Now that the preseason has given us 2 games to look at with some great detail, I wanted to begin to try to envision what the coaches are looking at when they piece this team together for the actual battles that lie ahead, starting with the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1.
Clearly, the #1 offense has been one of the delights of camp. It appears that this group has a chance to do some very nice things both on the ground and through the air. They have versatility and strength, which should allow some major accomplishments in 2014 if they have a healthy Tony Romo. And, to the approval of all watching on Saturday against the Ravens, Tony shifted and spun and moved in the pocket as he has been expected to do when fully healthy, and looked the part that he has been playing since 2006. He wasn't in long and certainly did not take any direct hits, but for now, you can see signs that his health issues might not be as severe as we feared. However, even though I was asked by a reader to apologize for my pessimistic views on his chances of playing 16 games this season, I will reserve any apologies for when he demonstrates that he can take the normal beating a starting NFL QB is expected to take from September to January. If his back holds up, the weapons are on full display - starting with a Dez Bryant who has spent the last several weeks at camp and in these preseason games looking like an unstoppable force who will be an even better player than what we have seen to this point of his amazing career.
But, I would imagine that you did not enter training camp scared of the offense in 2014. We all know that they have invested most of their resources into trying to build an offense that can carry this team like the other elite offenses around the league. If there has been a premium check written (save for Brandon Carr) or premium pick used (save for Mo Claiborne) on anything in recent years around here, chances are somebody on the offense received it and we will ask them to be right there in the elite group of the NFL if this team is to have any chance at post-season play.
Now, to the somewhat neglected defense we go. I hope you have had a chance to review our weekend piece of statistical analysis on the 2012 and 2013 defenses. If not, it would be very helpful to fully understand the picture that is being put in the frame by clicking here and catching up on where they are in league standings as a defensive unit. Spoiler Alert: It isn't good by any stretch whatsoever.
One interesting aspect to that study about the Cowboys decision after 2012 to change coordinators and scheme is that the principle concern about a change like that was that they had the wrong personnel to run a 4-3. If you draft players as 3-4 players (Kyle Wilber, Bruce Carter, Sean Lee, Tyrone Crawford), making them fit in the new scheme is often a major issue that some times cannot be pulled off. But, when they made the change, they publicly announced (on several occasions) that this change is made with Carter and Lee in mind. They were doing it because those 2 would be such perfect fits in this new scheme.
Lee looked very strong in his role in 2013, but was again sabotaged both in 2013 and in the spring of 2014 by his brittle body. It does appear that we may never see him at his very best, just because his body does not appear fully capable of withstanding the NFL punishment that his particular position requires. Either way, we absolutely won't see him in 2014.
Carter, on the other hand, has been a bit of a fully healthy disaster. He has not shifted into the "Will" LB position with ease, and in fact has been picked on by opposing offenses throughout 2013. He has been healthy, but he has also been such that we are starting to see signs that the Cowboys are so disappointed with his fit in their defense, that despite their talent deficiencies on the unit, they may be getting near the end of their rope with #54. His contract expires at the end of 2014, and it may be another 1st or 2nd rounder when at the end of his rookie deal where he should be ready to dominate, the Cowboys might not even make him an offer to keep him around (like Felix Jones, Mike Jenkins, and Martellus Bennett before him).
So, with that in mind, I wanted to study the tape from Saturday against the Ravens from each Linebacker position and attempt to figure out where they stand. I surely should spend more time on the defensive line, but the Cowboys themselves are still bringing in and sending out so many bodies, that we should give them another week or 2 for us to have an idea what they are doing on the DL. At least, it seems, they are getting players that fit the scheme and Rod Marinelli is selecting. Linebackers are still a mixed bag. Let's check it out:
CHECKING IN WITH THE LINEBACKERS:
SAM - Strong Side LB
The Sam LB looks to be locked down and sealed up by Kyle Wilber. Wilber is a bit of an interesting story because he was brought in to be an OLB in the 3-4, then shifted to DE last season after we were told he will likely be cut in the 2013 camp by many who just didn't see a scheme fit. From there, he was a solid pass rusher, but when they needed more help at LB, they bounced Wilber around again. But, that is the type of guy that he reportedly is. The coaches and scouts love Wilber for his willingness to do whatever is asked and to generally know exactly what that is. His comfort in the scheme as well as his physical traits make him a fine choice to play the SAM in 2014. He plays the run as well as any LB, but also runs with Tight Ends without major issues. I think the Cowboys are fine at the SAM as long as Wilber can go.
Now, who is behind Wilber? Great question. On Saturday night, they played a lot of Cam Lawrence back there and he may have a real chance at sticking since the special teams coaching staff seems to really campaign for him. If Lawrence has to play a lot on the defense, there will be some exposing there as he just lacks the size and thump that Wilber brings to the table and doesn't have any sort of edge rush. But, can he be your 6th or 7th LB? Sure. But, you would also hope to upgrade with someone who is a more ideal fit in the big picture. Their best SAM not named Wilber is Justin Durant, but as you will see in a moment, he is spread rather thin right now.
MLB - Middle LB
On draft weekend, the Cowboys wanted to spend their 3rd selection (4th Rounder) on a Linebacker to have a chance to learn behind Sean Lee. So, despite a number of flashier LB prospects being on the board (Carl Bradford, Prince Shembo, Telvin Smith), the Cowboys cited special teams ability and MLB priority for reasons to take Iowa's Anthony Hitchens.
Well, that was April. In May, Sean Lee was lost for the season and by August, the Cowboys had decided that Hitchens is not a middle LB and that he is now moving to weak side. So, 1st and 2nd string at the vital defensive role in the middle had gigantic vacancies.
So, where does that leave MLB? In the capable hands of Justin Durant. Oh, sure, Rolando McClain is here and the Cowboys desperately want him to take this position and run with it, but from all I have seen to this point, McClain has done very little to show that he can be anything better than serviceable. He is big and full of ability, but if you are not fit and fired up, then you can quickly become a liability. I have no idea how his body is snapping back into NFL shape, but for much of Saturday night against Baltimore, it was very ordinary stuff from the standout at Alabama. You just don't see that destructive force that existed a few years back where he attacked the line and blew up plays. Now, in fairness, the defensive tackles are often getting shoved back into his lap, but I just don't see him going north very often. From all I can see from McClain, he still is a ways away from being that guy we all remembered. And, when you read stories that indicate his heart just isn't really into it, it all seems to make more sense.
Durant is not a highlight film either, but everyone raves about his feel for the scheme and he best replicates Sean Lee's ability to traffic cop calls and make sure tactically everyone is on their assignment. If I am going to get mid-level performances from my MLB, at least make him a player who makes sure everyone is deployed correctly. In space, Durant can chase better, but McClain can get zone drops just fine. I just don't know that I trust McClain to get fit, stay healthy, and most importantly to stay interested for NFL veteran minimum money - especially since he knows there is no chance for him to remain in Dallas when Lee is healthy again. After those two, I do like what DeVonte Holloman brings to the table with his range and body (I assume his neck issue is not a big deal). He was capable last Week 17 in a pinch and has demonstrated that he will attack. I am not sure about his grasp on calls and reads, but he seems like a reasonable #2 in the middle if they decide to go that way.
WLB - Weak Side LB
Now, here is where it gets tricky. The Cowboys have been hinting more and more that Durant is their preference now at Will. This, of course, is a shock since he was the SAM in 2013, the MIKE in training camp, and now they are saying his natural spot in the WILL. But, it is more of a shock because this seems to indicate that they are considering Bruce Carter as a movable object, just one year after basically indicating they are building the scheme around him at that Derrick Brooks/Lance Briggs weak side spot.
In watching Carter on Saturday, he still seems lost in coverage - took a hold on the first play, lost his man underneath a few times, and did break up one pass in his zone. That is key, by the way, he is ok in zones (like McClain), but very poor in man. Imagine having to run zones to accommodate your players and still trying to mix up coverages to confuse opponents - this all but eliminates the man coverage your corners covet and blitzing.
The bigger issues though seem to come back with his inability to shed a full back or a guard in his run fits against interior runs. He just doesn't thump or shed very well, and that makes him another pedestrian option against the run. He also still looks like he doesn't fully read the situation consistently. 3 great snaps, then a snap where he looks lost on his assignment. I can't have that from a guy who has been in the mix here since 2011.
So, again, Durant and Hitchens are the guys they want running at the Will as Garrett has said this week that both guys are natural weak side guys, but Carter is there and is possibly your one LB who can make a splash play and has the highest upside. But, he is also the guy who has seemed to not always had the best resolve or internal fight when things get going in the wrong direction on a Sunday afternoon.
They really want McClain to win the MLB, but I am not sure there is much evidence on the field that he is worthy of the spot. I think they hope he wins it so that Durant/Carter is your WLB, McClain in the middle, and Wilber at the SAM. Then, on nickel downs, Wilber becomes a edge rush DE, and Durant joins McClain and Carter is off the field altogether. That trio should at least be adequate in Week 1.
But, the bigger point is that Justin Durant might be their best fit at all 3 spots. This from a 28-year old veteran who signed for a 2-year, $2.4m deal from Detroit without even a headline a year ago. Now, things are in such disarray that he is as valuable a piece as this front 7 has.
And all of this before the first snap and the first in-season injury. This is a spot on the team that might require a little bit of good fortune for all involved.