How the Dallas Cowboys Developed a Potential Top-10 Defense in 2012

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How the Dallas Cowboys Developed a Potential Top-10 Defense in 2012
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Last season, the Dallas Cowboys saw games disappear because of inconsistent play on the defense.  So, after an offseason where the front office was determined to make moves that bring the defense back its swagger, the Cowboys defense is relevant again.

In 2012, the Cowboys had the 14th-ranked defense. By most accounts that is not a bad output.  However, when you consider they had the 23rd-ranked pass defense and lost a lot of games because of that unit, you quickly discard the league ranking. 

This season brings new hope for us, though. With a list of improvements that has been made for the Cowboys and a full offseason to learn and practice Rob Ryan’s defensive scheme, the Cowboys are ready to break out.

There is increasing belief that the Cowboys could be not only a top-10 defense, but even a top-five. Here are some reasons why…

 

Signing Brandon Carr, Drafting Morris Claiborne:

I’m what you would call a bargain shopper. I’ll bypass going to the mall and just buy some clothes at Target or something as long as I feel I’ll still be looking fresh. However, sometimes you just have to pay full retail for items because they don’t offer anything like it elsewhere. 

This is true for Brandon Carr.

If you watched the preseason game against the Chargers, you saw exactly why. Carr is a physical cornerback who can be a game-breaker. The Cowboys haven’t had a cornerback with his abilities in the past 10 years. 

Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

He may not be the most polished cornerback, but he can match up with any receiver and be extremely effective. If a quarterback is going to pick on him, they’ll have to be careful because he always seems to be in a good position.  

As for Morris Claiborne, he hasn’t gotten to show us much yet. Those injuries are going to come and go, but when he’s on the field, he’s just plain good. He’ll have some tough weeks while he adjusts to the game, but don’t mistake growing pains for lack of ability.

I’m an SEC fan, and I watched a lot of Claiborne in college. The guy is just as physical as Carr and every bit the playmaker as well. Claiborne isn’t stupid, he isn’t slow and he certainly isn’t a bust.  Claiborne is going to be, at the very least, better than Terrence Newman was, and at the very best, more than what Deion was. 

The addition of these two players makes the Cowboys' secondary not only relevant again, but dangerous. I expect great play by these guys. Yes, there will be growing pains, but after the first couple games, these two will be on all cylinders and making quarterbacks pay.

 

An Improved Pass Rush:

The Cowboys drafted Tyrone Crawford and Kyle Wilber this year. In addition, there seems to be contagious disease going around camp among the young defensive lineman because they are all showing out.  Players like Sean Lissemore, Clifton Geathers and Josh Brent seem to be turning heads out there, and it’s a very good thing.

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The Cowboys kept on saying that there needed to be improvement by the pass-rushers. If you were to subtract DeMarcus Ware from the equation, you’d lose over half your sacks. Eventually, Ware isn’t going to be there, and someone will need to fill that void.

Thankfully, this offseason has been full of nothing but good news on this front. Tyrone Crawford, though undersized, has been able to handle offensive lineman with ease and has shown incredible traits as not only a pass-rusher, but also a three-down lineman. I think that there should be legitimate excitement here from Crawford who could just end up being the steal of the draft.

Moreover, Jason Hatcher had 4.5 sacks last year and will look to continue a breakout campaign this year. Hatcher is everything you want out of a pass-rusher. He has all the tools and attributes to continue to improve. 

The key here is the rotation. This is vastly improved from last season mostly because of players' dedications to improvement. Geathers and Lissemore have been ready to break out for some time now, and their growth offers the Cowboys a rotation that will always be fresh and dangerous.

 

Consistency at the Safety Position:

Safety has been a position of concern in Dallas since the retirement of Darren Woodson. Roy Williams wasn’t able to temper those concerns, neither was Ken Hamlin or even Gerald Sensabaugh for that matter.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Despite the constant need, the Cowboys have ignored the position in the early round of the drafts and in free agency. Matt Johnson was added this season through the draft and is considered to be a future option at the position, maybe as early as next season. 

The Cowboys gave Gerald Sensabaugh a five-year extension this past season, but he isn’t what I’d consider an elite-caliber safety. 

Barry Church has emerged as a quality safety who could become much more. He has a very good balanced skill set. He is effective in the box and in coverage which is versatility the Cowboys haven’t had since Williams' first season as a Cowboy.  

With Church becoming a quality player, Sensabaugh becomes much better.  Too often, it seemed like Sensabaugh was trying to compensate for someone else’s mistakes. Now, he’s able to focus on his job and making sure he’s efficient in doing it.

I think, now that the Cowboys have two quality safeties, there will be a tremendous improvement in their play. They should be able to feed off each other and will only get better with game situations.

 

Linebacker Depth:

Last year was like watching dinosaurs playing the inside linebacker position. Keith Brooking and Bradie James weren’t exactly weapons in the middle and were often saved by the playmaking ability of Sean Lee. 

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

That shouldn’t be the case this year.

The Cowboys signed Sean Lee’s college teammate Dan Connor and are now having their patience rewarded with young Bruce Carter. These guys are a dynamic trio who are effective in all facets of the game.

Carter is an athletic linebacker who has a unique combination of speed and strength. Though he’ll still be on a learning curve, he’s a very good player who was slowed by injury last season. If he can get it, he and Lee could be among the best linebacker tandems in the league.

Connor is a tough, aggressive run defender who has some pop in his play. He can be disruptive all over the field and plays with the same intensity as Lee. It’s his intensity that overshadows some of his flaws.  Connor is a liability in the pass game in my opinion, but he will be very effective as a rotational linebacker for the Cowboys this season.

Add to these two Lee and Orie Lemon and you start to see a very good inside linebacker corp. Lee is coming off a breakout season and appears to be the real deal in every aspect. Lemon is showing the Cowboys he’s versatile and will likely land a roster spot because of his drive and heady play.

Summary:

What I’ve learned from watching many years of the NFL is that it's not how much money you spend, it’s what you spend it on. The Cowboys were able to identify their weaknesses and spend the offseason fortifying them in some way.

Because of exceptional organizational personnel acquisitions and player dedication, the Cowboys field a dynamic defense again. They should be opportunistic and tough, and honestly, a lot of fun to watch.

Plus, you know what they say…Defense wins championships.

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