Higher Dividends Needed From Nickel Defense

Getting better on third down should not be an impossible job for the Cowboys. They only need to look back to the 2005 season when they finished with a 34.6-percent third-down efficiency. That's more like it, not the 43.9 of last year, nearly 10 percentage points higher. In fact, the club would have finished with a much more respectable percentage last year if not for the final five games, when the defense collapsed, and is evidenced by a third-down efficiency of 55 percent for those games. In fact, the final seven opponents all converted at no less than 50 percent.

This is not to suggest all sacks come on third down, but the Cowboys' sack total last year dipped from 2005, too, dropping from an OK total of 37 to just 34 sacks in 2006. The goal needs to be at least 40 sacks, and that's something the Cowboys haven't achieved since recording 47 in 1994. But in Phillips' 30-year coaching career, no matter where he was or if he was the head coach or an assistant coach, his defenses recorded at least 40 sacks in a season just more than two-thirds of the time.

Since 1996, the last time the Cowboys won a playoff game, only twice have the Cowboys finished with more than the 18 interceptions they totaled last year. That would have been the 24 in 1999, Deion Sanders' last season with the team, and 19 in 2002. Roy Williams led the team with five picks and rookie safety Pat Watkins was second with three. But starting corners Terence Newman and Anthony Henry only combined for three picks.

Don't Be Surprised If: Patrick Watkins comes in on the nickel defense for Williams when he moves up into a linebacker position. Watkins ended up starting nine games as a rookie last year, finishing second on the team with three interceptions. His range should make him an asset on the nickel.

Fitting In Projected Starters:
Terence Newman (Slot) -- Will continue to man the toughest position on the nickel, taking the slot receiver.
Aaron Glenn (CB) -- Still coming in for Newman to take his spot at left cornerback.
Anthony Henry (CB) -- His aggressive play at right corner will be a huge asset if the pass-rush pressure increases.
Ken Hamlin (S) -- Must become the take-charge guy back there and make sure everything stays in front of him.
Pat Watkins (S) -- Will play with more confidence his second season, and is penciled in as the nickel safety.
Roy Williams (LB) -- Moving up from safety to linebacker does not absolve him from coverage responsibilities. He can't blitz all the time.
Bradie James (LB) -- Has dropped 20 pounds in the off-season, which should help him in coverage.
DeMarcus Ware (DE) -- Led team last year with 11½ sacks, and might total even more this year with a legitimate, 16-game threat on the other side.
Anthony Spencer (DE) -- If he does nothing else as a rookie, he must become a pass-rushing threat at defensive end on this unit.
Greg Ellis (DT) -- The thought of rushing from inside on third down doesn't thrill Ellis, but he's such a team player he will warm to the idea.
Jay Ratliff (DT -- Ended up tied for third on the team with four sacks and tied for the lead in QB pressures with seven, all mostly recorded when playing inside on the nickel.
Solid Backups:
Keith Davis (LB) - Has been working behind Roy Williams at the nickel linebacker spot.
Kevin Burnett (LB) - Don't be surprised if he mounts a serious challenge to grab a nickel linebacker spot.
Nate Jones (CB) - Don't forget the Cowboys utilized him as a cover guy in the slot toward the end of last season, playing the opposite side from Newman.
Bobby Carpenter (LB) - Will be the nickel utility man, able to play one of the linebacker spots but might line up as a pass-rush defensive end at times, too.
Jason Hatcher (DE/DT) - Can play either spot, and might be able to push Ratliff for playing time in the middle.
Junior Glymph (DE) - His pass-rush skills might earn him some snaps on the nickel if someone needs a rest.
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