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2011 Cowboys Team Preview: Pass Rush Needs Improvement to Live Up to Expectations

Erik Siegrist

Erik Siegrist

Erik Siegrist is an FSWA award-winning columnist who covers all four major North American sports (that means the NHL, not NASCAR) and whose beat extends back to the days when the Nationals were the Expos and the Thunder were the Sonics. He was the inaugural champion of Rotowire's Staff Keeper baseball league. His work has also appeared at Baseball Prospectus.

DALLAS COWBOYS
By Erik Siegrist

STATE OF THE FRANCHISE


The Wade Phillips Era in Dallas ended with neither a bang nor a whimper, but more of a sickening thud. Preseason Super Bowl hopes took a nose dive after a slow start and then bottomed out entirely, when a missed blitz pickup against the Giants in Week 6 resulted in a broken clavicle for Tony Romo. The team essentially gave up on Phillips after that (not that they were really buying in up until that point), but did show a little more spirit late in the season after Jerry Jones bowed to the inevitable, when he showed Phillips the door and handed the reins over to offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. Garrett's 5-3 finish to the season cemented his spot as more than just a placeholder coach, and he should be patrolling the Dallas sidelines for the foreseeable future.

In the offseason Garrett practiced some addition by subtraction on the offense. The club parted ways with fan whipping boy Roy Williams and the fading Marion Barber, not to mention 40 percent of their starting offensive line in the huge but immobile Leonard Davis and Marc Colombo, while the biggest acquisition on defense was new coordinator Rob Ryan, who brings his hair-on-fire blitz packages over from Cleveland. The team's biggest weakness though, a secondary which could seemingly neither cover nor tackle in 2010, was barely addressed. Owner/GM Jones did take a run at signing Nnamdi Asomugha, but in the end brought in only former Brown Abram Elam to help patch a hole at safety and share his knowledge of Ryan's scheme.

The Cowboys still have enough superstar-level talent in Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware, Miles Austin and Jason Witten, with Felix Jones and Dez Bryant poised to join in the fun if they can step up to the next level, but unless Ryan's pass rush can take significant pressure off that weak, exploitable secondary, it's hard to see Dallas living up to the always-lofty expectations that accompany the team.

OFFSEASON MOVES

2011 Draft

Round, Overall, Player

1. (9) Tyron Smith,
OT, USC
Extremely athletic but unpolished youngster is an immediate RT upgrade.

2. (40) Bruce Carter, LB, UNC
First round talent is a steal if he fully recovers from ACL surgery.

3. (71) DeMarco Murray, RB, Oklahoma
Felix Jones clone, both in skill-set and injury concerns.

4. (110) David Arkin, G, Missouri St.
Small-school project could start in '12.

5. (143) Josh Thomas, CB, Buffalo
Not a burner, but has good cover skills.

6. (176) Dwayne Harris, WR, East Carolina
Good tools and work ethic, but needs coaching up.

7. (220) Shaun Chapas, FB, Georgia
Likely ticketed for special teams duty.

7. (252) Bill Nagy, C/G, Wisconsin
Depth for middle of the O-line.


Key Acquisitions

Abram Elam,
S (Browns)
Solid safety knows Rob Ryan's defense, but isn't a game-changer.

Kenyon Coleman, DT (Browns)
Former Cowboy adds depth to the D-line.


Key Losses

Marion Barber,
RB (Bears)
He'll try to halt his steep career decline in Chicago.

Roy Williams, WR (Bears)
Reunion with Mike Martz could be a boon if he makes the effort.

Leonard Davis, G (FA)
Slow is acceptable for an O-lineman, but not slow and soft.


Depth Chart

QUARTERBACK

Tony Romo
Jon Kitna
Stephen McGee

RUNNING BACK
Felix Jones
DeMarco Murray
Tashard Choice
Lonyae Miller
Phillip Tanner

FULLBACK
Chris Gronkowski
Isaiah Greenhouse
Shaun Chapas

WIDE RECEIVER
Miles Austin
Dez Bryant
Kevin Ogletree
Dwayne Harris
Jesse Holley
Manuel Johnson
Raymond Radway

TIGHT END
Jason Witten
Martellus Bennett
John Phillips
Martin Rucker
Jason Pociask

KICKER
David Buehler
Shayne Graham
Dan Bailey
Kai Forbath

RETURNER
Dez Bryant
Bryan McCann
Akwasi Owusu-Ansah


TEAM NOTES

SHOOTOUTS IN JERRY'S CORRAL


If there's one thing the Cowboys should be able to do this year, it's score points through the air. Tony Romo has as many dangerous targets as any quarterback in the league - Miles Austin and Dez Bryant deep, Jason Witten over the middle, Felix Jones and third round pick DeMarco Murray out of the backfield. On the other hand, if there's one thing the Cowboys likely won't be able to do, it's stop other teams from scoring points through the air. Even if Mike Jenkins returns to his Pro Bowl form at one corner spot, the oft-injured Terence Newman isn't getting any faster at the other, and the team lacks even an above-average safety or the overall DB depth to compensate. The equally high-powered NFC East passing offenses of the Eagles and the Giants are salivating when they look ahead to Dallas on the schedule, and an October trip to Foxboro is about as far from a soft matchup as you can get. What that adds up to is the potential for a lot of very high-scoring games involving the Cowboys, and a lot of potential fantasy jackpots with stars on their helmets.

CAN FELIX CARRY THE LOAD?

While the focus will be on the passing game, Dallas does have to run the ball occasionally. DeMarco Murray is talented, but won't be trusted with regular duty until he proves he knows the blocking schemes (memories of Chris Gronkowski whiffing on the block that might have saved Romo's 2010 season are still too fresh.), while new head coach Jason Garrett has made it clear that he doesn't see Tashard Choice as a key cog in his offense. That leaves Felix Jones with very little competition for carries at the top of the depth chart, and while he's got electric speed when he finds himself in space and has shown occasional glimpses of toughness running between the tackles, he's got a lot to prove as an every-down back. If he holds up under the workload, the Cowboys have a player who can score every time he touches the ball. If he gets hurt or wears down, the offense will become awfully one-dimensional, which is good news for Romo et al, but bad news for the team's won-loss record.

HOW QUICKLY CAN THE TEAM PICK UP ROB RYAN'S DEFENSE?

If you like unpredictability, if not outright chaos, you'll love Rob Ryan's defensive schemes. Players line up all over the field (already in camp, ultra-high motor nose tackle Jay Ratliff has shown up as a safety) and any one of them can blitz on any down. It's a highly entertaining defense that can make a quarterback's life miserable when it's working, but it's also a complex defense that is very vulnerable if the rush doesn't reach its target. The short offseason hurt Dallas badly in this regard, and the team really can't afford to give opposition pivots even an extra millisecond to pick apart their underpowered secondary. Ryan's defense is high-risk, high-reward, but the scales (at least in the early part of the season) will be tipped towards the risk. DeMarcus Ware will get his sacks no matter what, but it could be a while before his teammates join him regularly in the backfield.


VALUE METER

Rising: Felix Jones
is quick, fast and elusive, and now has a more mobile offensive line to block for him. If he can stay healthy, he could explode.

Declining: Jason Witten had a career year in 2010 thanks to Jon Kitna's inability to stretch the field, but a healthy Romo will spread the ball more.

Sleeper: Martellus Bennett has as much physical talent as any young tight end in the game, but needs focus and maturity to translate it into production.

Supersleeper: Dwayne Harris could do a lot of damage in the slot if he can pick up the offense quickly enough.

IDP Watch

DeMarcus Ware, LB

The league's best pass-rusher just got a blitz-happy coordinator.

Bradie James, LB
The heart of the Cowboys' defense is a near-lock for 100+ tackles.

Abram Elam, S
Import from Cleveland could see a bump in his stats with increased responsibilities.


Team Defense:
RotoWire Rank: 8