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20 Questions: Can Cowboys Defense Become Among NFL's Top 10 Units?

Despite completing four weeks of OTAs and mini-camp practices, several things remain unsettled for the Cowboys. When the team reports to training camp on July 28 in Oxnard, Calif., several questions still need answers.

The staff writers at – Rob Phillips, David Helman, Nick Eatman and Bryan Broaddus – will attempt to answer these questions before the start of training camp.  

Today, the staff continues the series with a question concerning the Cowboys' chances of having a Top 10 defense. 

10) Can This Cowboys' Defense Earn Top 10 Ranking?

Rob Phillips:Well, let's look at it from a statistical standpoint. Last year the Cowboys ranked 19th in total defense, allowing 355.1 yards per game. The 10th-ranked defense was Seattle, allowing 339.8 yards per game. The Cowboys ranked 15th in points allowed (22.0 average); the 10th-ranked scoring defense was San Francisco (21.3 average). Based on the numbers, it won't require a huge jump into the top 10. This year Rod Marinelli has a healthy Sean Lee and new talent for the secondary (Byron Jones, Corey White) and the defensive line (a healthy DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, and Greg Hardy after his suspension). On paper, can the defense be 15 yards a game and one point stingier than last year? Sure they can.

Nick Eatman:This is one of those questions that has a better answer thanks to Friday's ruling on Hardy's suspension. And even if it gets dropped down again from four, it does appear as if the Cowboys will at least get three quarters of the season with one of the NFL's best pass-rushers. That alone will help this defense. As for a Top 10 defense, rankings are tricky. It actually depends on the offense. And since I think this offense will be a Top 3 unit, then my answer is no. No, I don't think this will be one of the 10 best defenses, statistically. And remember, the statistic that is generally used in this ranking is yards allowed. Go look at some of the best offenses each year, they typically have lower-ranked defenses. I think this Cowboys' offense will again be good enough to establish leads in the second half. It happened in several games last year – Saints, Texans, Jaguars, Bears, at Eagles, at Redskins – to name a few. The Cowboys have some big leads and end up surrendering a few yards and points. Also, the more the Cowboys score on offense, the more they kick off and the more field it allows for opponents to move the ball. Don't get me wrong, this defense will be better. And it will create even more turnovers, and will probably allow less points, which is all that matters. But in the overall ranking of Top 10 defense, I don't see that in the Cowboys' future. And that really isn't a bad thing. [embeddedad0]

David Helman:If everything goes right for them, then yes I think this group has the potential to be top 10. That said, let's examine what all has to "go right." For starters, Sean Lee and Rolando McClain need to enjoy healthy, productive seasons. Brandon Carr needs to play consistently up to the form he enjoyed down the last month of last year, and it wouldn't hurt if Morris Claiborne was able to contribute something after rehabbing his knee injury. DeMarcus Lawrence needs to blossom into the productive pass rusher he's been billed to be, and, despite being a rookie, the Cowboys need Randy Gregory to add some meaningful contributions. With Greg Hardy free to play at least 12 games, he needs to live up to his Pro Bowl billing – despite the fact that he spent a year away from football. I don't think it's realistic to expect all of that stuff to happen, so I'm not sure I see a top 10 finish in the cards. But I do think the unit will take another step forward in Rod Marinelli's second season.

Bryan Broaddus: I think the bigger question, is "Can this be a Top 10 scoring defense?" Every defensive coach that I have ever worked with, they were never worried about the yards, but were always focusing on the points given up and Rod Marinelli is no different. For Marinelli, it has always been about points and turnovers. With new additions that were made to the roster in the offseason, he will be able to focus on just that. With Greg Hardy, Byron Jones and Randy Gregory, I feel like this defense will be better from a scheme standpoint. Throw in the return of Sean Lee, and I think opponents will have a difficult time getting the ball into the end zone. From what I have seen from these practices here before camp, it's that Marinelli now has the flexibility to go with several different combinations -- not only in his base packages but his nickel and dime ones, as well. For Rod Marinelli, better depth and quality of players should lead to a bottom line of better results. I am keeping an eye on the scoring defense -- that's the key to tell me whether this group is playing better or not.



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