Spagnola: Zero In On Defensive Line During NFL's Glitzy Return To L.A.

OXNARD, Calif. – As normally ho-hum first preseason games go, this one will be packed with a floodlight of excitement.

         First NFL football game of any kind in Los Angeles since 1994.

         First time the Rams have played back in the Los Angeles area since Christmas Eve of 1994 before all of 25,750 most lonely souls at Anaheim Stadium.

First NFL football game at the Los Angeles Coliseum since the Raiders vacated after the 1994 season.

First time the Dallas Cowboys have played any kind of football game at the Coliseum since beating the then LA Raiders 28-13 on Oct. 25, 1992 before 91,000 fans.

First time the Cowboys have played a football game against the Rams in the L.A. area since Dec. 7, 1986, losing 29-10 at Anaheim Stadium. That was the same game Cowboys Hall of Fame head coach Tom Landry was escorted to the locker room following telephone death threats, only to return early in the fourth quarter wearing a flak jacket.

And first time for the Cowboys to play a football game in the L.A. area since Super Bowl XXVII, that memorable 52-17 beating of Buffalo at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

Oh, there is certain to be pomp. Circumstance, too. Preseason or no, watch the stars come out.

There will be an expected crowd of some 90,000 on hand, the Coliseum loaded with retro Los Angeles Rams fans and those SoCal Cowboys fans who haven't seen their team play in their own backyard in more than two decades.

Good times.

But once all these glitzy wrappings are peeled away, here is what will be important to the Cowboys searching for recovery following last year's disastrous season:

"After 4-12," veteran tight end Jason Witten says, "this really embarks – kicks off this season.

"I'm excited. I wish I can play."

Then there is this: With veteran quarterback Tony Romo unlikely to take many snaps, if any, the Cowboys will begin opening the book on fourth-round draft choice Dak Prescott and first-year fulltime quarterback Jameill Showers, both expected to play extensively.

They, though, are vying for a spot on the 53-man roster and for no more than backup duty if the Cowboys' pursuit of a veteran backup quarterback does not come to fruition. At least the Dallas knows who its starter is, unlike too many NFL teams, and really the Rams included since selecting Jared Goff with the first pick in this year's draft.

That all will sort itself out for the Cowboys in due time. Plus if some upgraded health fortune shines on the team, unlike last year, maybe if a backup quarterback has to play this time around the Cowboys' Pro Bowl receiver will be healthy and quite possibly the running back position won't be as muddled as it was last season.

No, for me, as was stated when training camp began out here with the team's arrival on July 28, this whole process of getting ready for 2016 has to do with defense, along with defense, and plus the defense. Get the point?

And most specifically, the defensive line, one encumbered by those four-game suspensions to projected starters DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory (whose might be longer), and stocked with guys over those first four games owning just 22.5 career sacks. In fact, the player on the team with the most career sacks would be … Orlando Scandrick … a cornerback … with all of 9.5 sacks.

"I understand when someone comes up and says you have to be concerned about your defensive line," says Cowboys COO Stephen Jones said. "There is no proven production. At the same time, we think we have some very athletic players who are getting coached up and getting great reps."

Adding to the suspect defensive line group has been the number of guys missing in action. We mentioned Gregory. He had gone to inpatient treatment and has not reported to camp, and really isn't expected to join the team soon. Then there has been injuries and cautious treatment with guys coming off injuries and/or surgeries. That would include Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Cedric Thornton, Terrell McClain, Maliek Collins and Benson Mayowa.

So really, the Cowboys have not even been close to having what has been perceived to be their top eight defensive linemen all together in practice. But with many of those guys missing at times, some young guys such as fourth-round draft choice Charles Tapper, last year's fifth-round pick Ryan Russell, last year's rookie acquisition David Irving, first-year end Mike McAdoo and veteran Jack Crawford have certainly received upgraded reps in camp.

And just the other day that line certainly looked a lot better when Tyrone Crawford returned to practice at the 3-technique defensive tackle spot, along with Thornton and Terrell McClain rotating in at the nose tackle spot. The line certainly looked somewhat more encouraging when their returns to tackle allowed Jack Crawford to move from inside to strong side defensive end with Lawrence on the weak side. And that rotation sure will look a lot better when Mayowa returns, a possible weak-side starter at defensive end, and if Collins (fractured fifth metatarsal) finally gets back on the field.

"When I'm encouraged is when I see Tyrone in there and DeMarcus Lawrence and Terrell in there, just getting to see them together out there," Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli says. "Hopefully we'll get Benson next week or the week after."

But in the meantime, Marinelli is not one to pout in self-pity. He knows he has a huge project on his hands, and he remains optimistic, pushing these guys as hard as he can – and that's hard, believe me.

He just can't wait to see these young guys play against the Rams Saturday night.[embeddedad0]

"Oh, very much so. Want to see how these young guys go, want to see an emphasis on doing things the right way, playing hard and trying to get the ball out," Marinelli says of his pups.

Not sure if this might surprise you, but when asked who in particular has caught his eye, who he's anxious to watch Saturday night, this is Marinelli's answer:

"You know, I'm really anxious to see, like, David Irving, can't wait. He's done some things in this camp that have been really good. Just been consistent."

Irving, if you remember, was signed off the Kansas City practice squad Sept. 29 of last year, the undrafted rookie having missed his final season of eligibility at Iowa State. A week later he was playing against the New Orleans Saints in his NFL debut. He played 12 games last year before a wrist injury landed him on Injured Reserve. Not only has the 6-7 defensive end shown some pass-rush capability, he also has with his height shown a propensity to bat balls down at the line of scrimmage.

Keep an eye out for No. 95.

Same with No. 66 McAdoo and No. 99 Russell. And the Cowboys are hoping Tapper's back stiffness clears up in time to grab some snaps on Saturday. Tapper (No. 79), for a rookie, has also shown pass-rush skills, a unique ability to turn the corner with speed and power. He just needs to play.

"It's a work in progress," Jones says.

Well, all that real playing starts Saturday night. Finally we can really start judging if there indeed is any progress. These youngsters will be afforded the chance of a lifetime with so many veteran defensive linemen being held out of the game.

"I think when it's all said and done, we could surprise some people with the ultimate defensive line that we put in place," Jones said. "I certainly wouldn't bet against this group."

Should be a heckuva night in L.A.

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