Jason Garrett called every offensive play. In 2013, Bill Callahan was the playcaller, but he was forced to run Garrett's offense, and there were hiccups. Scott Linehan will be Romo's third playcaller in as many years, and he will have the autonomy Callahan did not have. The Cowboys are not changing schemes, but Linehan has brought on alterations to an offense that struggled on third down in 2013. Linehan leaned toward the pass in his time with the Detroit Lions, but he did have a 1,000-yard rusher in Reggie Bush last season. With the Cowboys, he has a better offensive line, better tight end (Jason Witten) and better running back (DeMarco Murray). The Cowboys aren't about to become a run-first team under Linehan, but they need to run more, especially when they have a lead in order to help end games, protect a defense filled with questions and protect Romo, who is coming off two back surgeries. Because Romo did not take any team or seven-on-seven snaps in the spring, they will need to play a little bit of catch-up in what each other likes and, perhaps more importantly, doesn't like in situational football. The Romo-Linehan relationship might be the most important the Cowboys have. They have to make it work.

Cowboys' Twitter mailbag, Part 1

July, 11, 2014
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IRVING, Texas -- Part 1 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it we discuss:
  • The potential of Tyrone Crawford
  • The potential of the defense overall
  • The potential of Jason Garrett
  • The potential of Sean Lee

Away we go:

@toddarcher: Everybody wants to heap a pile of expectations on Crawford. Jason Hatcher did it. Tony Romo did it. Jerry Jones did it. The coaches have done it. I'm just not ready to say he will have seven or more sacks in 2014. I think if he had five, that would be a good year. Remember, he is coming off a torn Achilles that cost him the 2013 season and he did not have a sack as a rookie in 2012. He was good, solid, dependable, but he never got the quarterback. He had a good spring, but he also expressed some worry that he was still having pain in his leg even if it is considered normal. A five-sack season would be a good way for Crawford to rebound. If he has seven, the Cowboys will be ecstatic. I'm not saying he doesn't have the potential for that kind of season. I just want to see some more evidence before jumping on an already crowded bandwagon.

@toddarcher: Thankfully the fine folks at bloggingtheboys.com have already looked this up. Generally, they do better. Only one team in the past 19 seasons allowed more yards after giving up the most yards in the NFL. Unfortunately that team was the 2008 Detroit Lions coached by Rod Marinelli, who takes over as Cowboys' defensive coordinator. According to BTB, the average improvement is 827 yards from the previous years. Sixteen of those 19 had more wins the following season, which bodes well for the Cowboys. I think the defense will be better in 2014 because it can't be worse. Well, I know it can be worse, but I think Marinelli will make a positive impact. I think you will see the Cowboys go from No. 32 in yards to the Nos. 20-25 range. Call me crazy.

@toddarcher: I'm going to take the new head coaches out of the mix, so no Bill O'Brien, Mike Zimmer, Jay Gruden or Mike Pettine. He clearly isn't among the best in the league. I don't think he's the worst either. I've got Jason Garrett as better than Doug Marrone, Gus Bradley, Joe Philbin and Dennis Allen. I think he's better than Jim Caldwell. I think he's better than Marc Trestman. To me, guys like Jeff Fisher and Lovie Smith are overrated, but that is just my opinion. I'd put him in with guys like Ron Rivera, Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt, and, yes, I realize those guys have made the playoffs or a Super Bowl (Whisenhunt). Garrett is in that 18-23 range, to me. Middle of the road. Much like the Cowboys.

@toddarcher: Maybe I'm just being stubborn on this one, but no. Contractually they can't really walk away yet even if they wanted to ... and they don't want to. I realize Lee has had his share of injuries, but he is an impactful player. He has shown too much even with missing so many games. I'm going to take my chances that he will be healthy eventually. I don't doubt he will come back from the torn anterior cruciate ligament. While still a major rehab, it is not as daunting or as uncommon as it was in the past. Lee will do everything he can do be ready. Sometimes this stuff comes down to luck. Maybe all of Lee's bad luck is out of his system and he'll be able to play a full season in 2015 and beyond. I wouldn't want to see him do it elsewhere for another team..

Best case/worst case: Henry Melton

July, 10, 2014
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IRVING, Texas -- In order to break out of their 8-8 doldrums, the Dallas Cowboys will need a lot to go right in 2014.

This week we take a best-case, worst-case look at five offensive and defensive players who will go a long way in shaping the Cowboys' season.

Henry Melton

Best-case: The reunion works

Melton
When Melton had Rod Marinelli as his defensive coordinator with the Chicago Bears, he was in Pro Bowl form. The Cowboys are banking on it happening, literally. They signed Melton to a one-year deal with a three-year option as a free agent. If Melton performs the way he did in his final two years -- 13 sacks in a two-year run as a starter -- then the Cowboys will gladly pick up the option, which would guarantee Melton $9 million in 2015. Melton is coming back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and went through individual drills in the offseason program as he continued his rehab. The Cowboys know how important he is to their defensive line. He has the best resume but played in only three games last year before getting hurt and did not have a sack. He could draw the double teams that would free up other pass rushers. Marinelli has a way of speaking a defensive lineman's language. He makes sure they are relentless and attack up the field. Marinelli helped make Jason Hatcher a Pro Bowl player last year. He never had more than 4.5 sacks in a season but put up 11 in 2012 under Marinelli. Similar production from Melton would go a long way in helping a defense with low expectations.

Worst-case: He needs more time

Adrian Peterson ruined it for everybody coming back from a torn ACL by being otherworldly in 2012 when he ran for 2,097 yards. He raised the expectations that everybody can come back that fast and that well. Robert Griffin III offered up the other side of the recovery. He was OK last year but not as dynamic as he was a rookie. The general thought is that a player is better the second year after the torn ACL. Players have to make physical and mental recoveries from the injury. Sometimes the mental recovery can be erased quickly with the first few hits. Other times, it takes a while for instincts to return. For the Cowboys, that would not be good because Melton is looked at as one of the kingpins of a re-made defensive line. He cannot be a question up front if the Cowboys want to be better in 2014 than they were in 2013. The Cowboys don't need him to be Warren Sapp, but he can't be average either. For Melton, that would not be good because if he needs another year, he will not cash in on that $9 million guarantee and would be a free agent in 2015 coming off two potentially so-so seasons.

Best case/worst case: Cornerbacks

July, 9, 2014
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IRVING, Texas -- In order to break out of their 8-8 doldrums, the Dallas Cowboys will need a lot to go right in 2014.

This week we take a best-case, worst-case look at five offensive and defensive players who will go a long way in shaping the Cowboys' season.

The cornerbacks

Best case: They lock it down

Claiborne
Scandrick
Brandon Carr has said he wants to take over the league. Morris Claiborne knows he is in the fight for his career after two disappointing seasons. Orlando Scandrick was their best corner last year and perhaps their best defender this year. The Cowboys have invested in them heavily in contract and draft position. Rod Marinelli said he has not had three man-to-man corners like these guys. Carr, Claiborne and Scandrick believe they are better suited to play more man than zone, which frustrated them at times in 2013. But they weren't great at man either and the coaches did not have enough trust to let them handle receivers all over the field. Carr and Claiborne, who will have to take away the starting spot from Scandrick after losing it last year, have the physical tools to be top press corners. Scandrick is as competitive as anybody on the roster and understands route concepts the best. They have to make plays early in the season to not only build their confidence but to build the confidence of the rest of the defense.

Worst case: No help from the pass rush

A cornerback's job is a lot easier when the front seven can affect the quarterback. Sacks and pressures are great, but if a quarterback is afraid of the pass rush he will get rid of the ball sooner. That means there is less time for a corner to have to defend and more chances at interceptions. The Cowboys lost their all-time leader in sacks (DeMarcus Ware) and last year's leader in sacks (Jason Hatcher) in the offseason. They replaced them with a rookie second-round pick (DeMarcus Lawrence) and Henry Melton, who is coming back from a torn ACL. They also added numbers to the position in players like Jeremy Mincey, Terrell McClain and Amobi Okoye but they have questions. Anthony Spencer might not be able to play until the seventh week of the season. Tyrone Crawford is coming back from a torn Achilles and didn't have a sack in his rookie season. Marinelli is not known as a coordinator who brings a lot of pressure. If they can't affect the quarterback, then Carr, Scandrick and Claiborne will have a difficult time staying with receivers.

Marinelli likes that D has much to prove

July, 9, 2014
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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.”

Best case/worst case: Bruce Carter

July, 8, 2014
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IRVING, Texas -- In order to break out of their 8-8 doldrums, the Dallas Cowboys will need a lot to go right in 2014.

This week we take a best-case, worst-case look at five offensive and defensive players that will go a long way toward shaping the Cowboys' season.

Bruce Carter

Carter
Carter
Best-case: He finally reaches his potential

So much was expected of Carter when the Cowboys moved to the 4-3 scheme last year. He seemed to have the speed and athleticism to handle the weakside linebacker spot. Although he had a career-high 122 tackles, he struggled in 2013. He had only four tackles for loss, no interceptions and after two sacks in the first two games he didn't record another one the rest of the season. Carter has not faced a bigger year in his career. He is set to be a free agent after the season. After playing well in 11 starts in 2012 before suffering an elbow injury, he was viewed as part of the future core. Now he's not. The Cowboys were going to draft Ryan Shazier in the first round if the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't scoop him up with the 15th pick. Carter's job description is changing under new coordinator Rod Marinelli. He will be protected by the 3-technique (lining up on the outside shoulder of a guard) at all times, which will keep him free from offensive linemen and give him better access to roam sideline to sideline. There is no doubting Carter's athleticism. He is one of the strongest players at his position. He can run with tight ends and backs. There is something there to develop, but time is running out. If he hits his potential, the Cowboys have a chance and Carter can work his way back into the future core.

Worst-case: Same as it ever was

If players aren't getting better, they're getting worse. If Carter is the same player in 2014 as he was in 2013, then that will severely limit the defense. He has to be a playmaker on a defense that does not look to have a lot of them, especially along the defensive front. What drove the coaches and those around Valley Ranch nuts last year was the indifference Carter seemed to show when he played poorly. That's part of the reason he was benched against the San Diego Chargers and was pushed by Ernie Sims for playing time. The coaches see a physical specimen capable of doing everything necessary. Does Carter have the innate football sense? The Cowboys have changed how they drop in coverages to give the linebackers the chance to eye the quarterback more. That should allow Carter to use his athleticism. Much of the offseason has been about building up Carter for the coaches. They want to challenge him more. They know how important he is to the scheme. If that doesn't work and Carter's seeming indifference doesn't improve, then they have no chance. He does not have to become a fire-breather, but he has to show a little smoke.

Best case/worst case: J.J. Wilcox

July, 7, 2014
7/07/14
9:00
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IRVING, Texas -- In order to break out of their 8-8 doldrums, the Dallas Cowboys will need a lot to go right in 2014.

This week we take a best-case, worst-case look at five offensive and defensive players that will go a long way in shaping the Cowboys’ season.

J.J. Wilcox

Best-case: He’s the guy

Wilcox
It’s clear the Cowboys want Wilcox to be the man. After the first three safeties available in the May draft -- Calvin Pryor, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Jimmie Ward -- the Cowboys felt Wilcox was just as good as the others and therefore did not make an early or mid-round bid on a safety. Wilcox is new to the position, having only played it one year at Georgia Southern and just 13 games last season with the Cowboys. He was on the verge of winning the job in training camp but had to leave for a few weeks after the death of his mother. After taking over in Week 3, he suffered a knee injury that kept him out of three games and couldn't retake the job from Jeff Heath. Wilcox understands he has to make the step opposite Barry Church. He showed last summer he can make plays against the run and pass. He needs to add consistency, like all young players, but there is something to work with. If he can come up with a four-interception season, then the Cowboys will have their safety of the future.

Worst-case: Nobody takes the job

When Rod Marinelli was the defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears, he managed to thrive with solid but unspectacular safeties. He did have a terrific front seven, but was able to get by with what he had at safety. He does not have a prolific front seven with the Cowboys, so he could need more from the safeties not named Church. If the job is too big for Wilcox, Heath, Matt Johnson or Jakar Hamilton, the Cowboys are in trouble. Wilcox will get the best chance to earn the gig. Heath was overexposed last season, but the Cowboys believe he has some upside. Johnson will remain a health question. Hamilton looked much better in the offseason than he did as a rookie. If they could combine each of their assets into one, then the Cowboys would have a decent player. They don’t need Darren Woodson, but they can’t have a repeat of last season, where the safeties were exposed on the deep ball and could not make enough disruptive plays. If it is a repeat, then put safety at the top of the list of team needs going into 2015.

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