Measuring Stick

They aren't going to stop in the hole. They are going to run you over." 

Keys to the 3-4 defense is versatility and pressure. You can disguise who's coming and who's covering. And you can bring pressure. The Steelers, they bring pressure. Check this out: The team's linebacking corps accounted for 27½ of the Steelers 47 quarterback sacks. More than half. And the team leaders were Porter (10½) and Haggans (nine). Those are the outside guys. 

Let's compare. The Cowboys linebackers accounted for 13½ sacks, and to think, Ware, had eight of them. That means all the other linebackers on the team combined for 5½ sacks. Not good enough. 

But it's not just about sacks, either, especially on the outside. Those guys must hold up against the run, and Steelers must have, since they were the third-ranked run defense in the NFL, giving up just 85.5 a game. The Cowboys finished 15th, giving up 116.3 a game. 

"They're like freaks of nature" is the way Farrior describes linebackers needed for the perfect 3-4 defense - guys big enough to hold up on the line of scrimmage and unprotected in the middle against the run, but fast enough to not only get to the quarterback and hold down the edge against the run, but also cover, not only tight ends, but also running backs, too. 

Guys like Ware. James, too. Now the Cowboys need two more - at least. 

"Our linebackers have speed," LeBeau says. "Trust me, it's really nice to have it." 

Now the Cowboys, they began the season with speed. Ware and James can run. So could Dat Nguyen, until he suffered his injury. Al Singleton had average speed, but at least he and Nguyen brought NFL experience. Shanle and Fowler can run, but had little experience, and need to get more physical. 

So the Cowboys lose Singleton eight games into the season, basically lose Nguyen after Game 3, and were running around out there with mere pups at the most crucial position in the 3-4 defense. 

"Oh yeah," Farrior says, "if you don't have the personnel to run a 3-4 defense, it would be hard." 

Now Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells seems sold on running the 3-4, and for all the aforementioned reasons: Versatility - ability to disguise which guys are blitzing and which guys are covering - and the amount of pressure you can put on an offense from a variety of formations and fronts. But it's a man's man defense, where individual battles must be won. And you need athletes, and the Cowboys need more of them. 

Ware definitely is a keeper. So is James. But as for the others, well, we'll see. You have Singleton coming back from his shoulder injury, and who knows, he'll be in his 10th season next year. Nguyen looks like he's done. Fujita becomes an unrestricted free agent, and he seems like more of a depth/special teams player. Shanle and Fowler seem to be nice role guys. 

And as for Kevin Burnett, who knows. He seems to have the athletic ability to play linebacker anywhere in this 3-4 defense. But can he stay healthy, and how much can you count on a guy who barely played his rookie season and then suffered a torn ACL the final week of the season? 

So if the Cowboys are going to continue down this 3-4 road, they need either better players or more production from existing players if this is going to work. 

"You've got to be committed to playing it," Horton said of the 3-4. "You've got to mold guys. It's not something that is going to happen overnight. There definitely is a transition period." 

Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they are in the middle of that transition period, so if you are looking for reasons why the Cowboys aren't here this week, or what needs to be done to get to Super Bowl XLI, then put a big red circle around the linebacker position. 

Improvement is needed. Much improvement. Just look at the Steelers.     

   
  Foot traffic has picked up significantly around the Media Center downtown. So has the curiosity quotient. Starting to look like a Super Bowl around here. 

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