Commentary

Rob Ryan's changes paying dividends

Familiarity with scheme, influx of talent has Cowboys' defense on the upswing

Updated: September 11, 2012, 2:14 PM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- Rob Ryan knew changes were needed for his defense after the 2011 season.

Four losses to the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants last year convinced the Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator and everyone around him that the defense wasn't good enough.

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Flash forward to the the 2012 regular-season opener. The Cowboys held the Giants to 269 yards of total offense and sacked quarterback Eli Manning three times. In the two losses to the Giants in 2011, the Cowboys gave up 947 yards.

"One of the most important aspects of coaching is to be able to make those kinds of adjustments," Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said. "How did we execute in his system? How [can we] adjust for better execution? All of those areas he's made adjustments. You can say he's had more time, but I think that would have come no matter what. ... You might have had better execution if he had the full offseason the year before."

Ryan decided he would keep his players in the base 3-4 scheme more often and make adjustments out of that formation. He didn't care if the Giants were going to challenge his secondary because he had confidence in his revamped unit. There were fewer tricked-up alignments and schemes weren't altered as often. The Cowboys used a 4-3 alignment just once against the Giants.

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
AP Photo/James D SmithRob Ryan's defense held the Giants to 269 yards and sacked Eli Manning three times in the Cowboys' season-opening win.

The changes started taking hold in the offseason. Even though several players knew the scheme, Ryan decided to teach it again at a slower pace this offseason, adding an increased comfort level for players in Year 2 of his system.

"Everything is pretty much predicated on our base stuff. We can pretty much call anything out of our base stuff," Ryan said said. "That's probably the biggest thing, everything just flows together. It may have done it last year, but its clearer this year. The defense is more understandable for everybody this year."

An upgrade in talent also is allowing Ryan more flexibility, especially in the secondary.

Free agent signee Brandon Carr and rookie Morris Claiborne can play press coverage, which allows Ryan to send outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer after the quarterback on nearly every play. Spencer can play looser and doesn't have to worry about dropping back into coverage to take on tight ends and running backs.

The press coverage also means safeties Gerald Sensabaugh and Barry Church can react more to the ball once its in flight because they are coming over as support on deep passes and not because a cornerback was beat.

Improved play from defensive end Jason Hatcher, who had a career-high 4.5 sacks last season, gives the team another pass rusher.

Position flexibility from linemen Josh Brent and Sean Lissemore helps Ryan create matchup problems for offensive lines. Brent and Lissemore can play defensive end and tackle. When nose tackle Jay Ratliff missed the season opener with a high ankle sprain, Ryan moved Brent into the starting spot, with Lissemore also getting a supporting role. The two combined for four tackles in the Cowboys victory.

Ryan also put an emphasis on refamiliarizing himself with the NFC East. Before coming to the Cowboys last season, the last time Ryan spent time viewing tape of NFC teams extensively was in 1994-95 when he coached the defensive backs in Arizona. Previously, Ryan had coached nothing but the AFC since 2000.

The Cowboys' defense gave up an average of 30.4 points per game to the Giants and Eagles last season. Ryan boned up on the division like never before. If last week was any indication, it appears he's going to pass the tests.

Ryan didn't speak with reporters following the win in the opener because the changes he made to his defense did the talking for him.

"It's just the time we've had together," defensive end Marcus Spears said. "It's a result of that more than anything. We've been together, he knows guys and he knows what to expect and he knows each and every guy's strength and weakness, and I think that puts a coach in a good place because he knows how to coach each individual player."

Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.

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