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Grading The Cowboys (Pt. 3 of 4)

In the third instalment of our “Grading The Cowboys” we are going to look at the defense. Heading into 2010, the Cowboys defense was supposed to be the anchor or the team. After finishing 2nd in scoring defense in 2009, it looked like Wade Philliips’ group was ready to hold the fort as the Cowboys aimed for a Super Bowl. As we all know, it didn’t happen that way. The defense was a large reason for the Cowboys horrendous start and terrible season.

Defensive Line – Marcus Spears, Jay Ratliff, Igor Olshansky, Stephen Bowen, Jason Hatcher, Josh Brent – C-

This might be one of the biggest underachieving units on the Cowboys team. The Cowboys finished the season 12th against the run averaging 4.3 yds/carry, which isn’t great, but it isn’t terrible either. The problem seemed to be that they were unable to stop teams when they really needed to, at least in the first half of the season. While the line was plagued by injuries, they were also not as successful in keeping the offensive linemen from getting to the second level against the Cowboys linebackers. Although, the run defense improved slightly when Jason Garrett took over the head coaching position and Paul Pasqualoni took over as defensive coordinator, the pass rush was still very inconsistent. Last year’s sack leader on the line, Jay Ratliff, registered on 3.5 sacks and 0 tackles for a loss this past season. While teams were able to prevent Ratliff from doing much damage the rest of is teammates did not step up to take advantage of Ratliff’s constant double teams. As a result, quarterbacks had all day to through and it required the Cowboys to blitz often just to get some pressure.

Marcus Spears missed the second half of the season with a calf injury and wasn’t really noticed. With Spears, Hatcher, and Bowen all becoming unrestricted free agents, the Cowboys will have a lot of decisions to make on the line. Other than Ratliff and Bowen, nobody really stepped up this season and a revamp might be in order.

Linebackers – DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Bradi James, Keith Brooking, Sean Lee, Victor Butler, Jason Williams, Brandon Williams – B

The Linebackers were probably the most consistent of any of the positions of the Cowboys roster. They weren’t terrific but they were solid. DeMarcus Ware had another solid statistical season finishing with 15.5 sacks and was very close to a bunch more. Ware again proved that he is next to impossible to stop. Thanks to the poor pass rush from Anthony Spencer, teams continued to chip Ware with a tight end or running back to try to slow him down. While Ware had a good year, Spencer did not. Spencer, while always strong against the run, was expected to pick up where he finished a year ago. Spencer closed with 6 sacks in his last 6 games in 2009 and then recorded only 5 in all of 2010. To say Spencer’s pass rushing ability was disappointing would be an understatement. Spencer was consistent against the run, which is his strength, but if the defense is to improve, he is one of the players that they need the biggest improvement from.

Victor Butler and Brandon Williams got some time but did little to assure fans that they are capable of stepping up and playing more minutes behind Spencer and Ware. Butler seems to be the more polished, but he had a tendency to disappear every once in a while.

In the middle, Brooking and James did their job as they have for the last couple of seasons now. Brooking was starting to show his age, but made a game saving sack in week 3 against Houston which preserved the Cowboys’ only win in the first 8 games. James had another great year finishing with 118 tackles, and 2 forced fumbles. The surprise of the linebacking core had to come from rookie Sean Lee. Drafted in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft, Lee battled injuries throughout training camp and the early part of the season. He came on strong in the last 8 games and earned a lot of playing time spelling Brooking and James.

Secondary – Terrance Newman, Mike Jenkins, Orlando Scandrick, Bryan McCann, Alan Ball, Gerald Sensabaugh, Barry Church, Danny McCray – D+

This unit takes the fall for the entire defense. It may not be fair, but the Cowboys secondary was the most inconsistent part of the entire team. One week they were lights out and then next they couldn’t cover anyone. It was a roller-coaster ride all season long. Newman and Jenkins, both coming off Pro Bowls in 2009, were all over the map and neither could be counted on to make a big play. Jenkins attracted more flags than a Cowboys corner in years. He lost confidence and aggression and started to play someone else’s game. Scandrick didn’t help his position mates much either. While he is often in the right position, Scandrick seems to have a hard time playing the ball. McCann was solid in his rookie season. While he needs some work he did show that he is capable of making some big plays.

The safety position might have no starters returning next year. The Cowboys were not happy with either Ball or Sensabaugh. Both were inconsistent, and in some cases a liability last season. Ball was almost invisible in the running game and Sensabaugh was out of position too much in the passing game. While Church and McCray offered some depth, neither was ready to step in and start. Look for the Cowboys to upgrade at safety in the draft.

Next Up: Special Teams

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