The Dallas Cowboys did not exactly have an elite defense in 2013.
They were 26th in points allowed (432), 30th in passing yards allowed (4,589) and 27th in rushing yards allowed (2,056).
Not only that, but their 415.3 yards per game allowed ranked them dead last, and it was not that close. With a defense like that, there would be nowhere to go but up, right?
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, that's not the case. DeMarcus Ware, the team leader on defense, left in free agency after a career-low six sacks, which was still third best on the team. Linebacker Sean Lee, who led the team with four interceptions, is out for the year after tearing his ACL.
Not only is Ware gone, but Jason Hatcher, who stepped up and led the team with 11 sacks last year, jumped ship to the rival Washington Redskins. How is a defense supposed to improve when three of its best defenders are gone?
Peter King already had the Cowboys penciled in as one of the worst defensive teams in 2014, and that was before the secondary felt a blow as well, with cornerback Orlando Scandrick now suspended for the first four games of the season.
Since there's little to suggest that the Cowboys have sufficiently replaced these missing pieces, the question is not how bad they'll be compared to other teams this season. It's how bad they'll be historically.
It's a given that the NFL has become very offense-focused in recent years, with passing records dropping seemingly on a yearly basis. That doesn't bode well for the Cowboys defense that last year, with a more talented squad, gave up the third-most yards in NFL history.
The fact that they did not improve the defense entering 2014 is very concerning. With their first pick in the 2014 NFL draft, Jerry Jones selected offensive lineman Zack Martin. They drafted former Boise State defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence in Round 2, but he's out for two months as well, meaning the Cowboys went through the first two days of the draft but effectively landed no immediate help for the defense.
The team did pick up a few players, to be fair, but it was not much of an improvement. Defensive end Jeremy Mincey has had flashes of good play, but anyone released by the Jacksonville Jaguars isn't going to inspire optimism. Henry Melton should be a solid defensive tackle, but he is coming off a torn ACL and we do not know how well he will rebound from that.
To be fair, the Cowboys do have a few defensive players who appear to be solid, but even impressive numbers posted by those contributors raise more questions than answers.
Who led the team in tackles? That would be free safety Barry Church, whose 107 tackles led the team by a mile. The fact that a safety comfortably leads the team in tackles tells a great deal about the linebackers ability to stop the run, to make tackles.
I have some hope for cornerback Brandon Carr, who can make plays at times, but with Scandrick out, he's going to be on an opponent's No. 1 receiver and will possibly have to pick up the slack for Morris Claiborne, who has yet to show himself to be starter material.
That's too much to ask of a player like Carr, and with an overworked secondary and a lack of talent on the front seven, it will be easy to pick apart the Cowboys defense.
But while they may face those offensively-challenged squads, they also face the New Orleans Saints in Week 4. The Saints had 625 total yards against the Cowboys last year, and though unlikely, they could possibly have even more this year.
To avoid being an all-time bad defense, veteran players like Melton will need to become even more productive than in the past. And a few of the younger defenders must emerge as quality players and leaders quickly so that the defense gels quickly into something that won't embarrass the Dallas fanbase each week.
Should either or those developments happen, then maybe the Cowboys can salvage the season on that side of the ball. If not, then 415 yards per game is going to look quite manageable to each offense that prepares to play the Dallas defense.
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