IRVING, Texas – When a team finishes dead last in the NFL in a certain category, it tends to follow them for an entire year.
No, the Cowboys weren't just the worst defense in the league for the 17-week season of 2013. No, perception-wise, they are still the worst defense in the league going into this year. That's just how it works.
"That's what we are until we show people something different," safety J.J. Wilcox said. "The Cowboys are used to winning. Being last in anything – if you've got a competitive spirit – you've got to hate it. It's got to bother you."
The only way to change the perception is to change the reality. And that's what this defense gets a chance to do come Sunday afternoon at AT&T Stadium. While it's only one in a 16-game season, there won't be many tougher tests for a defense than what they'll face against a 49ers group that has been a steady, powerful unit that has its share of weapons.
Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree, Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin. Ever heard of them?
The 49ers' top skill players are no strangers to the league or the team's success. And they'll be tough to handle once again come Sunday.
While the Cowboys might be able to equal San Francisco player-for-player on offense, it's the Dallas defense that has to match up with them. And that will ultimately be the challenge.
This team doesn't have the big-named players that we've seen in the past. There is no more DeMarcus Ware or Jason Hatcher or Jay Ratliff or even Sean Lee for this season.
The bigger names on this defense all have question marks. Will Morris Claiborne be able to bounce back from playing no preseason games and fight through a shoulder injury?
What is Bruce Carter's role and can he finally be an impact player? There's really no guarantee that Carter is one of the three starting linebackers for Sunday's game.
And what about Henry Melton? Like Claiborne, he's also missed all of the preseason and most of last year with the Bears because of an ACL injury. Melton was held out of the exhibition games and his first action in nearly a year will be against the 49ers' tenacious offensive line. And who knows if Melton will even be in the starting lineup as well, although he should be in a healthy eight- or nine-man rotation.
Still, new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is just happy to have Claiborne and Melton now on the field.
"No question, when you have most of your guys – these are the guys that have been working with us all of the offseason – that's great," Marinelli said. "In any defense you play, when a guy comes in and you try to teach him, you lose a lot of your base. It's really good to have these guys coming back."
This defense certainly has question marks and Sunday is the time we start finding answers. Emphasis on "start" because one game won't change a full season of last year's reality. Don't forget the Cowboys somehow managed to dominate Nick Foles and LeSean McCoy for an afternoon in Philadelphia last season and did it without DeMarcus Ware on the edge. So every team can figure it out for a game. [embedded_ad]
And that's basically what Marinelli has been asked to do: Figure it out.
He doesn't have Orlando Scandrick for the first four games because of a suspension. He won't have DeMarcus Lawrence for at least eight games if not longer because of a broken foot. He won't have Anthony Spencer for probably the first two or three games. He won't have Lee at all this year and for now, he won't have the luxury of having a linebacking corps that has any continuity at all.
The same could be said about the defensive line as well, considering the foursome of Lawrence, Melton, George Selvie and Terrell McClain never materialized. Cowboys fans are going to see Davon Coleman and Ken Bishop play more than they ever expected for a Week 1 matchup. Kyle Wilber is going to rush off the edge more than anticipated, too.
Still, through it all, Marinelli's job is to figure it out. When asked if he's excited to finally get on the field and show the world how improved the defense is, and how certain guys will step in and make a difference, Marinelli was quick to respond:
"Yep." Maybe that's a sign it's time for less talk and more action. That action finally gets here Sunday.