Austin On Dallas: How Good Can The Cowboys Defense Be In 2012?

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  • Key Players:

2009 – Terence Newman / Mike Jenkins / Orlando Scandrick / Alan Ball

2012 – Brandon Carr / Morris Claiborne / Orlando Scandrick / Mike Jenkins

  • Matchups:

2009 Terence Newman  VS.  2012 Brandon Carr

Last season Terence Newman had us all sounding like a smug Jerry Seinfeld…”Newman!”  2009 was an entirely different story.  Terence Newman recorded 57 tackles, 3 INTs, 18 deflections, 3 fumbles, and 1 TD that season.  These numbers were good enough to land Newman in his second Pro Bowl, a feat yet to be achieved by Brandon Carr.  It took Terence 5 years in the league to secure his first Pro Bowl, while Carr is just now entering his 5th season.  Regardless, 2009 was a Pro Bowl year for T-New.

Brandon Carr produced very respectable numbers in Kansas City last year with 45 tackles, 4 INTs, and 15 deflections.  In 2010, Carr was more impressive and near Newman’s level with 57 tackles, 1 INT, and 25 deflections.  Why was 2010 better than 2011 for Carr?  The Kansas City offense was 31st in the league last year and couldn’t score points to keep pace with opponents.  The Chiefs put up 10 less points per game than the year before (13 ppg in 2011, 23 ppg in 2010).  They also gained 39 fewer yards per game (311 ypg in 2011, 350 ypg in 2010).

With their opponents often quickly in the lead, the Kansas City defense was rushed on 100 more times last year (508 rushes in 2011, 408 in 2010).  They were also passed on 127 fewer times in 2011 (454 passes in 2011, 581 in 2010).  Kansas City was passed against the least amount of all NFL teams in 2011.  Meaning Carr had dramatically fewer chances to make plays in coverage last year.

I do expect huge things from Brandon Carr as the leader of the secondary, yet the nod here goes to Terence Newman. It shouldn’t be much of a drop-off if any, but a Pro Bowl is a Pro Bowl and Newman got one in 2009.

2009 Mike Jenkins  VS.  2012 Morris Claiborne

Here we go again, what did Mike Jenkins accomplish in his first full year starting?  Pro Bowl! In 2009, Jenkins posted 49 tackles, 5 INTs, and 19 deflections.  Combine that with Newman’s stats the same year and you get a tandem of Pro Bowl corners with 8 INTs and 37 pass deflections. Needless to say, there was elite, stout coverage being played on the outside corners in 2009.

Nobody truly knows what to expect from collegiate All-American rookie Morris Claiborne.  He was the best defensive player in the entire 2012 draft.  We do know he is a very aggressive tackler and loves contact, a welcome improvement over the shoddy tackling in the secondary as of late.  Yet covering NFL receivers as a rookie just isn’t quite as easy.  Victor Cruz / Hakeem Nicks in New York, DeSean Jackson / Jeremy Maclin in Philly, and Santana Moss / Pierre Garcon in Washington…the training wheels better come off fast for young Claiborne.

While Claiborne may excel, it’s very unlikely he will step right in and match Jenkin’s Pro Bowl season of 2009. Until we see Claiborne practice in training camp, I have to give the slight nod here to Jenkins.  The advantage to the 2009 Pro Bowl Mike Jenkins remains only slight for two reasons.  One, Morris Claiborne may be raw yet is dripping with immense talent and unlimited potential.  Two, his replacement if any problems arise will be a hungry (contract year) version of the same guy who won that Pro Bowl spot back in 2009.

2009 Orlando Scandrick  VS.  2012 Orlando Scandrick 

Orlando Scandrick should be a little wiser and more adept to playing the slot now than back in 2009. Scandrick did not become a slot specialist until 3 games into 2009 when Jenkins pried away his outside starting position.  Scandrick then switched to the slot and has been there ever since.  For a numbers comparison, Orlando’s three years starting in the slot look like this…51 tackles, 1 INT, 9 deflections (2009) ; 46 tackles, 1 INT, 8 deflections (2010) ; 49 tackles, 1 INT, 5 deflections (2011).

I think it’s safe to say we can expect the same from Orlando Scandrick in 2012 as his numbers remain fairly constant.  Orlando is a guy who can look great in stretches, and then suffer huge momentary lapses in key situations.  No one said playing the slot was easy, instead it’s the hardest position to cover on the field. Either way, there is no real advantage between the Orlando Scandrick of 2009 and 2012.

2009 Alan Ball  VS.  2012 Mike Jenkins

Do I really have to say anything here?  Jacques Reeves…cough cough…I mean, Alan Ball was the one guy I was begging and pleading to drop this off-season.  I literally would call his number before crucial 3rd downs last year, tell everyone in the room exactly where they were going to torch the secondary, and Alan Ball provided me with a likely 80%+ rate of success.  This is the single largest upgrade on the defense between 2009 and 2012. Jenkins on his worst day with two broken pinky toes makes Alan Ball look like the JV water boy.

What importance is the buried 4th corner spot you ask?  In the Dallas defensive system, it is extremely important, if not critical.  The 4th corner in this defense is the first substitute for either starter upon injury or substandard play on the outside.  Aside from replacement duties, he is also on the field often with the NFC East being a pass heavy division.  Alan Ball took part in over 50% of defensive snaps in 2011.  So yes, I’d say the 4th corner is highly involved in the success of the defense.

As they say, you can never have enough good corners in this league, and when you play in the modern NFC East that goes double.  Alan Ball has departed Dallas headed down I-45 for Houston, and the Texans dime pass defense has acquired a huge red bullseye.  On the flip side, Mike Jenkins will be the best 4th corner to ever grace a Cowboys football field.  Guys with his talent rarely play 4th fiddle on a depth chart without injury concerns.  The Cowboys now have a unique luxury at 4th corner that simply cannot be overstated.

  • ADVANTAGE: 2009 DEFENSE (two Pro Bowl corners is hard to match, yet Jenkins replacing Ball makes up much ground)


  • Matchup:

Wade Phillips  VS.  Rob Ryan

This comparison is hard to quantify with so many variables from year to year.  Both are certainly solid defensive coaches with excellent minds for the game.  Wade Phillips has a much longer resume as Defensive Coordinator with vastly more experience.  When comparing two strong coaches much of the success can be attributed to personnel he is working with.

The separating factor between the two is that in Rob Ryan’s 8 years as an NFL Defensive Coordinator, he has yet to produce a top 10 defense in points allowed per game.  In Wade Phillip’s 20+ years leading NFL defenses he has had several top 10 defenses.  So while the body of work is much larger in Wade’s case, there is no denying his accomplishments far exceed Rob Ryan to date.

Let me add one side note here, Wade had the good fortune of coaching some defenses loaded with stud players over the years.  While Rob Ryan wasted away in lowly Oakland and Cleveland before arriving in Dallas to the prize of having virtually zero off-season to install his defense.

Regardless of personnel or team situations, the edge goes to Wade Phillips.  In his first year with Houston last season, with no off-season to speak of, Phillips took the 29th ranked Texans defense and transformed them into the 4th best in the league.

Rob Ryan, in the same predicament, turned the Cowboys’ 31st ranked defense into the 16th ranked unit in the NFL.  Impressive on Ryan’s part, but not extraordinary like Phillips.  Then again, it was Wade’s last defense in Dallas that Ryan improved 15 spots upon.  As I said before, this is a difficult comparison to judge and both coaches should post a defense in the top 10 this season.



How good can the Cowboys defense really be in 2012?  After comparing them with the 2nd ranked unit from 2009, I’d say very good is no stretch of the imagination.

Defensive line…too close to call.

Linebacker…slight nod to 2012.

Secondary…small lean to 2009.

Def Coordinator…minimal advantage to 2009.

The intangible that narrowly elevates the 2009 Cowboys above the current group is not on the field with the players, yet through the guidance of Wade Phillips.  His experience and accomplishments speak for themselves.  When Wade is solely leading the defense and not spread thin as Head Coach, he is one of the best in the business and displayed this in Houston last season.

Rob Ryan will likely leap into the class of top current defensive coaches this season.  Yet, I must also account for the fact he has not fielded a top 10 defense during his 8 year career in charge.  While both the Cowboys and Texans will have very strong defenses in 2012, I’d trust Wade to make the better calls in crunch time.

The 2012 Cowboys may not finish ranked 2nd in defense like 2009, though this group certainly has the potential to crack the top 5.  I expect no less than a top 10 finish without significant injury.  And this valuation is made without considering promising rookies like Tyrone Crawford, Kyle Wilber, and Matt Johnson jumping into the mix.

Things are certainly looking very solid on the defensive side of the ball for the 2012 Dallas Cowboys.  As we all know, defense wins championships.  If the offense can get it together and pull their weight, there is no reason why this team can’t have playoff success.  It certainly won’t be the defense that falters, as it did in 2011.

And lastly, don’t expect this group to lose any ground in 2013.  With few key player losses and another off-season to add a potent safety, powerful defensive lineman, and aggressive pass rusher…the sky is the limit for the Ryan Defense in Dallas.