A fresh look at the month of December for Dallas in 2009
James has started 66 consecutive games alongside five different inside linebackers. His first partner was Dat Nguyen, now the team’s assistant linebackers coach. Only one starter, Akin Ayodele (2006-07), has played more than one full season with James. Scott Shanle (2005) and Ryan Fowler (2005) split a total of 11 starts. Zach Thomas (2008) lasted one year but felt he wasn’t suited for the scheme.*(from DC.com)
Why would anyone project any discussion starting with a comparison of players playing alongside a non-Pro Bowl player on the Dallas roster?
First reason, is that the strength of a volatile 3-4 evolves around the strength of a center line projected down the very middle of that defense. Secondly, much of last year’s failures during the month of December evolved around a general weakness that manifested itself during the ‘black-and-blue’ month of December this past season and the schedule that persisted during that time.
Let’s start at the very center of this defense with the nose tackle position. When Bill Parcells started this new Dallas defensive scheme, he brought in a very elder player in the person of Jason Ferguson. He had already accumulated a large body of work in the NFL, and was considered a major piece although hitting at what was then considered an elder statesman status due to time in league. Two off seasons ago, the projection of a Jay Ratiliff and ‘Tank’ Johnson projection was deemed good enough to allow for his departure from the Dallas roster and his return to Bill Parcells. Here, Jay Ratliff did not disappoint in the least. He stepped up, despite all doubters on size and abilities, and earned a Pro Bowl status from that very position.
Jay Ratliff fits into an attacking scheme that is used by Wade Phillips. Ratliff stands the point of attack very well, and uses penetration, technique, low pad level, and speed to defeat single and double team techniques. This allows the same response to the linebackers, that an immovable object would-direct access to make plays by the interior linebackers.
Current projections have Junior Siavii as the incumbent to replace an inactive and departed ‘Tank’. He came into the league and was a high second round rookie. His skill set was close to what Dallas wanted last training camp, but the team already had ‘Tank’ and projected him as a strong fill in backup. Siavii is 6′5″ and weighs in at 320. He is coming to training camp at about the same point in his career as that of a former Cowboys’ standout, Chad Hennings. The precedent of ‘older’ and contributing additions are not without merit here. He well could meet that short yardage and red zone influence somewhat lacking in a run stuffing ability on defense.
Behind this start point, one engages both the weak-side and strong-side linebackers. The strong side is occupied by a strong and dominant influence now. That is the location of Bradie James. He has grown steadily in direct influence, but additionally has been growing in secondary influences as well. He is able to clock up the interior to the strong side running lanes, and for opportunities for outside or weak-side interior linebacker plays. This is a quality that develops with mature defenses. Plays then become incumbent upon the play ability of outside linebackers and the linebacker on the interior next to him, on the weak side. The picture of consistency at the weak side has been a continual string of replacements and adjustments by Bradie himself.
The current picture in Dallas, replaces this tendency in system fragileness. This off season, Dallas has made a demonstrative move to address the factors that play with the role of Bradie James himself. First, on the outside, Greg Ellis was allowed to move on and end up in Oakland for as money as the market would afford. Just any long suffering Dallas fan, I did not enjoy his leaving for ‘greener’ pastures, but the fact that he was a third down player for Dallas now was not lost me as well. He was no longer able to stand up to a season long grind trying to be the outside strong side influence and retain his pass rushing abilities. This now falls to a player who has both qualities and no where near the accumulation of frequent flier miles on his body, Anthony Spencer. He strongly holds the end point against chip blocks, double teams, and individual attacks by opposing offensive tackles. He frees up the role of Bradie James quite a bit, as to being able to influence and attack on this side.
This season, DeMarcus Ware will be given the opportunity to move about points along the offensive line, to create different pictures, confusion to opposing offensive lines, and also influence the ability for interior linebackers to have lanes of access directly to opposing quarterbacks. Last season, Bradie James accumulated eight sacks from his interior position. That is quite a few, but those opportunities should increase this upcoming season as well. The dynamics of this group are now being amped up…not down.
This initial picture is improved additionally, with a changing one at the interior weak side as well. The change at this position, this off season, included both a mature and proven addition in the person of Keith Brooking and the youthful additions of both Justin Williams and Stephen Hodge
First here, Keith Brooking brings a prior working relationship with the founder of this specific Dallas adaptation of the 3-4, and Wade Phillips. They worked quite well during the formative years of Brooking becoming an All Pro by his works on carpet with Atlanta. Although a veteran of experience, Keith Brooking is only at the age of 33, and in his role and experiences, should immediately be an upgrade to the departing starter-Zach Thomas. Brooking is both larger and younger than the person that he is replacing. Brooking knows how the interior position integrates to the roles of the outside linebackers, and has good natural pass rushing techniques and abilities as well. His degree of experiences and performance in the NFL, will quickly blend with those of Bradie James. This pair of interior linebackers will be much harder to run against, and since both have honed very strong pass defense abilities these two should quickly be able to adjust to their role in a pass defense much more seamlessly that in the past.
This quickly brings up the consideration of what is behind this pair of even matched-strong side and weak side starters at linebacker. The picture that evolves, is one surprisingly attractive if one doesn’t project purely on the scope of on field results this past season. Gone are both Kevin Burnett and Zach Thomas. So be it, as the Cowboys could actually have some significant upgrades purely in the lineup behind the starters now.
Even before camp, I see the picture here involves Bobby Carpenter, Justin Williams, and Stephen Hodge.
I know, every single antagonist and pre-darkened glasses by media and harlot fans alike…well, have belittled his very manly abilities as an athlete. I take exception here. I am a firm, if not the only fan of this player. He earned his way into the NFL, and Bill Parcells didn’t just up and spend a weekend at the horse tracks prior to his selection. He was given a firm endorsement by the in place Scouting Department….you know, the one that moved to Miami and turned that franchise around. Carpenter was given the endorsement by almost all evaluators to the man. He was declared both a potential outside as well as inside candidate for use. He has a good set of wheels and when initially given opportunity to start on the outside, proved to be effective if not good in that role.
Carpenter was moved into the middle of the Dallas defense due to need there. Burnett was still a questionable influence prior to this past season, and wasn’t even considered a sure lock there for packages. His benefit to the Dallas defense did not project as a candidate for a starting position alongside that of Bradie James. When his price tag would have demanded this role, he was allowed to move on as well. This didn’t change what the Cowboys still had in place in the person of Bobby Carpenter. The fact that both Zach Thomas and Bradie James remained on the field almost the entire season, and that Burnett did meet his role in packages, doesn’t mean that Bobby Carpenter wasn’t still developing on schedule as a journeyman linebacker should. Bobby has been developing in experience, breakdown and instruction by players such as Zach Thomas, Bradie James, and now Keith Brooking.
He has grown through the fine conditioning program in place with the Cowboy organization. He now has the NFL base to excell on the strength of his own strengths now. He is no longer a projection and potential. Sure, eveyone who will be reporting about the Cowboys will zoom in on him. So be it…as he just might prove and startle quite a few observers. Just as last training camp he was declared an upgrade and influence, this season he will additionally have a functional role as well. This season, when that is stated about Carpenter, he will be fulfilling that role in a similar manner that Bradie James finally did in previous seasons. This player will be an upgrade from what could have been called upon in position of need this previous season. This an improved strength right up the Dallas’ defensive middle.
Next, there is further developing skills right here. This gives added flexibility and a projection on into the future here. Both J. Williams and Hodge are accomplished interior players in the pass defense. They add through packages, the ability to be a physical force in the run defense, but additionally have a good set of ‘wheels’ to allow quick adaptation to pass defense and reflex in a more complete net of protection here. They also will grow in abilities in the NFL.
Hodge inverses the entrance of a Darren Woodson to the Dallas roster. Instead of a linebacker adjusting to a safety role, Hodge was a safety who is becoming a linebacker. He already played a functional similar position while in college. Instead of safety size, although, he possesses a size similar to those already used successfully by Wade Phillips in the past. Edwards, who played for Wade in San Diego, weighed in at about 220 pounds, where Hodge hits the scales about 240.
J. Williams brings a starting bloodline of a third round pedigree. This is even a round higher than were Bradie James came into the NFL. Williams has a bushel of measure-ables that he brings to the table as well. He timed as the fastest linebacker at the combine this past off season. This puts him in high potentials as to projections. As Brooking knows, small details have to be applied on the change in today’s NFL. Both Williams and Hodge will have to lean heavily upon the experience of both James and Brooking, but that they gladly do already.
No, this interior group of linebackers are an aggressive group. It now contains quality veterans that have been singled out in their play by almost all observers to the present. Those are the starters. Behind them is a quality potential in the person of Bobby Carpenter and the two ‘rooks’ that now are part of this mix. The learning curve should not now be one of a year in and year out failure of change. They will be establishing group identity, and up the center of the field this appears to be a pretty strong consideration this upcoming season.
The final view up the center line of the defensive side, includes the safety position. This group was designed to be the final protective umbrella for both the run and the passing attacks. It was supposed to put up a protective net up the very heart of defensed property. Here last season, and recent previous years, it failed in this most important task. My favorite description of the contribution of Roy Williams and decreasingly capable backups at the strong safety position, was the ability description of Williams himself. He was described as unable to pass defend an opposing offensive tackle. I think this adequately describes the contributory element that this positional group provided the most important part in the defense of the 3-4 scheme.
Last year, Ken Hamlin was required to attempt to be a final protection for the entire field on pass plays. Players moved in at the safety position had to play exceedingly deep in an attempt to slow down middle of the field passes. That, or they were stuck very close to the line of scrimmage and became mauled in the mass exploiting the run game. This completely removed the ability of Hamlin to attack opposing passing schemes. He was put in a perpetual mode of bend and not break.
This changed with the addition of Gerald Sensabaugh. He has shown skills in pass defense in the NFL, where he frequently was given the role and responsibility to defend an opponent’s top receiver. This addition in the form of a strong safety, gives dynamics back to the defense. He can play at functional depths to maximize running as well as passing roles in the 3-4.
Now, with both Ken Hamlin and Sensabaugh as the projected starters at safety, and both having both free and strong safety abilities, they present a much stronger and dynamic ability right up the center of this defense.
Last season, the backups here were none other than ‘killer’ Davis and Pat Watkins. Davis was nowhere an adequate influence in the role of a starter and Watkins never removed the sheen of potential or even made it out of the sideline Mash Unit for almost the entire past season. Davis already has moved on, and this is a make or break camp for Watkins himself. We shall see how his storyline unfolds for this current crop of positional players.
On the plus side here, the Cowboys now have even more completely developed players at this position in the persons of Courtney Brown and Alan Ball. Courtney Brown has top shelf speed abilities and is starting show the effects of developing slowly at the NFL level. He is starting to show both coverage and individual reaction skills in the secondary. His catch up ability makes him a valid consideration in the role of package player at the cornerback position. He quickly adds depth, but so does Ball. He shows a similar ability that Anthony Henry showed in his formative years…zone coverage and strength of identification and technique. They add strength to this safety group.
This group also, is strengthened by the addition of drafted players as well. Michael Hamlin and DeAngelo Smith add very strong developmental abilities to this system important group as well. They are coverage specialists who additionally have a strong aggressive makeup for hitting an opponent. They are true safety material that were drafted for demonstrated abilities in coverage, field presence, and demonstrated game changing abilities as well. They bring fresh legs as well as quite an elevated skill group to the safety position as well.
Taken as a whole, the whole center line of the Dallas defense has been upgraded and given a very strong developmental view moving into the immediate and near future as well. This group has improved both an overall depth as well as ability up the very center of the Dallas defense. Now, as to matchup against opposing ’skills players’, Dallas still brings to the table some of the real quality in the league.
On the front and outside of the Dallas defense, it now has a strong-side manned by Marcus Spears and Anthony Spencer. They both were first round drafted. Marcus has slowly grown into his role, but is now the senior member from the same draft that yielded DeMarcus Ware as well. He has slowly grown into an adaptive role as a defensive end in the 3-4 scheme, but additionally has grown in both size and strength as well. This should be the year that he is seen more of a dominant integration with Anthony Spencer as a pair. Both are stout against the run, but as Spears increases his effectiveness this pair should be an influence in disturbing opposing quarterbacks and sacks as well.
The other outside is now manned by newcomer Igor Olshansky and DeMarcus Ware. That should quickly become a lethal combination on both the run and in passing situations. Igor brings a brute strength that will have to be respected by opposing offenses. He will push the pocket as well as give relief for DeMarcus to move about more. This matched pairings on the outside of the Dallas defense, will open much more opportunities of the Dallas interior linebackers to have lanes to the quarterback as well.
Further consideration of the defensing of the special skills opposing players and the outsides of field territory, yields three players of prominence. These three are Terrence Newman, Mike Jenkins, and Orlando Scandrick. They all three will play major roles, as they will be the final outside pressure at the ends of the defensive line as well as having individual responsibilities on the opposing team’s best receivers. Their effectiveness in single coverage will affect the entire remainder of the defense, but to the strength of this even stronger defensive side of the Dallas roster, this will now mainly be involved at the outside edges of play.
It takes depth for this cornerback positional group to weather an entire season of play. This core group of cornerbacks is additionally strengthened, due to package involvements, by the same Ball and Courtney Brown. To this group of five players, is additionally added the potential of a ‘hidden jewel’ pick of Mike Mickens. That quickly expands the potential and long-termed outlook as well. If needed, DeAnglo Smith could be added to this group. In the meantime, his integration into the whole secondary group is expanded.
Both the safety and the cornerback positions have a base level of functional skills and potential. They have the demonstrated and proven veterans that every one of the starters are capable contributors that should at the start of training camp, offer an very definable and elevating contribution from its onset.
Fast forward to the month of December for this upcoming season. A changed picture already exists. Teams usually achieve December successes with either a stout defense or a steady and productive offense. This defense projects with lingering qualities that should improve steadily, under the direction of Wade Phillips, now for the entire season. No longer having to attempt to cover up short-fallings in an entire sectional group, safety, this team will be able to be much more aggressive than a league leading sack total. It will be able to adapt an aggression to both the run and the pass this season.
Another thing changes as well. Instead of a season ending group of games inclusive of Baltimore, Pittsburgh, New York, and Philadelphia at its conclusion, Dallas now will play San Diego, New Orleans, Washington, and Philadelphia. Both San Diego and Philadelphia will be played in the new stadium of the Cowboys. This season, the blend of both the offensive consistency as well as the consistency of the defense will be the deciding factors in the fate of this team. No longer will it be whether or not Tony Romo and T.O. are enough of a magic ingredient to turn the fate of destiny.
The team ingredients, and not individual scape goats will determine success of this team. From right here, the development and integration of a team directed goal is paramount, but no longer a function of the media, T.O, or even a mystical interpretation, but team direction. This group should be fun and rewarding in viewing that growth, but let’s be realistic here as well. They do have more than a sporting chance to succeed.
CCBoy is a Sports Jabber Contributing Author.
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