STAR: Cowboys Defense Still Has The Same Questions

(This story originally appeared in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click *here.)*

So here we are, the Cowboys finishing up the last of the allotted three weeks of Organized Team Activity (OTA) workouts.

They will conduct their lone mandatory minicamp for players under contract this coming week, June 16-18, and then that will be it for the majority of activity out at The Ranch until the wheels go up July 28 on their charter flight heading to Oxnard, Calif., for training camp.

But for a team coming off its first winning season in five years, going 12-4 and capturing the first NFC East Division title and first playoff game since the 2009 campaign, it's almost as if time has stood still.

As if it's same time next year.

Right?

Just as it was a year ago, so much is expected of the Cowboys offense. The same that one helped the team score 467 points last season, second most in franchise history, only bettered by the 479 of 1983. And while many seem to be fretting about the loss of NFL rushing champ DeMarco Murray, as long as Tony Romo is here and healthy, and Dez Bryant is here and healthy, and this offensive line remains intact, you likely will be able to count on the Cowboys averaging the 29 points a game they did in 2014 when posting at least 30 points in 10 of 16 contests.

And truth be told, as well as they did rushing the ball, they indeed left "meat on the bone" in the running game (right, Joe?) in doing so.

But now, heading toward the 2015 season, what concerns you most about this team?

The darn defense … again.

Same as last year when most everyone was predicting doom and gloom since the Cowboys were coming off the worst single-season defensive performance in franchise history in 2013, when they somehow still managed an 8-8 record. Why, they had questions galore:

Who was going to replace the injured Sean Lee?

Could Rolando McClain restart the career he walked away from at Thanksgiving of 2012?

What would Henry Melton do coming back from ACL surgery?

Was there another option at the all-important 3-technique position on the D-Line to replace the departed Jason Hatcher?

Who was going to put pressure on the quarterback without DeMarcus Ware around?

Could Bruce Carter up his game?

Would they get anything out of Josh Brent?

Could J.J. Wilcox really become a starting free safety?

And this Rod Marinelli guy, would he really be the answer to coordinating a defense coming off a 32nd-ranked season since he was the defensive line coach and right-hand man to then coordinator Monte Kiffin at the time?

On and on and on, to the point that the majority seemed to be predicting a 6-10 finish for the Cowboys based on this reason alone, dismissing how good the offense might be.

"This time last year we didn't know what we had," Marinelli honestly said.

But viola, the Cowboys defense jumped from 32nd to 19th in total yards, and the wins vaulted from three consecutive seasons of eight to the seven-year high of 12, only the 1992 and 2007 teams ever winning more regular-season games in club history (13).

So better, but certainly not a finished product. Not when you figure the Cowboys only won one game, regular season or playoffs, when scoring less than 26 points. And, they had to go into overtime to do that, beating Houston, 20-17.

But in this game of NFL football, one year's success does not beget the next year's success.

"It's a work in progress," reminded Marinelli, who is well aware that there seems to be this assumption floating around that the defense will automatically make another huge leap forward. "Every year you have to start over.

"No assumptions."

Here is the last time in Cowboys history so many bought into what turned out to be fool's gold, and veteran linebacker Sean Lee remembers it so well. He was a rookie then in 2010, a second-round pick out of Penn State. The Cowboys' prospects seemed so bright. They had gone 13-3 in 2007, followed by a 9-7 record in 2008, losing two of the three games Romo missed due to injury. Then they went 11-5 in 2009, winning a playoff game, their first since the 1996 campaign.

They were on their way, by golly.

"Never forgot the 1-7 start we got off to," Lee reminded, knowing that false start got head coach Wade Phillips fired midseason and solidified the Cowboys' first losing effort in six years (6-10). "All the talk doesn't matter. You've got to go out and do it."

No doubt about it. Lee even reiterated the words of head coach Jason Garrett, seemingly his mantra for the coming season – 2014 is dead and gone. The 12-4 record is moot. The oh-so close call of advancing to the NFC title game was buried for good near the end zone in Green Bay that January day. Laurels in the NFL burn faster than dead underbrush.

"There is an approach that we have to get better," co-captain Jason Witten said. "It's not easy."

No it's not, not when so many questions seemingly continue to swirl around this defense.

Oh sure, the Cowboys have added some pieces to the puzzle. Signed Greg Hardy in free agency. Re-signed Rolando McClain in free agency. Have Lee returning following his ACL surgery. Drafted defensive back Byron Jones in the first round. Drafted defensive end Randy Gregory in the second round. Are certainly counting on having last year's second-round pick, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, healthy for more than the second half of his rookie season. Are counting on last year's emerging Tyrone Crawford to up his game even further at defensive tackle.

When Marinelli sensed so much giddiness from media questions that first week of OTAs, all based on potential, he said, trying to add some perspective to the budding optimism of getting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, "We're rushing the air pretty good, but when we get in pads that's when it counts. … We're beating air."

And when checking on the progress of them Cowboys against air after the second week of OTAs – practices are conducted in helmets, jerseys and shorts, very limited contact – Marinelli said, "We're ahead of the air … but the bags got us a couple of times."

See, because when you really analyze the state of this defense, there are still swirling questions facing the unit. Let us ask:

Sure, the Cowboys signed Hardy, the former Pro Bowl defensive end, but after appealing his 10-game suspension for "conduct detrimental to the league" and as of late last week still awaiting a decision, how many games will he indeed be eligible to play?

Sure, Lee is returning, seemingly good as new, but he's switching positions in this 4-3 defense, going from the middle to weak-side linebacker spot, admitting himself, "I have stuff to prove and I've been here now six years." So how well will he play after missing an entire season, and might this be the first year of his career he remains healthy for all 16 games?

Sure, McClain is back, but the Cowboys, remember, must have had reservations about him since he was signed to just a one-year deal, and much of his money dependent on how many games he actually plays. Not to mention he already had missed the first two weeks of OTAs after having his troublesome knee scoped about a month back. How much can they count on a guy who seemingly always has something?

Sure, the Cowboys have added Byron Jones, but as we know with first-round draft choices, you project, but can never count on anything until seeing it. And then there's where he will exactly fit in.

Same with Gregory, and remember two things: First, he's only played three years of college football, and one of those was at the JUCO level. And two, defensive ends generally don't light up the league their rookie year, last year's highest drafted true 4-3 defensive end Anthony Barr finishing with all of four sacks. So what sort of presence will Gregory have?

Sure, Lawrence began showing signs of getting to the quarterback at the end of last year, but again, in seven regular-season games he finished with but one sack, so how well will he play figuring to be a fulltime starter but moving from the right side to the left?

Sure, Jeremy Mincey returns, the guy who led the team last year with six sacks, but did you realize those six were the fewest since Greg Ellis had six in 2001, matching the lowest team-leading total since Bob Lilly had five in 1963?

 Sure, former first-round pick Morris Claiborne seems to be ahead of projections after having both patellar tendons repaired less than a year ago. But can he stay healthy, and if he does, how much will he add to a secondary that was somewhat iffy last season, though having to deal with limited pressure on opposing quarterbacks?

And while it seems the Cowboys aren't drawing a line in the sand on cornerback Brandon Carr's contract, pointing toward the veteran being here in 2015 – there could be an adjustment, lowering his base salaries, but possibly upping his security as they once did with offensive tackle Doug Free ¬– can he pick up where he left off last year, playing his best football over the final month of the season?

Enough?

See there, that's a whole lot of questions if you happen to be one of those counting on this defense taking the next step, and as was pointed out last year, you can't always count on affirmative answers when facing that many questions.

But if this defense is to indeed take that next step, if Dallas is to capitalize on last year's success, here's the biggest question needing a positive response:

Can the Cowboys generate more pressure on opposing quarterbacks?

Look, last season's total of 28 sacks sure isn't enough. And for perspective, think about this:

• The 28 ranked the Cowboys 28th in the league.

• The 28 is the franchise's lowest single-season output since 24 in the 5-11 years of 2001 and 2002.

• The 28 is the franchise's fourth lowest single-season total since sacks became an official NFL statistic in 1982, and only three more than the third fewest of 25 in 2000.

• The 28 were 26 behind Baltimore's league-leading 54.

And doesn't it still stick in your craw that a limping-around Aaron Rodgers was only sacked one time (once!) while attempting 35 passes in the Cowboys' 26-21 NFC Divisional Round playoff loss to Green Bay?

While total yards is one measuring stick of a defense, Marinelli puts a premium on pressure in the pocket. Because, as he points out, the most important defensive stat is takeaways, and when you consider that, well, the Cowboys were darn good creating turnovers, finishing with 31, second only to Houston's 34. And that was with 10 fewer sacks.

Imagine what might have been if the Cowboys were getting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, because as Marinelli insists, "Most turnovers occur in the pocket," meaning generated by sack-fumbles or pocket pressure being the impetus for interceptions.

Mincey smiles when asked about the need for more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, simply saying, "Pressure breaks pipes."

You get the message.

But wasn't this the same worry we all had a year ago when the Cowboys released DeMarcus Ware and decided the price tag was far too high to re-sign aging defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who just so happened to lead the team with 11 sacks in 2013, although at that time the fewest sacks to top the squad since Ware and Ellis each had eight in 2005?

So here we are mid-June, the start of training camp nearly seven weeks away, and no matter what the Cowboys have done trying to improve this team – and in the NFL if you're not getting better you're getting worse – we still seem to have these same question from a year ago lurking overhead:

How good will this Dallas defense be?

There are some insisting the Cowboys will need to score 30 points a game to post a record as good as last year's since there seems to be so many questions about the defense … still. Well, heck, they nearly did that last season, coming up just 13 points short of that 480-point projection.

So, what's new?

But, what about this? What if the Cowboys don't give up at least 28 points the seven times they did last year, accounting for three of their four losses?

What if the Cowboys could win a game scoring no more than 17 points, something they've only done three times in the past 80 games? Last season they lost their four regular-season games when scoring no more than 17 points – three 17s and a 10 – while a fifth 17-point-or-less output did push them into overtime for that victory over Houston.

What if the Cowboys don't give up the 26 points they did to the Packers in the playoff loss?

And here is a novel idea: Instead of the Cowboys offense supposedly having to protect the defense through time of possession – they averaged 4 minutes, 44 seconds time of possession more than their opponents in 2014 – what if the defense improved to the point of putting this potent offense back on the field sooner?

Hard to believe, isn't it? A year, a 12-4 record and a playoff victory later, and we're still asking the same questions about this defense.

And believe me, we don't know the answers … yet.

Same time next year.

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