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Offseason | 2024

Spagnola: Linebacker a must need to stop run


FRISCO, Texas – Mike Zimmer is a really good defensive coordinator. He is not a miracle worker.

Neither is/was Dan Quinn, though we all thought he was for the better part of three seasons after in 2021 taking over a 2020 defense that was possibly the worst in Cowboys history. Or at least the one giving up the most single-season points in team record books, 473. That's 37 more than the previous opponent high of 436 in 2010.

And remember in that season the Cowboys getting off to a 1-7 start got head coach Wade Phillips, supposedly "the fixer," fired. Why, the third-most single-season points scored against the Cowboys occurred in 2013 with 432. This after giving up 400 in 2012 that got Rob Ryan fired. That 2013 debacle got defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin demoted with Rod Marinelli coming in to take over the next year.

 Quinn did coordinate the fifth-ranked defense in the NFL in 2023 when it comes to total yards. Problem was, in the Cowboys' six losses, opponents scored 199 points. That averages out to 33.3 a game. And even if we subtract the seven from the Packers' pick-6 in the 48-32 playoff loss to Green Bay, that still is 32 a game.

Zimmer has his work cut out for him, and as he said in Wednesday's media session, he's not coming here "to reinvent the wheel."

And since he's only been here a handful of days and now is closing in his defensive staff hires with a few recognizable names, sure would be difficult for him to make any sort of definitive declarations.

"First off, we've got to get all the coaches on the same page," Zimmer said. "We got to speak the same language, so the players can speak the same language. So when they come off the field, they speak the same language to me. … We've got to get the communication down first. The techniques down second. We got to make sure – got to figure out where the personnel is and put them in the right place, and then get them coached up and let them go.

"It's too early. I've been here a day and a half now, so it's too early to know a lot of things we have to do, but that's kind of the routine we have to go through."

Makes sense. But the one position Zimmer must figure out, along with the Cowboys personnel folks when it comes to player acquisition is …


Plain and simple.

And they sure don't need me to point that out.

By time the Cowboys played Green Bay in the playoff game, they had only one true "linebacker" on the roster. That being Damone Clark. Bless Markquese Bell's heart, the other starter, but he comes in at 6-2, 218. Them ain't linebacker dimensions, especially against a team wanting to play a fullback or go heavy like the Packers did with tight ends, playing their tight end corps for a combined 83 snaps in that playoff game.

Look, the Packers ran the ball 33 times in that loss. Only threw it 21. And in the other losses, the Cardinals ran 30 times. The 49ers, putting up 42 points, ran the ball 41 times. Philadelphia the first time around 33 times. And my gosh, Buffalo in the 31-10 thumping ran the ball 49 times. That is the most opponent run attempts against the Cowboys since the Bears in 1981 ran 50 times, the fourth most in Cowboys history, the record being 53 by the Giants in 1976.

So no surprise, as Packers quarterback Jordan Love pointed out to Micah Parsons during his podcast interview, that after seeing Buffalo run the ball successfully, matching the fifth-most times against the Cowboys in franchise history, they thought, "The key for us going into the game was we needed to run the ball." And run they did for 143 yards and three touchdowns.

 The Cowboys are in dire need of linebackers, especially if veteran Leighton Vander Esch decides to retire after suffering that second neck injury in the fifth game of the season. That would mean on this current roster the only linebackers left under contract with Clark are rookie free agent Tyrus Wheat, who played all of 31 defensive snaps, returning rookie DeMarvion Overshown, but coming off of his torn ACL in training camp, and, well …

Depends on what the Cowboys and Zimmer decide to do with Parsons.

Is he an undersized defensive end or is he the linebacker from Penn State the Cowboys thought talented enough to use the 12th pick on in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Now for sure Parsons wants to be a defensive end. Those guys who produce 14 sacks as he did in 2023 make the money. And this will be interesting. The Cowboys list Parsons as a linebacker on their end-of-year roster, and they must pick up his fifth-year option by May 2. But financial options are based on position, and since Parsons qualifies at the franchise tender rate, if he's a defensive end the fifth-year value is $23.348 million, while as a linebacker it's $21.922 million.

And as Love pointed out to Parsons during that interview, "When you have a great pass rush, you think a quarterback is going to get the ball out of his hand quickly. We were able to take advantage of that by getting some chips on you, slowing you down a little bit. D. Lawrence, slow him down a little bit. I knew I was going to have to hang in that pocket, take a couple hits from you, take a couple hits from those guys."

With the help of running back Aaron Jones chipping, Parsons, playing the majority of his 48 snaps at defensive end, was totally neutralized. The third-year All Pro finished with just two tackles, one QB hit and one pressure, according to the NFL's Next Gen Stats. Because of that, the Cowboys never sacked Love in the game and generated only three QB hits.

Great Parsons finished with a career-high 14 sacks and 91 QB pressures, according to team stats, but his 56 total tackles ranked just ninth on a defense yearning for upgraded linebacker play, just eight fewer than his career-high of 64 in his rookie year (2021). This while playing 80 percent of the 2023 defensive snaps – only cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and DaRon Bland playing more.

So again, one of the big defensive personnel decisions the Cowboys must make heading into free agency and the draft will center on Parsons. Seems he's best used as a standup linebacker, taking advantage of his skills to run to the ball, and then blitz him up the middle or off the edge outside a defensive end, where he will face smaller, less athletic guys picking him up in definite passing down situations.

Just get him away from all those double-teams to become a force against the run, instead of when playing defensive end, facing those offensive tackles outweighing him by like 60 to 80 pounds. And goodness knows this Cowboys defense must improve against the run.

Parsons at linebacker would lessen this No. 1 offseason priority. What you think, Zimm?

"Obviously he's a terrific player," Zimmer says of Parsons, who has led the Cowboys in sacks the past two seasons. "You watch him on tape, he makes some unbelievably athletic plays. I think one of the strengths I've always had is kind of have a vision for each player and try to figure out how to use them in the best way.

"One of the things I would hate to do right now is to tell you how I'm thinking about playing him without talking to him, (saying), 'OK, this is what I'm thinking about doing with you Micah.' I don't think I should tell you guys first before I tell him."

Quite fair enough.

But to me, this is the next biggest decision this franchise struggling so to stop the run needs to make.

First was replacing Quinn with Zimmer.

Now, what to do about Parsons?

Then, find me some legit linebackers.

Carry on.

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