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Spagnola: This Defense Just Can't Rest Its Case Right Now


OXNARD, Calif. – Camp is done.

         The work isn't.

         Not by a long shot.

         Especially on defense.

         And unfortunately that's exactly where we began this 3½-week venture here in training camp at the River Ridge Practice Fields with the Dallas Cowboys, isn't it? Concerned, worried, perplexed – pick the adjective of your anxious choice – over this defense, the one that effectively did in the Cowboys in 2014, wasting what was a highly productive offensive performance at the feet of the franchise's statistically worst defense in the 54-year history.

         Go back and look, right? Stated it plain and simple back in mid-July what this training camp would be all about: Defense . . . defense . . . defense.

         And here we are, 16 padded practices and one preseason game later, with the second one on deck 6 p.m. Saturday at AT&T Stadium against the Baltimore Ravens, and gosh darn it the Cowboys defense still is the big issue, and the reason is:

Photos from the Cowboys last final practice in Oxnard.

         We just don't know . . . yet.

         And how could we? The injuries just seem to compound faster than any miniscule interest we all receive from the banks these days. One after another after another.

         And I know the Cowboys talk all about the next man up, along with injury just provides opportunity, but let's get real. Injury to front-line players doesn't do anyone any real good.

         Because as Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, he's never one to express panic, actually allowed Thursday, the final day of training camp here in the daily, sunny 70-degree weather just off the Ventura Highway, "Those guys are starters for a reason, they are guys who play a lot for a reason, so as quickly as we can get those guys back it's good for our team."

           For me, there were like three guys the Cowboys simply could not afford to lose on what they were hoping to be a "developing" defense. And the Cowboys lost all three:

         First Sean Lee, my gosh all the way back during the first OTA session of the off-season, and for the season.

         Next second-round draft choice DeMarcus Lawrence, although a rookie, the one guy who seemed to have some unique pass-rush skills few others on this team have exhibited, and he's likely out for at least the first month of the season, maybe longer.

         And lastly Orlando Scandrick, the starting corner but more importantly nickel corner, too, and for the first four games of the season, suspended just this week after testing positive for this Molly deal, considered a performance enhancing drug and included on the NFL's extensive list of ingestion no-no's. And no matter this occurred in the early April offseason, before any practice or strength and conditioning activity began, speed is speed in the NFL's eyes, even though his of choice gave him absolutely no competitive advantage at the time.

         Seriously, could you have picked a worse trio to lose for any length of time?

         And this injury bug seems to be an epidemic with the blue shirts. You're not going to see starting defensive tackle Henry Melton Saturday night, he one of the guys recovering from surgery to end his season last year. Melton now has a groin strain, and by no means will the Cowboys rush him back even though he needs some snaps in preseason to knock off some rust.

         There is a 50-50 chance you won't see cornerback Sterling Moore, either, also bothered by a bad groin, and because of his sudden early-season importance – the guy expected to take Scandrick's place in the slot on the nickel defense for that first month – no way will they rush him back, either.

         There won't be any Brandon Carr out there Saturday, the Cowboys wanting to make extra sure the veteran corner is fully conditioned and ready to play after missing the first two weeks of camp attending to his dying mama.

         Fellow corner Morris Claiborne, who had just returned from missing several practices with knee tendinitis, now has a slightly strained A.C. joint in his shoulder, and chances are he won't play against the Ravens, either.

         George Selvie, the projected starter at the left defensive end spot, second in sacks last year for the Cowboys with seven, just returned to practice Wednesday after suffering a groin strain way back during the Blue-White scrimmage, and he's been working with the second team, behind Tyrone Crawford, he himself returning from last summer's Achilles tear that cost him the entire 2013 season.

         And wait, I'm not done yet. Remember this guy Terrell McClain, the free agent from Houston who was expected to challenge Nick Hayden for the starting one-technique defensive tackle spot? Well he suffered a high ankle sprain mere days into camp, and still hasn't returned to practice, and we'll see what happens to safety and special teams ace Jeff Heath, who twisted an ankle that second day against the Raiders.

         Enough? Wait, there is more. Matt Johnson, who needed only two practices to strain a hamstring, was in the process of going back to Dallas for a second opinion on a back that just might be the cause of all these hamstring strains. There's seventh-round draft choice Ahmad Dixon, star of that first preseason game, leading the team with 12 tackles, in the process of finding out if doctors will clear him after suffering a concussion against the Chargers.

         Another seventh-round choice, defensive end Ben Gardner, already is having his shoulder surgically repaired, and get this, you know that guy responsible for the 70-yard Chargers touchdown pass in that first preseason game, just signed cornerback Korey Lindsey, well he broke his hand against the Raiders and has been released injured.

         These are just the facts.

         So if you take all of this into account, how would you know if this defense is good enough to improve over last year's abysmal performance? How would you know if say a Melton is good enough to replace Jason Hatcher? How would you know if fourth-year veteran Rolando McClain, not playing any football since December of 2012, same as Crawford and nearly the same as Melton, can help anchor down a defense in need?

         And who knows if veterans such as Anthony Spencer (knee) will return any time soon or if Amobi Okoye, finally cleared to begin serious football workouts after having suffered a lengthy battle with NMDA receptor encephalitis, can get back to actually playing football.

         So Garrett was not being defensive nor evasive after being asked where his defense is after these 3½ weeks of training camp, saying, "Well I still think we are trying to develop an identity on this football team, really throughout our football team, and on defense as well. [embedded_ad]

         "You know one of the issues we've had on our football team is a number of our frontline guys haven't been in the lineup on a consistent basis, and that's really on all three levels, so hopefully we'll get some of those guys back over the next couple weeks and give them a chance to start playing before starting the season against San Francisco.

         "On certain days some guys have shown up, some parts of that defense have shown up, other days maybe not quite as good. We've been trying to make a personnel evaluation but some of those guys have been out of the lineup so it's hard to make a blanket statement."

         The lingering reflection from those two practices against the Raiders this week was eerily similar to the defense's biggest problem of last year: Not near enough pressure on the quarterback, and if you are able to watch Saturday night's game, that right there should be your focus: Can the Cowboys make life in the pocket for Joe Flacco and Tyrod Taylor and maybe Keith Wenning uncomfortable?

         That would immensely help a secondary depleted – for now – by injury, and in the long run help improve a defense that gave up 33 passing touchdowns last season, matching the most ever in franchise history. Keep an eye on the likes of Jeremy Mincey and rookie Davon Coleman and Crawford and Selvie and Kyle Wilber, the starting strong-side linebacker who figures to put his hand on the ground at right defensive end on nickel downs. Caesar Rayford, Ken Bishop, Martez Wilson and possibly Dartwan Bush. Let's see what they've got.

         Let's see if defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli plays a little more aggressively in this preseason game, possibly blitzing the likes of linebackers Bruce Carter, Justin Durant and Rolando McClain, that is if he is healthy enough to play, which there is a chance.

         Man that not until now are we mentioning the name of Tony Romo, set to play in his first competitive game since blowing out his back in last year's Game 15, should highlight the level of concern still hovering over this defense. You actually would have hoped Romo's return would have been the story of camp, the story of Preseason Game No. 2.

         But at this point, for those of us watching the past 3½ weeks of training camp, there would be more confidence in the quarterback's surgically-repaired back then there is in this defense, and to me that's a mouthful. I've seen Romo throw the ball, move around in the pocket. But I've yet to see all 11 projected defensive starters on the field at the same time.

         And truth be known, I'm not sure after 3½ weeks of training camp the Cowboys actually know who all those 11 starters will be. This is a work in progress, a lot of moving parts, and brother aren't you glad the season opener still is 23 days away, and that there still are three more preseason games to play to figure all this out instead of maybe having only two preseason games as some are inclined to insist is all that's needed.

         The camp stakes have been pulled up, but this defense has yet to develop any sturdy roots.

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