IRVING, Texas – Six different Cowboys defenders have chipped in to generate an NFC-leading 13 sacks thus far.
Even without Jay Ratliff and with Anthony Spencer's knee injury, the Cowboys defense is finding ways to rush the passer and get up field with a group of players many people hadn't even heard of before this year. It's a sight that makes the defensive backs grin.
"Those guys just have some natural athletic ability, and they're some dogs up front that get after the quarterback," said cornerback Brandon Carr. "We just sit on the back end sometimes, and I'm smiling after some plays when the quarterback, they just snap the ball to him and they sack him in two seconds. They get after it."
The secondary's job has been made easier by a starting group of DeMarcus Ware and George Selvie at defensive end and Jason Hatcher and Nick Hayden at defensive tackle. The Cowboys have seven takeaways and 13 sacks this season. They had just three takeaways and seven sacks through three games last year.
Selvie wasn't even with the team when training camp began. In Selvie, the Cowboys may have found a replacement the rest of the season at defensive end for Spencer, who could be out for the rest of the year. Selvie's already notched two of the team's 13 sacks.
The veterans and longtime Cowboys on the line are playing some of their best football ever in the new system. Not surprisingly, Ware leads the group with four sacks, but Hatcher is continuously in the backfield and is already close to tying his career-high of 4.5 sacks with three this year.
The move to the 4-3 defense and the addition of Rod Marinelli are reaping immediate benefits for the linemen, whose main focus is on rushing straight ahead rather than holding the point of attack.
"Rod's done a fantastic job," said head coach Jason Garrett. "He's a great man. He's a great football coach. He's great for our team. I think Leon Lett has done a fantastic job working with Rod and those defensive linemen have really responded well."
Garrett said Ware is a mismatch any time he's on the field, and he's lucky to have the team's all-time sacks leader, but he also credited Hatcher for his play and taking advantage of the opportunity in the new scheme. It's a luxury to have those two veterans on the defensive line, as the Cowboys attempt to figure out the best rotation for the rest of the group. [embedded_ad]
The personnel department continues to add players who can step right in on the line, bringing in pass-rushing defensive tackle and former third-round pick Drake Nevis. That might allow Caesar Rayford to shift back outside from tackle to his more natural position at end. Along with Kyle Wilber, Edgar Jones has also taken reps as a backup defensive end after coming over from the Chiefs before the season began.
"You start teaching them, asking them to do the things that we want them to do," Garrett said. "Then, you drill them in practice and you take it to a game and each of those guys has responded well to the opportunity. Certainly in that environment with Rod and Leon is a real positive one and the example that D-Ware and Hatch demonstrate to the rest of the group is positive. Those guys go about it the right way."
The combinations Marinelli and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin put together seem to work on the defensive line. The defense still schemes linebackers blitzes, but they're also able to rush the passer with only their linemen if they so choose. That helps out the secondary on the back end.
"When you've got those guys up front that can get after the quarterback without help and we can drop guys into coverage, we love it," Carr said. "We have the best pass rusher in the game right now and he's complemented by a lot of guys right now that have tremendous athletic ability. It allows us on the back end to just kind of play loose. We're not worried about covering too long, knock on wood for now."
Carr said the Cowboys are still learning the ins and outs of the new defense, but it's not hard to buy in when sacks and takeaways are happening so early in the season. He said it can take a little while to find the right chemistry, but the 4-3 defense the Cowboys employ is generating excitement, and he can see the eagerness of the defense to take the field.
It's also not a particularly complex system. Carr said the simplicity is allowing everyone on defense to play fast. He can tell the pressure is making the quarterback uncomfortable and rattled in the pocket. The secondary can anticipate where the ball is going when the quarterback's timing gets tampered with.
"We have guys that take pride in getting off that ball and getting after the quarterback," Carr said. "Just like it's my job to go out there and cover, it's their job to go out there and cause havoc in the middle and on the rush. I like it."