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Finding 5%: Dallas Cowboys Secondary Can “Man Up” to Success

JJ Wilcox

Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli faces a simple yet difficult task.  How can he improve his unit while losing his best player, defensive end DeMarcus Ware?  He’s using the wave approach used so successfully by the ’90s Cowboys, adding several promising though unproven prospects to his line, hoping that the rush whole will be greater than the sum of its parts. The Dallas Cowboys secondary can also take a page from one particular ’90’s defense that faced a similar predicament and “manned up” on its way into the playoffs.

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In 1996 then coordinator Dave Campo was coming off a Super Bowl win. Yet, he and his defense looked vulnerable. They had played poorly during the ’95 stretch run. His linebackers in particular showed a lack of technique and discipline. His line, once eight deep and the envy of the league, was being decimated by free agency and injuries. Defensive tackle Russell Maryland joined the Raiders in free agency that spring, one year after Tony Casillas and Jimmie Jones had departed. This meant that the top three tackles from the Cowboys’ ’92 and ’93 units were gone. Campo still had Leon Lett and Chad Hennings as starters, but his tackle depth was non-existent.

Maryland’s flight was not the worst blow to Dallas’ line. Pro Bowl end Charles Haley’s trick back flared up during the title run and severely limited his reps and his effectiveness. In the offseason, the Cowboys drafted Kavika Pittman in the early 2nd round, knowing Haley’s time was limited. It’s a situation almost identical to the one the team experienced with Ware this year.

Dallas faced another problem in that troublesome linebacking corps. Starting middle linebacker Robert Jones joined the Rams and starting strong-side ‘backer Dixon Edwards left for Minnesota. This left Dallas with none of the trio who played in those back-to-back Super Bowl wins over the Bills. The linebackers had been spotty in ’95, but now Campo had to rebuild that unit almost from scratch. It’s another situation that mirrors the one Marinelli’s ’14 Cowboys face after losing Sean Lee to a knee injury.

Campo faced another headache in his secondary, where starting left corner Larry Brown joined Maryland in Oakland. The Cowboys had Kevin Smith, a superior corner, returning off injured reserve, but Smith had ruptured an Achilles tendon the year before. A return to his previous level of play was uncertain.  Again, this situation mirrors the one today, where Dallas is waiting for 1st round cornerback Morris Claiborne to get healthy and produce.

Campo’s Cowboys had run one of the league’s simplest schemes in their 3-from-4 season Super Bowl run. They played a system much like Marinelli’s. They played a wide-end 4-3 that relied heavily on the linemen to generate a rush. Fresh legs on the line let them wear teams down in 4th quarters of games Those Cowboys rarely blitzed and played a lot of quarters coverage zone behind their rush. They had lost a great deal of institutional memory when Maryland, Jones, Edwards and Brown walked out the door.

That ignores the fact that many league observers felt offensive coordinators had caught up to the Cowboys in ’95, despite their title. The 49ers, behind backup quarterback Elvis Grbac, had embarrassed Campo’s guys in a November blowout win in Texas Stadium. Coordinator Mark Trestman, the current Bears coach, exposed the Cowboys’ coverage vulnerabilities with a clever game plan that overloaded receivers to Deion Sanders side while putting Jerry Rice in the slot on the opposite side of the field. The alignment got Rice single coverage on linebackers and safeties and he abused players like Jones and nickel linebacker Bill Bates all afternoon.

The following week, Raiders backup Vince Evans again riddled the Dallas Cowboys secondary in a narrow shootout win that had been a Cowboys blowout at the half. In the playoffs, Packers honcho Mike Holmgren played his own version of Trestman’s plan. He also attacked the middle of the secondary, using a two tight end set that got speedy H-back Keith Jackson behind the Cowboys ‘backers for several big gains.

Dallas didn’t win that year by shutting opponents down. The Cowboys Cadillac offense outscored everybody and carried the team through January. Now, that shaky unit looked weaker. Yet, they finished the ’96 campaign ranked 3rd in scoring defense. Campo and the front office did it using some of the tactics this year’s Cowboys have copied.

1. — First, they made some effective budget free agent signings. Two Packers castoffs, middle linebacker Fred Strickland and safety George Teague, were signed. Dallas scooped up Broderick Thomas, whom the Vikings cut when they signed Edwards from Dallas’ roster. Each played a vital role in keeping the defense on level. Teague was a nickel safety and his steadiness let Dallas play All Pro safety Darren Woodson near the line of scrimmage on 3rd downs, either as a slot corner or as a nickel linebacker.

Strickland, who played most of his career in the 3-4, was strong against the run and was an effective blitzer, which let Campo rush his ‘backers more.

That was especially true with Thomas. He had been a star rusher at Nebraska but had disappointed at Tampa and Minnesota. Campo understood that he needed to make up Charles Haley’s pressure from a variety of sources and put Thomas and Strickland in situations where they could rush. Dallas played a lot of 3-4 fronts on 3rd downs that year, moving Thomas around. His best game came at San Francisco, where he rushed from a two-point stance and knocked Steve Young out of the game in the second quarter.

2. — Campo got breakout seasons from key veterans. Tony Tolbert, Haley’s sidekick in the title years, had his best season as a pro that year, notching 12.0 sacks. On the flank, Kevin Smith looked his old self. He played strong man coverage opposite Deion Sanders and snagged five interceptions. His strong man play let Campo make a second vital change to his back seven.

3. Campo took the liberty to break his schematic mold. I’ve already mentioned that the ’96 team shook up its rush, using more blitzing and stunting to flummox opposing quarterbacks. That required the faith to play a lot of man coverage behind them. Campo had two quality press corners in Sanders and Smith. He also had Darren Woodson, a linebacker-sized safety who could also play man. Woodson was the move piece in Dallas’ pressure secondary.

In the rematch against San Francisco that year, Smith played man on Jerry Rice whenever he lined up wide opposite Sanders, and Woodson, whom Campo played as the weakside linebacker that day (with Teague playing safety in Woodson’s normal spot) locked on to Rice any time the ‘Niners tried working him inside. This strategy held Rice to 49 yards.

The following week, Woodson worked with Thomas and Strickland in an out-of-character blitz-silly game plan that harrassed Brett Favre; Dallas sacked him four times and held the MVP to 164 net passing yards and six points. A month later, Woodson shadowed star rookie Terry Glenn through the shallow zones on pass plays. Woodson again played a lot of ball close to the line, and helped hold Curtis Martin to 90 yards. Campo’s guys held the eventual AFC Champion Patriots to six points in a tight 12-6 win.

Similar moves and breaks will be needed to get the 2014 Cowboys defense back as a competitive force. Up front, imports Henry Melton, Jeremey Mincey and Terrell McClain will try to replicate the production Thomas and Strickland brought to the ’96 front. Melton steps into Leon Lett’s old role and will be called upon to generate interior pressure. On the flanks, prize rookie Demarcus Lawrence may be used by Marinelli the way Campo used Broderick Thomas. Lawrence, at 251 lbs. is too light to be an every down end this season, but could maximize his worth as a situational rusher whom Marinelli can float across his fronts.

The big question will be who plays the Tolbert role? Which unsung veteran will jump from the potential category and put up a respectable or better number? Will Tyrone Crawford come through off his Achilles injury? Will Ben Bass finally go from camp standout to game standout? Could they perhaps combine to fill the need? Whomever he may be, Dallas needs him to announce himself and fast, or they face another season of 8-8.

In the linebacking corps, Marinelli may need to rush his ‘backers more, as Campo did with Thomas and Strickland. Bruce Carter and Devonte Holloman are both effective going forward and could throw some sacks onto the team total.

In the current Dallas Cowboys secondary, Marinelli has the talent to do a ’96 redux and play heavier doses of press coverage. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne were both acquired for their press skills. Even if Claiborne can’t beat out Orlando Scandrick for the starting job on the right edge, his coverage skills will give Dallas three solid press options when the team deploys in nickel.

Look at the Eagles win in October for the best 2013 example of how a pressure Marinelli defense would work. Dallas had perhaps its best health of the year that day. DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher were good up front. Lee was in the pivot.  Dallas had a complete defensive spine, for one of the few times the last two years. That emboldened Monte Kiffin to call a lot of early blitzes that rattled Nick Foles. Carter was the pressure man for many of them.

In the secondary, all three Cowboys corners were available and able. What’s more, J.J. Wilcox was hale, and he and Barry Church took away all the Eagles deep options that afternoon. Wilcox made the play of the game, and of his abbreviated season, when he raced across the back of the end zone to tip away a Foles bomb to Desean Jackson.

That team was already trying and to some extent, succeeding with a change-up, press/pressure 4-3. Injuries to Lee, Ware, Wilcox and Claiborne took them away from that plan. The 2014 Cowboys may have the talent to run this plan start to finish, provided that the serious injuries end with Lee.

That could be enough to get this team into January. Last year’s Super Bowl Broncos gave up 24.9 points per game, only 2.5 points fewer than the Cowboys. As I’ve written earlier, Marinelli’s guys don’t have to play to the level of that Campo squad. They only need to be about four to five points better. Getting to 22.0 points a game could take this team pretty far in the soft NFC East.

It’s going to take some luck, some surprises and a great deal of good health, but it’s been done before, albeit by a different squad.

Can this group do it again?

Rafael Vela
Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for
Rafael Vela