Then and Now — Defense By Rafael Vela After eight practices, one scrimmage and one preseason game this year, I’m a lot more optimistic about the ‘06 version of the team. Depth and experience make the defense a formidible unit this year. Reading my reviews from last year’s camp make me more bullish. Here’s a comparison of the ‘05 defense and this year’s model: Then: The really big changes are coming on the defensive front seven and here is where I think the early results might be disappointing; the renovation is too severe to be completed in such a short period of time… The good news is that the kids have talent. Kenyon Coleman looks like a natural 3-4 tackle. He was tried at both LE and RE and to my eyes is a much better fit in the scheme than Greg Ellis, who is having his trouble manning up against Flozell Adams. Chris Canty has that look about him. He gets pentration. He gets to the running backs. He bats passes down when his rush is stopped. Every time the linemen go 3-on-2, with two DL squaring off against three OL, you hear Parcells praising something he does. The x-factor is Marcus Spears, who is getting close to practicing. If he can hold the point at LE, Dallas suddenly has three prototype young DEs. And this does not take Jay Ratliff into account. He’s getting lots for work as a swing lineman as a DE in the 3-4 and lining up inside in the 4-3. – Seven Practices Later and What Do I Know?, August 20, 2005 Now: the coaches know what they have on the line. Canty is entrenched at RE. Rookie Jason Hatcher backs him up and shows pass rushing ability. Ellis has moved to OLB and no longer faces 50 to 60 lb. mismatches against OTs every week. Jason Ferguson was on the exercise bike at this time last year. This year, he’s anchoring the defense. There’s a giant question mark behind him, though Thomas Johnson showed promise against Seattle. He can rush the passer, a rare skill among nose tackles. If he can anchor better, the line will be water tight. Marcus Spears injured himself again this year but has returned to practice. Last season he was still weeks away, after suffering a serious knee and high ankle sprain. His two week rehab opened the door for Jay Ratliff, one of my candidates for most improved player in ‘06. He’s nasty. OL on his side of the ball work themselves to death trying to contain him. A Spears/Ratliff LE rotation will see many worn out linemen and many 4th quarter sacks this year. Then: The biggest area of concern is the linebacking corps. The inside positions look pretty good. Dat Nguyen is Mr. steady and Bradie James, Scott Shanle and Ryan Fowler are all coming on. Outside, however, the position is unsettled. Demarcus Ware has the talent to become a perennial Pro Bowler, but he has a lot of work to do, on both his pass drops and his rush technique. Al Singleton mans the other spot, but I think it’s just a matter of time become Kevin Burnett takes over. However, Burnett’s size makes him better suited to play inside. Kalen Thornton backs up Ware and he’s in the same position. He’s a converted college 4-3 end who looks stiff in coverage. But coverage technique is not my biggest concern. The 3-4 relies on the backers to produce a rush. Right now, Ware is the only guy in that unit who impresses me coming at the passer. And I’ll repeat, he’s still got a lot to learn as a rusher. If he can’t get to the QB, which LB will? Now: what a difference a year makes. No position has been more improved than linebacker. It’s so deep now that solid players like Shanle fear for their roster spots. Outside, Ware continues to grow. He shows consistency on outside contain, his biggest weakness last year. After an extended pout, Greg Ellis gave OLB a chance has has found a new and better home for his skills. The 270 pounder gets to be on the plus side of mismatches this year. He has 8 sacks when he played out of sorts in ‘05. He should even that this year, if not add to it. That would represent an upgrade over the two sacks Scott Fujita logged there last year. Inside, James has gone from ‘05 question mark to ‘06 leader. The Cowboys signed Akin Ayodele to join him, though he’ll get competition from top draft pick Bobby Carpenter. The rookie’s instincts are clear. He can find the football and get to it. What’s more, he can rush the passer from the ILB position. And that’s the most significant upgrade to the unit. Last year, Ware was the only dependable rush LB. This year, Dallas has at least four. I was wrong about Burnett’s future, but he showed some pass rushing ability in this year’s camp. He, Carpenter, Ware and Ellis mean that opponents won't know where the rush will come from this time around. Then: One positive is certain, health permitting — the secondary will be much better. Anthony Henry has right corner nailed down. I don’t know if the team is already shying away from him, but Terence Newman got far more action on his side of the field than Henry got on his. Aaron Glenn gives Dallas experience in the nickel. Roy Williams gets to be Roy Williams again, stalking the “box.” Free safety is still a concern, but Keith Davis has the job, no matter that Parcells wants him on special teams. He’s simply too much better than Lynn Scott or Ike Reese to keep on the bench. The bigger concern is finding a decent backup. Reese doesn’t make any mistakes, but he doesn’t make many plays anymore either. Davis is the only FS I saw breakup passes this week. Parcells mentioned back in minicamp that Davis has a nose for the ball and compared that nose to Lester Hayes’. After watching him for a week, I second the complement. Davis finds the ball. He plays with a lot of aggression. However, I don’t know how he compares to other top notch FS because there’s nobody in camp to compare him to. Now: The secondary remains a strength. Henry proved his worth last year, showing aggression and power at right corner. Newman has entered that elite paradox; you know how good he is because you never see him make a play. Teams avoid him, with cause. Glenn continues to play steady nickel corner and will be pushed by Jacques Reeves, who can also make plays. Safety might provide another pleasant surprise. I was told yesterday that team officials are optimistic about 5th round FS Pat Watkins. There is belief that he could start at some point in the ‘06 season. If nothing else, he provides another special teams ace and needed depth behind Keith Davis. Free agent Abram Elam could offer young depth behind Roy Williams. He made plays against Seattle and gets his hands on the ball in camp. Last year, Dallas had Roy Williams and a lot of prayer at the safety spot. This year, the team may have starting quality and depth. Then: Here’s the bottom line. We can argue about the percentages played, but the Cowboys will be a 3-4 defense this year. They practice it at least twice as much as the 4-3. All the technique drills for the linemen were for the 3-4. Almost all the technique drills this past week for the linebackers were for the 3-4. When the defense did go with four linemen, it was for passing downs, when the team would go 4-2-5… …but my guess is that the biggest improvement will come in a way opposite from what most people expect. The lion’s share of moves this offseason have come on the defensive side of the ball. Ferguson and Anthony Henry got big deals. Aaron Glenn was signed late to provide help in the nickel. Four of the top five draft picks are on defense. Hence, most people think the biggest improvement will come on that side of the ball. I do too — but not right away. I think that the team’s start will depend on how ready the offense is. And for all its problems against Arizona, I think the offense is closer to being an effective unit than the defense. Now: there are no questions about scheme. The Cowboys are a 3-4 team, through and through. There’s also no queston that the defense runs ahead of the offense in ‘06. Early success will likely depend on the defense’s ability to stymie the opposition. There is little question in my mind that they’re up to the task. The line is settled. The linebackers are settled. The rush from that unit will be much better than last year’s. The secondary has depth. I’ll repeat my initial camp assessment: last year at this time, the coaches were still trying to learn what they had. This year, it’s all about how much they can do.