IRVING, Texas – The Dallas Cowboys are getting exactly what they want out of their new defensive coaching additions, while the defensive mind they let go is excelling elsewhere. Consider that a win through three weeks for both parties.
The Dallas defense resides in the top 10 in the league in sacks and takeaways led by new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, while the coordinator the Cowboys let go has shifted New Orleans’ putrid defense of last year to the No. 5 total defense in the NFL this season.
In the minds of some, former Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan didn’t do a lousy job in Dallas last year. Fact remains, the Cowboys weren’t happy with the lack of pressure and thought they should upgrade.
The front office (Jerry Jones) stressed an emphasis on takeaways after creating just 16 all of last season. They now have seven through three games with Kiffin and Marinelli, due in large part to the havoc created by the defensive line, as the Cowboys sit atop the NFC with 13 sacks. They’re also tied for sixth in turnover differential at plus-3 with a top-10 scoring defense.
Kiffin and Marinelli insisted they didn’t need a defensive lineman in the draft to conjure the kind of pressure they needed on their defense. Even without Jay Ratliff or Anthony Spencer, they’ve been exactly right. DeMarcus Ware is back to his old form and the switch to defensive end may even help him reach the quarterback more often.
The defensive coaches continue to get elite play at defensive tackle out of Jason Hatcher, who’s tallied a sack in each of the team’s first three games, while turning Nick Hayden and George Selvie into legitimate starters.
Selvie said he feels he has a coach in Marinelli who believes in him, and that coach is getting the best out of his group. It’s obvious, and head coach Jason Garrett sees the same thing.
“He’s just an excellent football coach and teaching is a big part of that, inspiring is a big part of that, seeing the real positive traits in people and getting them into situations where they can be successful,” Garrett said. “(Marinelli) helps them be successful by how he teaches them technically, how he teaches them physically, how he teaches them emotionally.”
The Cowboys’ three interceptions may not seem like much, but that’s three times as many as they had through three weeks with Rob Ryan last season.
The colorful, boisterous defensive mind has to be a revered character in New Orleans, demonstrating his worth by changing the culture of the Saints’ defense. New Orleans allowed 440.1 yards per game and 28.4 points per game last season, and those numbers are down to 295.7 yards per game and 12.7 points per game so far.
Both sides are getting exactly what they wanted by fixing the problems of the past. It’s a small sample size, but the Cowboys and Saints are reaping every benefit they could have hoped for with their offseason defensive changes.
This should create quite a buzz (and another comparison) going into week 10 …
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IRVING, Texas — You can critique his numbers, you can point out his lack of a career-defining win and you can note that his team has missed the postseason for three straight years.
One thing you can’t do, however, is criticize how well this quarterback has played to start the 2013 season.
At this point you’re probably asking yourself if we’re discussing Tony Romo or Phillip Rivers. Actually, the answer is “both.”
There has been no shortage of peaks and valleys for both franchise quarterbacks since they took starting jobs in the 2006 season. Romo and Rivers are riding high as they prepare to square off this Sunday.
The difference is probably most pronounced for Rivers – the former No. 4 overall draft pick. It seems like ages since Rivers had San Diego in annual contention for the AFC Championship. The 35 combined interceptions and 15 combined wins of the past two years offsets four straight AFC West championships — a period from about 2007-10 when he was considered one of the game’s best quarterbacks.
“In ’09 we went 13-3 and have a bye, and we get beat there in the first round. And it was downhill from there,” Rivers said. “We didn’t go to the playoffs the last three seasons, so it’s been a tough stretch.”
Even with a losing record, Rivers has avoided the turnover bug so far this season. Through three games, he’s completed 70 percent of his passes for 798 yards, eight touchdowns and – most importantly – just one interception.
The 10th-year veteran said the difference has come in not forcing the ball.
“I think the one thing I’ve learned is, when you have so many games that you lose that are close, and you lose four, five, six in a row like we’ve done the past few years, you can start trying to make every play and try to will things to work that aren’t there,” Rivers said.
That’s probably a testament to Rivers’ competitive streak. Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said the most telling part of Rivers’ game was his competitiveness, and he wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
“He’s a quarterback, but he’s got a D-Line mentality – he’s just a dog, man,” said defensive tackle Jason Hatcher. “He’s a competitor, he’s tough, he talks noise. It starts with him, so they go as he goes.”
The Chargers might not be trending the same direction as Rivers, but it’s not for lack of trying. The Chargers sit at 11th in the league in total offense, and they’re only a handful of plays away from having a much different record. It took a 17-point rally for the Texans to down San Diego in Week 1, and the Titans needed a 94-yard drive in the last two minutes to grab a win against the Chargers.
“It’s been a heck of a start, in the sense that every game has come down to the wire,” Rivers said.
The story is similar for Romo, though for different reasons. After tying a career high in 2012 with 19 interceptions, Romo has been the model of efficiency to start this year. His completion percentage of 72.2 is second only to Peyton Manning (and, fittingly enough, one in front of Rivers). On top of that, he’s managed six touchdowns to just one pick – a pick that came from a miscommunication with a rookie receiver (Williams).
Romo said this week it’s a result of better protection. He has been sacked just five times this season, and he hasn’t had to make many throws under pressure.
“If you’re throwing 50 balls and you’ve got 20 of them, 25 of them under duress, it’s just bound to have negative effects throughout football games,” Romo said. “When you’re trailing like we have been in the past –things of that nature, for any quarterback, it happens across the league every week.”
It’s just one more similarity in a career full of them between the two. Both quarterbacks took the starting job in 2006, and in that span are within 2,000 career passing yards, 14 career touchdowns and two career interceptions of each other.
They’ve each had four 4,000-plus yard passing seasons, and they’ve each had two 30-plus touchdown campaigns. The congruencies, both positive and negative, have generated plenty of mutual respect.
“He’s the kind of quarterback that, no lead is ever big enough, and he can be in the toughest of situations but he finds a way. So he’s always fun to watch,” Rivers said.
Added Romo: “Phil has been a good quarterback for a long time. I think he does a good job getting through progressions, and he gives his team a chance really every week he plays.”
Ironically enough, a mistake this weekend by either one could determine the game in favor of the other
Thoughts leading up to the Dallas Cowboys vs. San Diego Chargers game …
Edgar Jones on the verge
With the loss of Anthony Spencer for the season, there are a couple of ways the Dallas Cowboys can make up for his loss along the defensive line. There is no question George Selvie will continue to start at left end but who backs him up might be in question.
Caesar Rayford might be that guy, but keep an eye on Edgar Jones at that spot. Jones has impressed several coaches with his ability to get off on the ball and attack up the field. He has shown some quality pass rush moves, and he has the size and length like Selvie to hold up on the edge in the running game. His overall game appears to be tailored to this 4-3 scheme.
Shadows of the Hatcher-Hayden punch
The pattern of these defensive coaches has been telling. When they get a new player, they work him in practice, then they sit him in the game. There is a chance that process might change with the addition of Drake Nevis this week, as he has been getting reps with the second defense. It’s more likely that we will see David Carter, who has been with the club a week longer, play as the backup defensive tackle. Jason Hatcher and Nick Hayden are the starters and last week Jerome Long and Caesar Rayford were the backups. Jerome Long was waived to make room for Nevis, so Rayford could fill in along with Carter – but Nevis could see action as well. The big question here for Nevis is how much of the defense has he learned this week, and are the coaches comfortable playing him?
The James Hanna factor
A lot has been said about the early development of Gavin Escobar and what has been seen from his game. It’s easy to like what this “12 personnel” package could bring to the game, especially with James Hanna in the mix. Jason Garrett and Bill Callahan will look to create matchup problems with the 32nd ranked Chargers pass defense, and Hanna should be able to do just that. Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano might be forced to bring pressure with his linebackers in order to provide a consistent pass rush, which means Jason Witten, Hanna and Escobar will be required to run shorter routes to help Romo get the ball off. Hanna has yet to have one of those games that, before the season, we all felt he was capable of. It could happen Sunday afternoon.
DeMarco Murray’s third-dimension
When scouting running backs in the NFL, you want them not only to run and catch but you want them to be able to help in pass protection. With the Chargers 3-4 defensive alignment, Tony Romo is going to need not only his five offensive linemen doing their jobs, but DeMarco Murray as well. As important as it is for Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick to know who to block, Murray has to be just as good. The Chargers will bring several different looks out of their nickel package and the majority of the reading will fall on the shoulders of Murray. If he misses an assignment or slides the wrong way on the protection, there is a pretty good chance that Romo will be sacked. All week long while the team has worked on blitz pickup, Murray has been right there sorting out blitzes while the offensive line makes its adjustments. In watching Murray play in this area, he is usually technique-sound and assignment sure. He did have a bust in the preseason game against Cincinnati that resulted in a sack, but since then there have been no issues. People tend to judge backs just on how they carry the football in a game, but if you look closely, the big plays are usually a result of a back making a blitz pickup. DeMarco Murray will have that chance against the Chargers on Sunday.