Dallas Cowboys: Warren Sapp

Best case/worst case: Henry Melton

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
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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.
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.”
IRVING, Texas -- When is a strong-side linebacker really a weak-side linebacker?

It's all about the definition used by the Dallas Cowboys' new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. Bruce Carter is a weak-side linebacker in Marinelli's scheme even if he is lining up on the strong side.

Wherever the three-technique plays, Carter will line up behind him.

"I think you see the blocking patterns the same all the time," Marinelli said. "That guy's covered up. Hopefully he's a heck of an athlete. Hopefully it's harder to get a hat on him, so the speed and all those things you're using in terms of the run game. Then you're seeing the same thing from the same position every time. I think that helps a man grow faster."

Marinelli did it with Lance Briggs with the Chicago Bears, lining him up behind Henry Melton. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers did it with Derrick Brooks behind Warren Sapp. In the 4-3 scheme, the two most important players are the weak-side linebacker and three technique.

The Cowboys will be more of an "over" defense this year than last year under Monte Kiffin but there were times where Carter lined up behind Jason Hatcher.

"We have travel rules and that's how we travel," Marinelli said. "It can look like one thing to you. It'd be like the under tackle. Well, he's playing an over front but he's the under tackle. It's just the system, how we move them, and we try to make it ... . I use the word simple, where guys know exactly and they see the blocks the same. Everything's the same and you get comfortable. Once you're comfortable you really play fast."

The Cowboys also call their safeties different than most teams. Barry Church is listed as the free safety with J.J. Wilcox playing strong safety. Traditionally, the strong safety is the one who plays closer to the line of scrimmage, but that is Church's role and Wilcox is more the center field safety.

Cowboys' Twitter mailbag, Part 1

May, 23, 2014
May 23
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IRVING, Texas -- Part 1 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it we discuss:
  • When Dez Bryant might sign an extension.
  • Lance Dunbar’s roster spot with the addition of Ryan Williams.
  • The team’s best free-agent pickup
  • The state of the defensive line.
  • The best of the undrafted receivers.

Look for Part 2 of the mailbag on Saturday.

Away we go:

Rod Marinelli a difference-maker

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
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IRVING, Texas -- In Rod Marinelli, the Dallas Cowboys believe they have one of the best assistant coaches in the NFL.

He might be a pretty good recruiter, too.

The Cowboys' ability to land free-agent defensive tackle Henry Melton was a lot about the contract, a lot about Melton possibly wanting to play at home and a lot about Marinelli.

Marinelli
Melton
"I'm excited to come back home and work with Rod [Marinelli] and get back to my Pro Bowl form," Melton told ESPNDallas.com's Calvin Watkins.

Melton developed into a Pro Bowl defensive tackle under Marinelli with the Chicago Bears from 2010-12. Melton had 15.5 sacks and was named to the Pro Bowl after a six-sack season in 2012. He also had 71 tackles and nine tackles for loss with Marinelli as his mentor.

He might talk softly, but Marinelli has a way of forging relationships with defensive linemen. He did it with Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He did it with Melton and Julius Peppers with the Bears. He did it with Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware with the Cowboys.

The Cowboys were forced to use 20 defensive linemen in 2013 and were one game away from making the playoffs. Marinelli was able to make it work to a certain degree with guys such as George Selvie, Nick Hayden, Jarius Wynn, Corvey Irvin and Frank Kearse.

He never had Jay Ratliff or Tyrone Crawford. He had Anthony Spencer for 34 snaps in one game. He was without Ware for three games and Hatcher for one.

Melton becomes the third defensive linemen to join the Cowboys as a free agent. Jeremy Mincey and Terrell McClain signed with the Cowboys last week.

Mincey was unable to meet face to face with Marinelli because of the coach’s schedule, but they were able to talk on the phone. Mincey was coached with the Jacksonville Jaguars by Joe Cullen, who coached under Marinelli with the Detroit Lions.

"Genuine and a believer," Mincey said last week. "He believes in what I believe: going out there and giving your all and trusting the process and seeing what happens. You never know what’s going to happen, especially with a bunch of guys who are hungry, who are dedicated and motivated for a larger purpose."

The job is not over. The Cowboys concluded a visit with Jared Allen on Tuesday, and the veteran could be the next one added to the Marinelli mix.

Five Wonders: Can Dallas go deep in '14?

February, 4, 2014
Feb 4
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IRVING, Texas -- Not necessarily by popular demand, but Five Wonders is back and we'll look at a number of issues the Dallas Cowboys face in the offseason.

On to the Wonders:
  • I wonder how different the Cowboys' offense will look in 2014 with the addition of Scott Linehan. He will call the plays, but they will be Jason Garrett's plays in the pass game and Bill Callahan's plays in the run game. If there is a change, I wonder if it will be in the deep passing game. He was unafraid to take shots down the field. That's easy to do when you have a receiver like Calvin Johnson and a quarterback with an arm like Matthew Stafford. The Cowboys did not force the issue down the field with the 51-48 loss to the Denver Broncos as the only real exception. Tony Romo averaged a career low 7.2 yards per attempt in 2013. As an offensive line coach, was Callahan protecting his guys from having to hold the fort a little longer by not calling the deep ball as much? Was Romo protecting himself in some ways because he has taken a beating in recent years with an offensive line that had too many holes? Maybe it's partly both. Linehan will have to boost the confidence in the deep passing game to make a real difference.
  • I wonder if the Cowboys look at extending Doug Free's contract. He is set to make $3.5 million in 2014 and the final two years of his deal voids after the season. Free, who had a bounce back season in 2013, will count $6.520 million against the cap and if the Cowboys choose to extend Free, they would gain cap space as well as have one of their tackles in place for 2015 and beyond. The Cowboys will have to make it worth Free's while after they cut his pay in half the last two seasons. He will be under no obligation to get do something “team friendly,” but he is not in a hurry to leave. He just turned 30 last month and is entering his eighth season. His backup, Jermey Parnell, is about to enter the final year of his deal. He was supposed to press Free in training camp last summer, but he never did in part because Free never really allowed it.
  • As you look at what the Cowboys might do in the May draft, I wonder if just how much you should keep an eye on wide receiver. I would almost guarantee Miles Austin will not be back with a $5.5 million base salary in 2014. With Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams the Cowboys would have to feel good about their top two receivers. I wonder if they would look at a receiver in the third round, like they did last year in taking Williams. Or I wonder if they will look for a veteran that is not looking to break the bank. Somebody like New Orleans' Robert Meachem comes to mind. If the Cowboys lost Bryant or Williams to injury, then they would need to have receiver ready to be a No. 2 receiver, like how Laurent Robinson filled in a few years ago.
  • Last year was the year of the hamstring injury for the Cowboys. Austin, Justin Durant, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Morris Claiborne, Gavin Escobar, Dwayne Harris, Danny McCray, Ernie Sims, J.J. Wilcox and Williams were among those troubled by varying hamstring injuries last year. Jason Garrett said the Cowboys continually looked at the reasons why. They studied how much they stretched, what they ate, what they drank. The Cowboys had players wearing GPS-like monitors in practice to gain different measurements. I wonder if the Cowboys practiced too long as the year went on. Garrett liked to say you don't want to leave it all on the practice field during the week, but could they have been in a position where they practiced so much in the week they were gassed for the game?
  • Sometimes patience is required when it comes to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I wonder if that will serve Charles Haley well. Haley was once again left off the final ballots of the voters, but that doesn't mean he will not get in. Not to go all Garrett on you, but it is a process. In the last two years we've seen the receiver logjam break with Cris Carter and Andre Reed getting selected. That could be good news for Tim Brown in 2015. Haley has seen defensive linemen Warren Sapp and Michael Strahan get selected the last two years. Maybe next year is his turn and if it is, then nobody will remember all the years it took him to make it to Canton, Ohio, and his gold jacket will be the same as every other Hall of Famer. The voters have a difficult job. I'm not of the belief Haley's conduct toward the media has played a role in his lack of support so far. Sapp was hardly the friendliest player and he got in. It will happen for Haley, one day.

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.

Relentless DeMarcus Ware always in a rush

August, 22, 2013
8/22/13
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IRVING, Texas -- Wherever DeMarcus Ware goes, he is always thinking about rushing the passer.

PODCAST
Sal Paolantonio joins Fitzsimmons and Durrett to give his thoughts on the Giants defense, Michael Vick starting in Philadelphia, how RG III's mobility impacts the division and why he thinks the Cowboys are the favorite in the NFC East.

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"Ninety-eight percent of the time we’re talking some kind of strategy," defensive end Anthony Spencer said.

In the locker room he might use a head-and-shoulder fake to get by an unsuspecting media member. Before practice he will work on a swim move on the goalpost to perfect his footwork. In the meeting room he might take another defensive lineman aside and do a dip-and-rip or a stab move. During a downtime in practice he will take Tyron Smith and work his punch.

"He’s always working on his craft; that’s why he’s the best in the league," defensive tackle Jason Hatcher said. "A guy like that working his craft, it’s kind of contagious."

Ware turned 31 on July 31. While he possesses God-given ability, he is at a point where the mental prowess for the game becomes closest to the physical prowess for the game. He is not a fastball pitcher now getting by on his off-speed pitches, but that day will come.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware, Leon Lett
AP Photo/James D. SmithDeMarcus Ware works with defensive coach Leon Lett before the Cowboys' preseason game against the Cardinals.
It just might not be too soon, given how Ware performed in training camp and so far in his brief appearances in two preseason games.

"To me, the most talented players, the best players are overachievers," Rod Marinelli said. "They overachieve. That’s why they become special. A lot of guys in this league have a lot of talent that don’t become special."

Marinelli does not use the term defensive linemen. He calls them rushmen. He even changed the sign to the unit’s room to "Rushmen."

Ware is the rushman of the rushmen. He views Marinelli as his first full-time pass rush coach in his eight years. In Oxnard, Calif., Ware and Marinelli were often engaged in lengthy discussions about pass rushing.

As an outside linebacker in his first eight years, Ware recorded 111 sacks, the Cowboys’ official team record, and has been named to the Pro Bowl eight times.

Now moving to defensive end, Ware feels as though he will be freed up to rush the passer more. With four sacks this year, he will surpass Harvey Martin (114) as the unofficial franchise leader in sacks.

"You ask the fastest man in the world: Can you run faster out of a two-point stance or a three-point stance?" Ware said. "He comes out of the block in a three-point stance."

So Ware is the NFL’s Usain Bolt?

"I didn’t say that," he smiled. "I guess I got a good first step."

Not long before training camp, Ware ran into Warren Sapp at the Fountainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach.

"I told him I’m looking for 25 [sacks] from him because I know what [Marinelli] teaches," Sapp said.

Twenty-five sacks would be an NFL record. It also would make Ware the only player with two seasons of 20 or more sacks (he had 20 in 2008).

He said he let Sapp’s comment "go by the wayside." What stuck more is what Sapp told him about Marinelli.

"You talk about fundamentals, and that’s what Marinelli is all about," Ware said. "He’s installed that through the whole defensive line. It’s all predicated on effort, and once you add in the technique and doing it perfectly every time, you make big plays."
OXNARD, Calif. – What, the Cowboys worry about Jay Ratliff?

On the contrary, they have complete confidence that the four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle will be a dominant force this season. They firmly believe that defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s scheme and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli’s coaching will revitalize Ratliff’s career.

PODCAST
Calvin Watkins joins Galloway and Company live from Oxnard, Calif., to discuss the latest news from Cowboys training camp.

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That would all make perfect sense, if only Kiffin and Marinelli had healing powers.

There’s no reason to doubt that a healthy, in-his-prime Ratliff would have been a phenomenal fit as a 3-technique tackle in the Tampa 2, the gap-shooting spot which Warren Sapp made famous en route to the Hall of Fame. But the Cowboys seem to be crossing their fingers and ignoring all the reasons to doubt that Ratliff’s body will allow him to flourish in that role.

Ratliff’s hamstring strain will sideline him for at least the entire training camp. He still hadn’t completely recovered from the sports hernia surgery that ended his 2012 season early when the Cowboys reported to camp. And Ratliff has missed significant time over the last 18 months due to a torn plantar fascia and high ankle sprain.

His body is breaking down after Ratliff’s remarkable run of durability and productivity as an undersized 3-4 nose tackle. The Cowboys are counting heavily on a declining player.

PODCAST
Ed Werder joins Fitzsimmons and Durrett for his weekly visit to discuss what he expects to see from the Cowboys on Friday night, the mood at Eagles camp in the midst of the Riley Cooper saga, his take on Johnny Football and more.

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The signs of decline were evident before injuries limited Ratliff, who missed only one game total in his first five year as a starter, to six games last season. Follow his sack numbers over the last five years: 7.5, 6, 3.5, 2 and 0.

You think that guy is going to be a dominant force just because he sees fewer double-teams?

Maybe sacks can be misleading. Try to find a stat that indicates anything other than Ratliff’s days as an impact player are done.

Ratliff’s last two Pro Bowl berths were based on reputation. The last one he earned on merit was in 2009, when he was credited with 83 tackles, six sacks, eight tackles for losses, 33 quarterback pressures, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. Ratliff’s totals in 38 games since then: 101 tackles, 5.5 sacks, seven tackles for losses, 38 quarterback pressures, one forced fumble and three fumble recoveries.

Yet the Cowboys have complete faith that the injury-ravaged Ratliff will wreak havoc again this season.

That faith isn’t just lip service, either. They passed on Sharrif Floyd, the fifth overall player on the Cowboys’ board, when he fell to them in the draft and didn’t draft a defensive tackle.

For some reason, the Cowboys are comfortable counting on Kiffin and Marinelli to work a miracle and reverse time for Ratliff.

Warren Sapp praises Rod Marinelli

August, 3, 2013
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CANTON, Ohio – Warren Sapp’s introduction to Rod Marinelli was rough, but as Sapp enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he’s not so sure he would be here if not for the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive line coach.

From 1996-03, Marinelli was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive line coach and Sapp was at the top of his game. Or so he thought.

“He made me dream beyond anything I could see for myself because he spent more hours there,” Sapp said. “I realize that now. I get Defensive Player of the Year in 1999, 12.5 sacks, and we lose in the championship game, 11-6. I get back the next day and I walk into the meeting room with my chest out, ‘What you got for me now?’ He said, ‘Let’s see if your play can catch up with your athletic ability.’ What does that mean? He says, ‘What can you do athletically?’ I said, ‘Almost anything,’ and he said, ‘There you go.’ I come back with 16.5 sacks. He always had the next challenge for me. He would never let me rest.”

It was a tough love, too.

“If he wanted to talk to the group, he would yell and curse at me,” Sapp said. “When he first started doing it, I waited in the meeting room and said, ‘Me and you got to talk.’ He said, ‘I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to the unit. But if I talk to you like that they’ll allow me to talk that way.’ I couldn’t fathom it, ‘Coach, I’m giving you everything I’ve got. Look at the tape.’ He says, ‘I know, but I want to get that from the rest and if I talk to you, they’ll follow.”
The defensive line is a position of strength for the Dallas Cowboys.

Just ask Jerry Jones.

The Cowboys owner/general manager made that declaration after the first round of the draft, when Dallas decided to pass on Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, opting to give more weight to the opinions of two prized new assistant coaches than the scouting department.

Jones’ rationale, which was a regurgitation of what he heard from defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, was that Floyd wasn’t “quick twitch” enough to play the 3-technique tackle in the Cowboys’ new scheme. The Cowboys didn’t believe it was in their best interests to use a first-round pick on a 4-3 nose tackle.

Kiffin and Marinelli certainly know what they’re looking for in a 3-technique defensive tackle. After all, they coached Hall of Famer Warren Sapp in Tampa. (They didn’t draft him, though. Sapp was coming off his rookie year when Kiffin and Marinelli were hired by the Buccaneers.)

The real head-scratcher here is why the Cowboys didn’t consider improving their defensive tackle depth a primary concern.

The confidence in the defensive ends is understandable. DeMarcus Ware is one of the most dominant pass-rushers in NFL history. Anthony Spencer is coming off a career year. They’re making the transition from 3-4 outside linebackers back to the position they both played in college, but the Cowboys have good reason to believe the ends will be a strength of the defense. (Next year isn’t so certain with Spencer playing for a franchise-tag deal for the second straight year, but 2012 third-round pick Tyrone Crawford has a lot of fans at Valley Ranch.)

There are a lot of question marks, however, at defensive tackle.

There’s a lot of buzz around Valley Ranch about how former Pro Bowler Jay Ratliff will thrive in Kiffin’s scheme. You hear no concern from the Cowboys about Ratliff, who turns 32 in August, having his sack totals decline in five straight seasons, including when injuries limited him to six games in a sackless 2012.

“He will flourish, I emphasize ‘flourish,’ in this defensive scheme,” Jones said. “He is a natural 3-technique. He is always highly respected because he could play nose as well as he could with his forte being quickness, high agility, high motor. He is an integral part of what we’re doing. And I think he’s going to have an outstanding year.”

If Ratliff plays the 3-technique, who is the Cowboys’ nose tackle? They decided they didn’t need Floyd and didn’t address the position later in the draft, either.

Will it be Jason Hatcher? That’s a heck of a transition for a seven-year veteran who has been a 3-4 defensive end his entire career.

Sean Lissemore? He might be a quality rotation player, but his performance when pressed into playing the majority of snaps at nose tackle in the final month of the season offered no indication he’s ready to be a full-time anchor of the run defense.

Brian Price? Tampa Bay’s 2012 second-round pick was out of football last season after being cut by the Bears. It’s tough to count on a guy who’s trying to get his career back on track after it was derailed by injuries and other issues.

Josh Brent? Unfortunately, he’s more likely to be in a jail cell than on a football field next season.

Maybe Floyd isn’t a great fit for the Cowboys’ defensive scheme. That doesn’t explain why they have completely ignored a glaring need at nose tackle.

Cowboys think they're built for a 4-3

February, 28, 2013
2/28/13
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This scouting combine story from Todd Archer tells us that the Dallas Cowboys were planning a switch from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 defense even before the 2012 season ended. According to coach Jason Garrett, they believe they have the right kind of personnel to make the switch:
"You just go through all those scenarios and at the end of it we felt good about, 'Hey, we can do this and it won't take us three years to do this,'" coach Jason Garrett said. "And we certainly want to continue to add pieces to it and make that defense better, but we felt good about the flexibility and versatility of the guys we already have."

Monte Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli agreed with Garrett's analysis after they joined the staff. They used players such as Simeon Rice, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and Brian Urlacher as frames of reference for DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, Sean Lee and Bruce Carter.

Well, yeah. I mean, if all of those guys at the end of that sentence play like all of the guys at the beginning of that sentence, then yeah, the Cowboys will really have something. But there are some "ifs," and most of them are tied to health. For instance, I think Lee can be a brilliant playmaking middle linebacker in a 4-3. But he has to stay on the field, and he's had trouble doing that. And then there's this later in the story from former Cowboys exec Jeff Ireland, comparing Ware to Cameron Wake, who moved from a 3-4 outside linebacker to a 4-3 end last year for Ireland's Dolphins:
"We felt like when Wake was in a three-point stance he probably was a better rusher than he was in a two-point stance," Ireland said. "I don't know that about DeMarcus. I'd have to study that, but I'm sure he's equally efficient in a three-point or two-point stance, so I don't think it will be that tough."

Ware is a very interesting part of all of this. Again, I don't think it's a question of his ability to perform effectively in a 4-3 but rather his ability to hold up physically while playing closer to the ball and mixing it up more directly with bigger offensive line bodies. Ware has shown some signs the past couple of years that his body could be beginning to break down, and if that is a trend and not an aberration, then a move like this isn't going to help with it.

This transition to the 4-3 is one of the very interesting stories of the Cowboys' offseason, so we'll continue to examine it as it goes along. I think they have the right kinds of players to pull it off, but a lot depends on who goes, who stays and who shows up to play it once the salary cap is straight and free agency and the draft have settled.

A look at Monte Kiffin's defensive stats

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
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IRVING, Texas -- From 1996 to 2008, Monte Kiffin ran one of the best defenses in the NFL, finishing in the top 10 in total defense in 11 of his 13 years.

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Galloway & Company discuss the possibility of Monte Kiffin replacing Rob Ryan as the Cowboys defensive coordinator.

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The Buccaneers’ trademark was the ability to make game-changing plays with game-changing players, like Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Simeon Rice and Ronde Barber.

In Kiffin’s 13 years as Tampa's defensive coordinator, the Buccaneers averaged 39 sacks, 19 interceptions and 12 fumble recoveries a season.

Since Jerry Jones took over the Cowboys in 1989, the Cowboys have had only three seasons in which they had more than 19 picks, five seasons in which they had more than 12 fumble recoveries and six seasons in which they had more than 39 sacks. Four of those sack seasons came after the switch to the 3-4 and the arrival of DeMarcus Ware.

For far too long, the Cowboys have not been able to take the ball away on defense, regardless of who the coordinator was. They didn’t do it under Rob Ryan and couldn’t do it under Wade Phillips or Bill Parcells.

Turnovers and sacks change games.

Points matter most.

The Bucs allowed more than 300 points in a season three times with Kiffin as coordinator (and that’s taking into account returns for touchdowns). Since Jones took over the Cowboys, they have allowed more than 300 points in a season 15 times.

Kiffin has not coordinated an NFL defense in four years. He will be 73 in February.

If he turns out to be the Cowboys' next defensive coordinator, the only numbers Jones will care about will be interceptions, fumbles and sacks and points allowed; not age.

Opposing voice: Ronde Barber

December, 17, 2011
12/17/11
10:30
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber must look around at his current teammates and say, ‘Who are these guys?

In his 15th season, Barber is by far the most tenured player on the NFL’s youngest team. He is the link to the Buccaneers’ glory years when he, Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Derrick Brooks were savaging offenses for a long time under coordinator Monte Kiffin.

Barber has started more consecutive games (196) than any cornerback in NFL history. He has played in 221 straight games, the second-longest streak in the league among active players. He is Tampa Bay’s all-time leader in interceptions with 43 and leads the team this year with three.

“I’m going to keep going to at least these three games and then see what’s next,” Barber said. “I’m not sure how long I could go. As long as they want me and as long as I want them and I can still do it and I’m still productive, I’ll keep doing it.”

Tampa Bay’s seven-game losing streak has bothered him, but not to the point where it will drive him out of the game.

“I try not to get emotional about the record or what not,” Barber said. “Obviously it comes into play. It’s definitely food for thought, but I’ve been coming to work and it’s been like this a lot … I’m choosing to continue to play. It pays the bills and feeds my family. I appreciate that. It’s meticulous. I’ve got a lot of work to do week in and week out and I enjoy that on Sundays with wins. It’s been a little frustrating not seeing the rewards of it this season, but it doesn’t change my manner and approach to what I do.”

Five-star: Felix Jones will have a big day

December, 15, 2011
12/15/11
9:05
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Five-star question: Will Felix Jones, who has one run of 10 yards or more in 44 carries on the road, match or surpass that total this week in Tampa?

At the beginning of the season, I thought this was the season Felix Jones would breakout and become a true No. 1 running back. It didn’t quite happen, obviously, but now he gets another chance with DeMarco Murray out for the year with a fractured ankle.

Count me in again on Jones, which means he will have at least one 10-yard carry Saturday at Tampa Bay.

The Jones from the New York Giants’ loss looked a little different to me. He had 106 yards on 16 carries and found a blend of patience and urgency that he might have picked up by watching Murray succeed. He won’t bowl tacklers over like Murray, but he can slither around tacklers and make sure he doesn’t get tackled for losses.

Tampa Bay offers the perfect recipe for Jones to succeed. This is not the Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch defense of years ago. This defense is allowing almost 140 yards a game on the ground. This defense allows 4.6 yards per carry. This defense has allowed 19 rushing touchdowns.

This defense will give Jones a chance to break some long runs … or at least runs of 10 yards.

Jones had four of them against the Giants (three for 11 and one of 26).

There is no doubt he has one Saturday. In fact, I think he’ll match his New York total.

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