OXNARD, Calif. – It never rains in Southern California, or so the saying goes, but that doesn't mean a storm isn't currently brewing within the defensive front of the Dallas Cowboys. It's one the club desperately hopes can help end a Super Bowl drought that itself is now officially old enough to rent a car.
Having long struggled to impose their will by way of the defensive interior, the goal in training camp is to identify who'll make it rain in 2022 – flash floods certainly being welcome.
It's a defensive line that has seen starting right defensive end Randy Gregory depart for the Denver Broncos in free agency, seemingly replaced by rookie second-round pick Sam Williams and the re-signing of talented veteran edge rusher Dorance Armstrong, but it's fair to wonder if the Cowboys are all set opposite DeMarcus Lawrence, e.g., holding a camp workout for former first-round pick Takkarist McKinley.
And while things get sorted at the edges, the good news is there's no shortage of bodies the Cowboys can throw at that equation in order to eventually solve it, but the question marks in-between those bookend positions aren't so easily erased.
If defensive tackle Neville Gallimore has his way, The Riddler won't win this time around, Mr. Wayne, and the question marks will soon be in the rear view mirror. The third-year lineman returns to take on the role of full-time starter on the interior, and his ability to disrupt plays will be paramount to the Cowboys success in [finally] stopping the run on a consistent basis, and when it matters most.
A former third-round pick in 2020, Gallimore suffered a gruesome elbow injury in last year's preseason that cost him all but five games and four starts in 2021, and his absence was felt in a big way prior to his return in mid-December -- the pride of Welland, Ontario immediately reminding everyone of what he can do on the football field, shades of what might be to come as early as the Cowboys regular season opener against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sept. 11 at AT&T Stadium.
The 25-year-old is now 100% healthy and starving to lead the way at defensive tackle this season. Tasked with not only improving himself but in also setting the example for new additions such as rookie fifth-round pick John Ridgeway and second-year talents such as Osa Odighizuwa, Quinton Bohanna and Chauncey Golston, among others such as former second-round pick Trysten Hill (who is entering a pivotal season), it feels more and more as if the interior of the defensive front will go as Gallimore goes -- both in production and as a field general.
Asked following the final unpadded practice of Cowboys camp if he's ready to potentially deliver the breakout season that eluded him one year ago, Gallimore smiled, and was unequivocal in his response.
"Yes sir, absolutely. Believe that," he said. "The time is now. We're not about to play with it. We're about to get to it."
"Ready to set the world on fire and this is the time to do it."
If the Cowboys can stop the run consistently, from the aspect of yardage gained, the edge rushers can then tee off on opposing quarterbacks. For perspective, the club improved in their run defense over the year prior and ranked in the top-10 in rushing touchdowns allowed (13), a tally that amounts to just four more than the league-best New England Patriots in that category.
That said, their bend-but-don't-break mentality resulted in enough bend to make a yoga instructor blush -- middling the pack at 16th-overall in total rushing yards allowed (1,918) and 25th-overall in yards per carry allowed on the ground (4.5 per handoff).
That simply will not do, and especially if the Cowboys are hoping to keep the heat off of a to-be-determined offensive line group and young receiving corps that is also trying to figure itself out without the aid of four-time Pro Bowl wideout Amari Cooper or, at least to begin the season, a veteran game-changer in Michael Gallup.
But for as much as Gallimore will and must take the lead inside, his supporting cast must also quickly develop into the same game-altering force, if they are to take pressure (no pun intended) off of Lawrence and the outside pass rushers. In observing the first week of practice, it's impressive how Ridgeway -- essentially a road grader -- has been able to move whatever large human has been placed in front of him, and with ease, while both Odighizuwa and Bohanna both look a bit quicker than they were in 2021, and without sacrificing any physical mass or strength.
The latter can also be said for Gallimore who, on more than one occasion, unleashed a successful spin move as a defensive end on a three-man front, a nod to just how versatile he could be and an early reminder of what defensive coordinator Dan Quinn expects of his linemen: an ability to flex between multiple positions; be it 0-tech/1-tech (nose tackle), 3-tech, 5-tech or further out of center.
Bottom line, they all have to expect both the expected (their base position) and the unexpected (in-game adaptations), and perform well in both circumstances if they're to be a part of a defense that saw Quinn lead them from worst to first in many categories in his first year in Dallas.
It's something Ridgeway isn't uncomfortable with.
"It doesn't matter to me. Whatever front they call, get more comfortable in," said the rookie during minicamp, noting he was also asked to move around in his collegiate days at Arkansas. " ... It depends on what front we were in. If we were in three down or four down. If we were four down, I could play 3-technique, nose [or] shade. When we were in three downs, I was a 2-tech."
So, for Ridgeway, his first offseason with the Cowboys is mostly about refinement of technique and acclimating to what he views is truly the biggest difference at the professional level.
"[It's] the speed, because the NFL is go, go, go, go," he added. "In college you can take a couple of plays and catch your breath. But you're going against All-Pro's every day. So, you can't take any breaths off at all."
When it comes to what the Cowboys need from their defensive interior in 2022, if they're to finally end the longstanding Super Bowl drought that has caused famine throughout the fandom, truer words have not been said in that they absolutely can not take any breaths off, at all.
That begins with, you guessed it: making it rain in Southern California. And though it's still early, it looks like a storm front might be moving in as Gallmore's preparation becomes a bit of a rain dance in Oxnard.