Through the first week of camp here in Oxnard, I have had to opportunity to focus on the different position groups but the one that tends to stand out in every practice is the defensive line and this is without nose tackle Jay Ratliff taken many snaps at all with the first unit.
With this group you have a good mix of veteran players to go along with some younger ones. Kenyon Coleman is the starter at the strong end while Jason Hatcher plays opposite him on the weak side. I have been impressed with what I have seen from Hatcher and his ability to battle Tyron Smith whether it is run or pass. Hatcher has shown the ability to get into or around Smith to cause him problems but the bigger questions were if Hatcher could handle the run and to that I would say he has done a much better job of not only playing with quickness but solid technique. Every day I see coach Brian Baker teaching his players about playing with your hands and getting off blocks. Baker is consistently on his guys about controlling those blocks, then getting off them. Hatcher has taken these words and technique to heart when you watch him fire his hands inside on the blocker or you see him use a quick swim move to get around Smith and get into the backfield. I also studied him the other day rushing up the field slapping down Smith's hands to try and get the corner on him which he did.
I have been critical of Coleman's play in the past because I see a player that is extremely powerful at the point of attack but there were times where he didn't play that way. There was a game in Philadelphia that came to mind where it appeared that every ball that was worked to the edge on his side made it around the corner. In this camp, like Hatcher, he has done a much better job of playing with the correct technique. Backing up Coleman is the veteran Marcus Spears who has always been a steady player but never dominate. Spears played that weak side end in 2011 but has since been moved back to the strong side which has been the correct one. Spears is a much better player when he can hold blocks at the point with his ability to anchor down. Spears doesn't give you much in the pass game in terms of pressure but he will give you some sneaky pass rush when on a stunt or in a line game.
Also playing the strong side end, is the massive Clifton Geathers who is a favorite of the front office for his projected ability. Geathers was productive in some of the OTA practices and had a nice pass rush move on a twist stunt that got him a pressure on Wednesday. Where Geathers is going to have to get better is with his toughness and keeping his pad level down. When tends to get high, then he has his problems. There is plenty to work with in Geathers but he needs more of those days where he is getting push and handling the run on the edge. Geathers should get two or more quarters each pre season game for his development.
On the weak side, I mentioned Hatcher was the starter but also pay attention to Sean Lissemore. Like the battle with Bruce Carter and Dan Connor, this is could shape up as a pretty good battle for a starting spot. Lissemore has the ability to play on either the left or right side but me personally like him better on the weak or right side. Lissemore can also play some back up nose and is the starter inside on the nickel as a rusher. Where Lissemore is dangerous is when he can do things on the move slanting or working games. He can be a difficult guy to block because he has some slippery ability. Lissemore is one of those guys that keeps coming after you. There is a great deal of position flexibility which makes this guy a valuable player to have.
Defensive end, Tyrone Crawford has become one of my favorite players of the young guys. As a former scout, I really do love his game. He plays with a great deal of passion and desire. Every snap you get his very best. I like the way for such a young player that he shows pass rush moves and techniques. He is one of those players that as he is going up the field, he is doing things to try and free himself from blockers. He has that special trait where there is no quit in his effort. The one thing I worry about with Crawford is that at 287 pounds he is going 100 miles an hour and will he be able to keep that weight on his frame? If he can do that and not get wore down, there are packages he can play in as a rusher. Crawford already plays on special teams and you will see him some inside at nose, so the coaches are trying to create opportunities for him. On Friday, he had a knee injury that doesn't seem major but something the Cowboys will certainly monitor.
Inside at nose, Jay Ratliff is trying to work back from his planter fasciitis problem that has hurt his start to camp but behind him there has been a nice battle with both Josh Brent and Robert Callaway taking productive snaps. In the practice on Wednesday Brent has shown the ability to get off the blocks better by playing with his hands which is something that he had not done very well before. There were too many times where Brent got into personal battles with the blocker and missed the ball. Brian Baker has him player quicker with his hands. There has never been a question about his strength or power but technique was his main sticking point. Callaway is also a powerful player but where he is better than Brent is in his ability to make plays on the move. There have been several plays where Callaway lined up in the gap and was able to shoot up the field and into the backfield. This is one of those battles that should be settled in these pre season games.
Last season, the Cowboys kept seven defensive linemen with Geathers being the extra guy. With the injury to Ratliff there might be a thought about keeping two nose men but you have Sean Lissemore that could work in there as well if he is not starting at weak side end, so maybe it's just one back up nose. There might be some questions about carrying both Spears and Coleman but with Coleman as the starter now, Spears might be the odd man out. Need to see Hatcher do more against the run and can Crawford develop in some pass rush packages. I do like the mix and I like what Brian Baker has done early in camp with this group technique wise which surely will make this group a much better one not only against the run but in the passing game as well.