OXNARD, Calif. – Base times it's Lawrence, Hayden, T. Crawford, Hardy.
Nickel times it's Lawrence, T. Crawford, Hardy, Gregory.
Sometimes it's Lawrence, J. Crawford, Mincey, Gregory.
Other times a Gardner might be in there or an Edwards or Russell.
The mad scientist of "rushmen," Rod Marinelli, is mixing and matching, alternately prodding and scolding, doing his level best to right the biggest reason why the Dallas Cowboys finished with the worst defense in franchise history in 2013 and why their 2014 season died a systematic death on the Frozen Tundra of Green Bay in the playoffs.
"I want to find guys who want to be a pass rusher," Marinelli will tell you right up front. "I don't care what they look like, where they're at, where they line up to rush, where they came from. I don't care. Never bothers me how they got here …
Why, Jason Garrett has replaced last year's signature T-shirts, "FIGHT." this season with "We Do," meaning only this team can determine its identity, its future. But if it was up to Marinelli, if it was the former military vet designing a more parochial slogan for solely his defensive troops, this slogan born from an interview with U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch surely would have been altered to this:
Hence, this defensive front line will be the bottom line if the 2015 Cowboys improve, and improvement doesn't necessarily mean constructing a better record than 12-4, since only two teams in the Cowboys' 55-year history ever have turned in better records (13-3). To me, improvement means reaching the NFC Championship Game.
To do so, this defense must improve. And if this defense is to improve then the Cowboys must produce a highly more effective pass rush than they did a year ago when they finished with a mere 28 sacks, ranking them 28th in the NFL, which was also their lowest single-season sack total since the 24 of 2002. In fact, the only times the Cowboys had registered fewer than 28 sacks since 1991 (23) – now you know why the considered chancy trade in 1992 for Charles Haley – were the three consecutive seasons of 5-11 from 2000-02.
Yeah, that bad.
So no wonder Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was saying this on NFL Network earlier in the week when asked about spending five of their first six draft picks this year on defensive guys; why they are taking a chance on Greg Hardy; and why they selected first-round talent Randy Gregory in the second round when everyone else up to the 60th pick in the draft had shied away from the somewhat troubled defensive end from Nebraska:
"It didn't go unnoticed, and I'm not being trite, but we had a limited, limited [Aaron] Rodgers in a game where our next stop could have been the game before the Super Bowl, and we couldn't get to him last fall in the playoffs – couldn't get to Rodgers," Jones says, referencing the 26-21 NFC Divisional Round playoff loss to Green Bay. "And it's very easy to deduct from that, hey man, you need some pressure."
Hey man, ya'll can worry about the running game. Ya'll can worry about Tony Romo being 35 years old or the second receiver or the secondary or the backup swing tackle.
But here is all Jerry knows, along with anyone following along closely. In that playoff game in Green Bay, the Cowboys rushed for 145 yards, 123 of those and a touchdown from DeMarco Murray. They scored 21 points, and were a replay-review reversal from likely 28. Romo threw for 191 yards and two touchdowns by completing 15-of-19 passes for a 143.6 passer rating.
But – and this is a ginormous but – that Rodgers guy Jones refers to threw the ball 35 times for 316 yards and had more touchdown passes (three) than times sacked (twice). And as Jerry readily pointed out, he was basically running around on just one good leg, struggling through a serious calf injury. They only hurried him three other times. That's it.
And essentially why that was it for the Cowboys, too.
Hey man, you need some pressure.
With one week's worth of training camp practices in the books that pressure is coming, believe me, and don't let anyone dismiss the potential of an upgraded pass rush because of raw results out here at River Ridge. Please take into account what this defensive front is dealing with:
- All-Pro tackle Tyron Smith.
- All-Pro guard Zack Martin.
- Pro Bowlers Smith, Martin and center Travis Frederick.
- The return of tackle Doug Free.
- A highly-motivated guard Ron Leary to keep his job.
Do we recall hearing "best offensive line in the NFL" all of last year?
Don't believe me on this percolating potential? Then let's check in with the guy having to deal with what appears to be a much improved defensive front, quarterback Tony Romo, the guy who sees all during these team portions of practice.
"They are better than they are looking, I'll tell you that right now," Romo says.
That's right, he sees it. He sees the talent of Greg Hardy, though unfortunately for the Cowboys facing a four-game suspension to start the season – the same guy of whom Marinelli says, "I love him." Romo sees rookie Randy Gregory's "freaky ability" to get to the quarterback. He's seen DeMarcus Lawrence, seemingly overnight – OK, over the offseason – go from a raw rookie to a man after the past six months in the weight room.[embeddedad0]
"That guy is a load," Romo says of Hardy, the same adjective Marinelli used to describe one of the best pass rushers in the league who missed the final 15 games last season in Carolina after being placed on the Commissioner's exempt list for being involved in a domestic abuse case. And that right there – *load – *is the identical adjective of my choice after one day here seeing him cave in what seemed like the entire offensive line when coming down hard from the backside.
And that doesn't even account for last year's sack leader Jeremy Mincey, albeit his total a modest six, or for Jack Crawford, the British-raised defensive end they have moved to the 3-technique defensive tackle behind Tyrone Crawford, the guy everyone seems to be predicting big things from. Now Jack saw himself as a defensive end, not particularly enjoying all the commotion at the defensive tackle he played some last season before fracturing his thumb to land on IR.
How'd Marinelli convince Jack he's tailor-made for his 3-techinque tackle spot?
"Get inside," he said with a smirk. "I'm not good on convincing."
The Cowboys defense did jump from 32nd in 2013 to 19th this past season. Good, but not great. The impetus for the jump was takeaways. The Cowboys somehow had 31, second in the NFL to only Houston's 34. Somewhat of an anomaly when you have so few sacks. Normally they go hand in hand.
"Takeaways – No. 1, that will never stop," Marinelli said of the importance ladder. "It's always takeaways – the first thing we talk about, the last thing we talk about, every day. That is a proven statistic.
"But the better the pass rush, the better chance for takeaways. Sack-fumbles, tips, balls out quick. Sixty-five percent of all takeaways start in the pocket. That has been charted for the last 20 years. And we got ours last year with the outside seven more or less. I know one thing, when you get the rush, it creates a lot of opportunities for takeaways.
"See what I'm saying?"
You bet, coach, your persuasion is crystal blue.