Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
In 2012, injuries forced the Dallas Cowboys to search the streets for help at linebacker.
In 2013, injuries have driven the Cowboys to search those same streets for defensive linemen.
In the first case above, things didn’t work out so well as former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, now holding the same job with the New Orleans Saints, was sent packing along with the Cowboys relatively brief marriage with the 3-4 defensive scheme.
If we’re talking about this season, we can almost say that the opposite is true. New defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and his 4-3 alignment are making an early impact on Dallas’ postseason hopes for this season—but how long can this last?
Kiffin’s scheme showed promise as early as the first preseason contest in Canton, Ohio last summer. I vividly recall a Miami Dolphins fumble recovery by defensive tackle Nick Hayden on the defense’s very first play of the summer. The same was true on the very first play from scrimmage in the regular season opener against the New York Giants last month. Remember the interception by defensive end DeMarcus Ware to get things started in Dallas’ first ever victory over the Giants at the stadium formerly known as Cowboys Stadium?
Well, injuries and somewhat expected releases of key personnel have kept this year’s Cowboys defense in a constant state of evolution.
Consider the following defensive linemen that have either vanished completely or are simply unavailable at this time, each active contributors just one year ago: Ware, defensive end Tyrone Crawford, defensive end Anthony Spencer, defensive tackle Sean Lissemore, defensive tackle Jay Ratliff and defensive tackle Josh Brent.
Now look at these names that certainly weren’t expected to either be playing a whole lot or even suiting up with the Cowboys just weeks ago—or days in some cases: Hayden, defensive end George Selvie, defensive end Kyle Wilber, defensive end/tackle Jarius Wynn, defensive tackle/end Drake Nevis and defensive end Caesar Rayford.
Is this emerging group of “no-names” good enough to carry Dallas to the postseason?
Remember that Dallas entered the season facing five games against opposing quarterbacks with a total of six Super Bowl appearances—this despite earning a non-playoff schedule following last year’s 8-8 record. With a mark of 1-1 in those contests already (Manning brothers), there’s still three more against passers such as Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, Drew Brees of New Orleans and one more against Eli and those Giants again.
Other potentially dangerous matchups include next weekend’s visit to Detroit to face Matthew Stafford and a volatile Lions offense and also a home game against the Chicago Bears which might include signal-caller Jay Cutler, injured last weekend against the Redskins in Washington.
The formula is pretty simple: Get to these quarterbacks and force turnovers and Dallas likely wins the game. Failing to do those things will result in some difficult outcomes for the Cowboys.
For perspective, Dallas wound up with a total of one sack in back-to-back losses to Phillip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers and Peyton Manning and his Denver Broncos. Those two quarterbacks toasted the Dallas secondary for 815 yards and seven touchdowns.
Sacks and turnovers, by themselves, won’t guarantee success for the Cowboys the rest of the way. Obviously, continued improved performance from the Dallas offensive is critical. The Cowboys must score points and while the defense has been holding the fort down in back-to-back wins over the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles the last two weeks, Dallas has to start putting together very good performances on both sides of the ball in the same game—the Cowboys have only done this a time or two this year.
Soon we will know exactly what this defense is made of, regardless of what the offense does. But you have to like the fact that Kiffin’s crew seems motivated and continues to keep playing at a pretty high level despite so many new faces which seem to be constantly showing up as midseason approaches next Sunday in the Motor City.