SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Using conventional wisdom, it’s hard to look at the Dallas Cowboys’ defense and think it won't be one of the worst in football, again.
Predictably, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett has used such outside perceptions as fuel to motivate his team, which enters Sunday as five-point underdogs on its home field to open the season against the San Francisco 49ers.
"We understand the kind of football team that we have, how hard everyone has worked, the improvement that we’ve made, not only on defense but throughout our team," Garrett said on a conference call. "What we ask our guys to do is come to work every day and be their best individually so we can be our best collectively."
Dallas allowed a league-worst 415.3 yards per game in 2013 and enter the season without three of their best players along the defensive front. Pass rusher DeMarcus Ware and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher both left in free agency in the spring.
Middle linebacker Sean Lee, the team’s second leading tackler despite playing in just 11 games, is out for the season with a torn ACL. Starting corner Orlando Scandrick is suspended for the first four games for violating the NFL’s performance enhancing drug policy.
Ware and Hatcher accounted for 17 of the Cowboys’ 34 sacks from a season ago, when Dallas was dead last in the league in sack percentage (5.18). Ware signed with the Denver Broncos, perhaps getting a shot at a Super Bowl at 32-years old. Hatcher teamed with up with the Cowboys’ division rival in Washington in March.
Defensive end Anthony Spencer will not play against the 49ers while he continues to recover from microfracture surgery on his knee. Spencer was placed on the 53-man roster after being a candidate for the PUP list.
Indeed, conventional wisdom says losing the five best players from the league's worst defense doesn't bode well for Dallas as it prepares to play the 49ers, who added to their collection of offensive weapons this offseason to aid third-year starter Colin Kaepernick.
Tasked with replacing perhaps the team’s best two players along that defensive front is Henry Melton, the former Pro Bowler with the Chicago Bears in 2012 who played in three games in 2013 before tearing an ACL, and George Selvie, who was second on the team with eight sacks a year ago.
In the Cowboys’ issued media release, former Raiders castoff Rolando McClain is listed as the starting middle linebacker in new coordinator Rod Marinelli’s 4-3 scheme. He hasn’t played since 2012 when he appeared in 11 games for Oakland and made 37 tackles. The Cowboys signed the former first-round pick in July, the same day Lee was placed on injured reserve.
Bay Area football fans might remember for a forgettable career with Oakland, who used the eighth-overall pick on the former Alabama linebacker in the 2010 draft. Since then, a string of arrests led to two separate retirements before being brought in by Dallas to replace Lee this summer.
"There’s talent level that he has that’s hard to deny. For whatever reason, over the last couple of years, things have happened in his life. But we wanted to bring him in and just really wipe the slate clean and give him an opportunity to show what he’s all about as a player," Garrett said.
"Physically, he’s big, he’s fast, he’s tough, he’s strong, he’s an instinctive guy. So there are a lot of positive things to talk about. He’s earned the right to be a part of this team and a part of some kind of rotation at the linebacker position."
If there’s any room for respite for Dallas, it could come when looking at the 49ers’ offensive line. The position has been in flux during camp with right guard Alex Boone holding out until this last week while right tackle Anthony Davis spent the offseason rehabbing a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. Davis was not on the field at the start of practice Wednesday, nor was receiver Michael Crabtree. If Davis doesn’t play Sunday, it will be backup Jonathan Martin getting the start.
Kaepernick didn’t agree with the outside assessment of Dallas’ defense, publicly, at least.
”They’re physical in nature. They play fast, they play hard,” Kaepernick said Wednesday. “Last season really doesn’t mean anything, they’re starting a new season. They’re going to have a new defense, re-vamped defense. It’s not something we’re looking at as far as them being bad. We’re trying to focus on what we have to do to counteract what they’re doing.”
For San Francisco, the team would love a repeat of offensive success it had in 2013’s season opener. Kaepernick passed for 413 yards and three touchdowns in a win over the Packers, that included a 208-yard day from Anquan Boldin in his 49ers debut.
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