Posted: 4:00 p.m. Friday, Aug. 16, 2013
By Dave Halprin
Thanks to the awesome coverage of Rabble and OCC at training camp in Oxnard, it felt like we all had a ring-side seat at practice. We've also seen the team in action in two preseason games. So what did we learn? My take:
1. Confident defense - How many defensive plays in past years have we watched where the Cowboys defense is trying to get lined up, not watching the ball, calling out coverages, and generally milling about in massive confusion as the ball is snapped? Too many to track. That looks like it's a thing of the past. With the new scheme, the Cowboys are ready early on most plays. And when they make a change, it's not a jailbreak to new positions on the field. They already appear comfortable in the new 4-3. Granted it's only preseason and offenses are staying vanilla, but the way this scheme runs, movement and complexity are not high on the priority list.
Along with that comfort is the aggressive attack on the ball. Cowboys defenders are truly swarming to the rock on every play. They are ready to pounce on a fumble if it comes out. What Kiffin and Marinelli are preaching is taking hold, get to the ball, and get the ball, if at all possible. So far the Cowboys have taken the scheme and concepts to heart. Can they actually execute them once things get real, when they're defending against big-time players for four quarters? We haven't learned that yet. But the Cowboys are getting the basics right with the total overhaul of the scheme.
2. Good depth at running back - The Cowboys have a stable of quality running backs. DeMarco Murray should be the lead dog, but Dallas can feel comfortable using a variety of guys. Lance Dunbar looks ready, he's practiced like he's ready, he should get significant playing time. If injury comes in to play, either Phillip Tanner or Joseph Randle would be solid options. If the Cowboys line can get them a little crease, Dallas should have a dangerous ground game. Add in Murray or Dunbar in the short passing game, it's possible Dallas could have a dynamic backfield.
3. Bruce Lee - Sean Lee and Bruce Carter should absolutely excel in this defensive scheme if they can stay healthy. It plays directly towards their strengths. Both are agile, both recognize plays quickly, both are sure tacklers and both can cover. No longer constantly exposed to uncovered guards, they can use their quickness and instinct to go downhill, or use their agility and ability to diagnose plays to drop back in coverage. It's perfect.
4. Dez and DeMarcus - 'Nuff said.
5. The offensive line - Ok, not the offensive line in general, the interior offensive line. Tyron Smith and Doug Free, yes Free, so far look solid on the outside. But injuries are killing Dallas inside. And the debate over Mackenzy Bernadeau rages on. This subject has been beat to death. I'll just say, if Ron Leary gets back healthy, and they sign Brian Waters or another veteran (depending on who he is), they probably will have a decent line this year.
6. The defensive line - We've seen one half of the defensive line in action, and they look great. Ware and Jason Hatcher are showing no problems with the new defense, Ware has bulked up but is still cat-quick, Hatcher looks like he'll be even better by facing some single blockers on occasion instead of taking on two almost all the time. But, is Jay Ratliff going to be able to stay healthy for a season? Is age and the constant battle in the middle finally breaking down his body? And Spencer still needs to get healthy and hope everything stays ok with the knee. Ben Bass and Nick Hayden have shown promise as backups in the middle, there is still Sean Lissemore, and George Selvie had one great preseason game, but the Cowboys need a healthy Ratliff and Spencer to really make things happen.
7. The new play-calling system - So far it has worked. The Cowboys tempo on offense does seem to be up, there are fewer last second snaps. It appears Romo still likes to run down the clock pretty far, trying to get the latest intel he can pick up from the defense and possibly spotting a blitz, but he still looks quicker and more in control getting plays off. Again, vanilla preseason situations make that easier. The intensity and pressure of a real game can change that anywhere along the Callahan-to-Wilson-to-Romo-to-team chain.
8. Safety first - The Cowboys haven't been challenged deep a lot in the preseason. It's hard to judge just how Will Allen and Barry Church will handle that. The scheme would appear to protect safeties more, usually ending up in a two-high that turns into a three-high if Sean Lee is dropping into coverage. Even when one safety creeps up to the line, they can fall into a three-high by dropping the CB's deeper into zone. So maybe just by virtue of the defense, over-the-top deep won't be quite the problem it was, but underneath is a different story. They'll have to take correct angles to make tackles, be physical and try to collect some turnovers. Is this crew of safeties ready to do that? It's still an unknown.
Overall, the Cowboys organization found out a lot of things about their team and they seem to like this 2013 edition of the Dallas Cowboys. Many of the questions have likely answers, and the change on defense could prove a huge advantage instead of the expected hindrance of adapting to the new system. Training camp and preseason breed optimism each year, and none of us are immune. I will say this, if they can actually solve the guard issue, then I'm as optimistic about this team as I've been in years.