Each week of camp, I want to grab a particular spot that that is on my mind and continue to try to figure out how this roster is coming together and where the Cowboys will have some difficult decisions to make. Last week it was the Linebacker crew, and today, I want to browse over the defensive line.
Rod Marinelli really values some basic core principles when he puts together the defensive line, and if you are a Cowboys' fan you likely know all of those by heart: out-work on every play, offer versatility to play many roles, and always go for the ball. He keeps it simple in many respects because he wants his men to play fast. But, one of the other items I really admire about his scheme is that it attempts to place less of a premium on that one guy you cannot afford to lose.
Now, that only goes to a point, of course.
There are some players in this league that if you do lose them, you do feel it. If Marinelli lost Warren Sapp or Lance Briggs, he felt it. But, the premise is to have enough interchangeable parts that you simply call for the "next man up" and proceed with your duties. It is really the only way to survive in the NFL, where players get hurt constantly.
So, positional flex is a very desirable trait amongst the Marinelli "Rushmen", and the ability to do multiple things comes in quite handy. When we are trying to see how the roster all fits together, we should add points for the ability for one to fill one of those roles.
The Cowboys had 6 defensive linemen in 2014 who played at least 400 snaps. They were, Jeremy Mincey (811), Tyrone Crawford (740), Nick Hayden (681), George Selvie (587), Anthony Spencer (457), and Henry Melton (433). As you can see, 3 of those top 6 are no longer with the club, so the idea is to figure out who will be taking all of those snaps.
That should be an easy answer with so many additions to the club in the form of Greg Hardy, a full season of DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, and perhaps even the young defensive ends trying to make the squad, Ryan Russell and Ben Gardner.
So, as I watched the Chargers game and charted each play to first examine the roles of each player, I was looking to see how the Cowboys revealed the depth chart to us from this very first game where there were a number of extenuating circumstances such as no Nick Hayden, no Terrell McClain, and trying to slowly ramp up Greg Hardy's action.
That said, from a playing-time action, here is what we saw:
LEFT DEFENSIVE END: This was Demarcus Lawrence for the first 2 drives, with Ryan Russell playing most of the rest of the 1st half before moving inside in the 2nd half. Then, Ben Gardner was used liberally in the 3rd Quarter and most of the 4th before the raw, young project Efe Obada was given a chance late in the 4th.
3-TECHNIQUE: Tyrone Crawford played 12 snaps to start the game and to last 2 drives, but then he gave way for Jack Crawford who appears to be his understudy. Crawford and Crawford played the entire 1st half at 3-tech, and then, Ryan Russell was given most of the rest of the evening with a little Davon Coleman mixed in. Coleman can play both DT spots at a certain level and I think they want to see if that is his way to make the team.
1-TECHNIQUE: With Hayden and Terrell McClain both on the sideline, this might not be really relevant in a month, but the 1-tech all night was occupied by the same 2 players who were given so much time in the 2014 preseason, Davon Coleman and Ken Bishop. Bishop, a 2014 7th-round pick from Northern Illinois, is about 6'0, 300, and plays the 1-technique with a great deal of motor and is always on the screen at the whistle. Coleman, 6'2, 295, was undrafted out of Arizona State and may have a bit more natural ability as well as the capability of playing both tackle spots (1-tech and 3-tech). These two players have been tied at the hip since last year when they joined the team together, and remain so in camp 2015. Coleman made the team last year in camp, was waived in November, signed to the practice squad, and kept around. Bishop suffered the same fate, but was actually waived in October to be put on the practice squad. Coleman played 53 snaps last year, Bishop 89. It would seem they are both competing for the same spot and might be one of those last decisions that are made.
RIGHT DEFENSIVE END: This spot is going to receive the biggest upgrade in 2015, with Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory doing the most there once the season gets going in October and beyond. But, Jeremy Mincey started there on Thursday and seems to be the guy to hold it down in September as well. Hardy played 7 snaps after that, before giving way to a load of Randy Gregory work from the 2Q through the 3rd. Then, the game was completed at this spot by Lavar Edwards, a 3rd year man from LSU that flashes from time to time and Ben Gardner who played on both sides.
NICKEL DOWNS: On nickel, you want 4 dynamic pass rushers out there together with the first look being Lawrence-Crawford-Hardy-Mincey and then, Lawrence-Crawford-Mincey-Hardy. It looks like Mincey and Hardy are quite interchangeable on an inside/outside basis on that right side. We know Hardy has been doing that his entire career in Carolina. Later, they paired Jack Crawford and Ryan Russell inside of Randy Gregory and Lavar Edwards to bring the heat.
Let's look at 5 moments:
I wish we had All-22s to look at, but the NFL won't give us those in the preseason. I wish I understood it, but so far, it is what it is. Anyway, here is that first TD against the Cowboys Nickel rushers. As you can see, there is always a temptation to put too many DEs on the field in the nickel and offenses sometimes enjoy running against that look and you can see Mincey washed easily to the inside and a path you could drive a truck through emerges for Woodhead as the center gets right to the LB, chops him, and there is nothing to stop the ball carrier.
I wanted to show you this play, just to offer one of the change-up looks where you will notice the RDE - Greg Hardy, #76 - covering a tight end in man coverage on the opposite side of the MLB shooting through on a blitz look. They do these overloads quite a bit, but usually, it falls into a zone. Here, Hardy shows to have some nice hips and mobility for a huge man.
Here, Davon Coleman, does an awesome job in short yardage to tie up the center and guard, which allows Damien Wilson to shoot the strong-side A-Gap and come in untouched for the TFL. Wilson will get the highlight and the stat, but those DL men up front make it possible. Randy Gregory also does well to show to the outside so the RB moves back inside and runs into Wilson at the hole.
Here is 4-man pressure all working hard to get upfield (Ryan Russell/Jack Crawford as the nickel DTs) and finally Crawford gets the strip/sack due to cumulative pressure. The pocket collapses due to a 4-man effort.
And finally, the tackle-end game that allowed Randy Gregory to fork lift that left guard - 79-Kenny Wiggins - into the QB. Gregory has great leverage and strength for an "undersized" defensive end and uses those insanely-long arms to get home. I think we will see this man destroy many pass plays before it is all said and done.
This is a very exciting area of the team because it seems to be dripping with potential. So many talented players have been brought in that in some ways, it is like a less-publicized version of the offensive line rebuild. The defensive line rebuild has used 2nd round picks, a premium free agent, some later picks, and even some players off the scrap heap to put this group together. But, to the credit of the front office, this might be the year when we start to see some real results from a deep and talented group.
Last week, I looked at the roster, but now we can reorganize the DL battles:
|Position||Already Made Team||On The Bubble||Longshots|
|DT||(4) T Crawford, Hayden, T McClain, J Crawford||(2) Bishop, Coleman|
|DE||(4) Lawrence, Gregory, Hardy, Mincey||(4) Boatright, Gardner, Russell, Edwards||(1) Obada,|
The Cowboys have kept either 10 or 11 DL in the last few years. This year, I bet it is 11, but this is a fun battle to study as we go through August. I think 8 are already in the boat, with 3 more jobs. If I had to pick now, I think it is Russell for sure. Then, the best of Ben Gardner and Lavar Edwards would get one job and then Ken Bishop and Davon Coleman would get the other. Those two battles are too close to call, but that is why we have 3 more games.