Commentary

Cowboys' defense a work in progress

It's early in preseason, but Rob Ryan's unit still has look of 2010's woeful D

Updated: August 12, 2011, 4:21 PM ET
By Jean-Jacques Taylor | ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Rob Ryan's daddy hated the Dallas Cowboys when he coached the Philadelphia Eagles.

Buddy Ryan still is not too fond of them today, even though his son is their defensive coordinator.

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRERob Ryan paid tribute to Tom Landry by starting out with the flex defense, but his D still resembled Wade Phillips' 2010 unit in the preseason debut.
Rob Ryan, however, respects this proud franchise's history. And that's why the first play of the Ryan era began in the flex defense, the scheme former coach Tom Landry made famous.

DeMarcus Ware, blitzing, knocked down Kyle Orton's pass at the line of scrimmage.

"That was Rob paying homage to Tom Landry and the Cowboys," linebacker Bradie James said. "Lee Roy Jordan would've really enjoyed it. It was Rob's tribute.

"We weren't really sure where to go but DeMarcus knocked the ball down, so it didn't matter."

The reality, however, is Ryan's defense didn't play that much differently in its 2011 debut than Wade Phillips' unit, which allowed a franchise-record 436 points last season.

Maybe we shouldn't be surprised since free safety Abe Elam, signed as a free agent last week, is the only new starter from last season's defense, which finished 31st in the NFL.

Elam played for Ryan with the Cleveland Browns last season, so at least he understands what he's supposed to be doing each play.

The club also re-signed free agents Marcus Spears, Jason Hatcher and Gerald Sensabaugh. None could even practice until last week because of the lockout.

The first-team defense has been practicing for only a week. It looked like it.

Fortunately for Dallas, three preseason games remain, so there's no need to overreact to a 24-23 win over the Denver Broncos at Cowboys Stadium. Or the starting defense's performance.

Denver took the opening kickoff and moved 74 yards in 13 plays. The Broncos picked up five first downs on the drive, which ended with a 24-yard field goal.

The Cowboys yielded just 4 yards on the first two plays, but then Orton completed a 29-yard pass to Eric Decker when safety Sensabuagh appeared to bust a coverage.

Get used to it -- and it's not just because the Cowboys allowed 57 completions of 20 yards or more last season, tying the Washington Redskins for the league's fourth-highest total.

The players are still thinking too much instead of reacting.

"We're not playing anywhere like we'll be playing later in the year," Spears said.

Ryan's scheme is built largely on confusing quarterbacks and offensive linemen by making it difficult for them to identify who's rushing the passer and who's dropping into coverage.

Ryan does it by having only one or two defensive linemen on the field, or by shifting players just before the snap to disguise the defense.

This scheme also requires considerable communication. The players found out it's a lot different trying to communicate in front of 74,050 at Cowboys Stadium as opposed to practicing before 12,000 in San Antonio at the Alamodome.

They'll be working on hand signals this week to alleviate some of the confusion that led to some of Denver's big plays.

The Cowboys also will be working on their run defense.

Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee combined to carry eight times for 40 yards on the first drive. They combined for gains of 4, 5, 6, 6, 7 and 12.

Not good.

Denver had a first-and-goal from the 1 on its first drive but tried three consecutive passing plays for some reason.

Teams that don't control their opponent's running game, especially on first down, find themselves at the mercy of offensive coordinators on second and third down.

That's not Ryan's style. He wants to attack. All of the time.

That said, Ryan could have the greatest defensive scheme in NFL history, but it doesn't matter if his players don't know what they're supposed to do.

The Cowboys' defense we see in September and October won't look like the unit we see in November and December.

It takes time to implement a new scheme, and Ryan is doing it without the benefit of organized team activities and minicamps that teams usually have.

You can't rush the process because football is a game of repetition.

Shortcuts don't exists. Patience is a necessity.

Jean-Jacques Taylor is a columnist for ESPNDallas.com.

Jean-Jacques Taylor joined ESPNDallas.com in August 2011. A native of Dallas, Taylor spent the past 20 years writing for The Dallas Morning News, where he covered high schools sports, the Texas Rangers and spent 11 seasons covering the Dallas Cowboys before becoming a general columnist in 2006.

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