The Cowboys defense last year had six games where they either blew a fourth quarter lead or allowed a game-winning touchdown on the first series of overtime. Along with those six such losses was the failed expectations of bringing defensive lineman Greg Hardy into the fold to bolster a pass rush that failed them in the 2014 divisional round of the playoffs. The defense was only able to muster 29 sacks, a paltry two more than the previous year. It is no surprise the Cowboys defense under coordinator Rod Marinelli has been slapped with being pass-poor.
However, cornerback Morris Claiborne reminds critics the passing defense in 2015 was not as ignominious as imagined.
"I mean, a lot of people forget we were ranked in the top-5 in passing defense last year," Claiborne said last Saturday at his eponymous football camp in Shreveport. "A lot of people say what they want to say about our secondary, but you don't get ranked top-5 by mistake in the NFL. So, all that talk about the secondary this and that -- you know, we didn't get as many turnovers as we thought we should have gotten, but that's probably raised a lot of eyebrows that people be like why are they not this or that. But we were ranked top-5 in our secondary."
Claiborne is right on both counts. The Dallas defense gave up the fifth-fewest passing yards all season at 3,636. The problem was the defense also forced 11 turnovers, the absolute worst in the league and the absolute fewest in the league spanning decades. The Cowboys defense without turnovers was unable to stop opponents and get off the field. The most boggling aspect of the Dallas defense forcing such few turnovers is that is the rudiment of Marinelli's defense. The only stat that matters.
"We always like turnovers," Marinelli said during OTAs. "I like turnovers. We call them takeaways. I like takeaways. It’s a big part of the game. Biggest stat in football by far."
For Marinelli, another foundation to his defensive philosophy is affecting the passer. With only 29 sacks last season, the eighth-fewest in the league, he has had to retool what he is doing. The front office has been supportive going out and re-signing Jack Crawford and also bringing in free agents Benson Mayowa from Oakland and Cedric Thornton from rival Philadelphia.
Thornton, who signed a four-year, $17 million deal on March 10, adds versatility along the defensive line. Primarily, he will play defensive tackle, but could be asked to kick outside at least during the first four games when ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory serve their suspensions.
"We know it's going to take a group effort," Thornton said last Saturday at his annual youth football camp in Star City, Arkansas. "Four equals one is our saying in the room. And if you ain't rushing, you're stealing. So, we know it's going to be a team effort to get to the quarterback. And we got a quick drop-back league and we're just trying to be effective when the quarterback drops back."
Early indications from the front office down to Marinelli point to current three-tech tackle Tyrone Crawford being asked to rush outside. In those instances, Thornton would fill in at Crawford's usual spot and rush the passer from inside, akin to what Warren Sapp did under Marinelli in Tampa Bay from 1996-2003.
Said Thornton: "He's coached some of the great ones, Warren Sapp if I can mention his name. He just gives you the courage to think that you can be one of those great guys."
The reinforcements also arrive for the defense in 2016 as cornerback Orlando Scandrick should return following a torn ACL he sustained last training camp. Claiborne is especially thrilled to have the nine-year veteran back in the secondary room.
"Orlando is a big part of this defense," said Claiborne. "Just to have him back and have his knowledge and his ability to cover in the slot is unbelievable. We're looking forward to getting him back."
The Cowboys have also found a permanent place for '15 first-rounder Byron Jones, a defensive back out of Connecticut who filled in nicely at cornerback and free safety throughout his rookie season. Claiborne is impressed with the growth of Jones this off-season.
"Byron has grown a lot tremendously," Claiborne remarked. "For a guy that you take him and put him anywhere on the field and he produce at a high level. Last year was a good year for him, a good stepping stone for him leading into next year. I feel like he'll do great."
The first step for the Cowboys is training camp out in Oxnard, California. The first practice is Sat., July 30 with a 10:30 a.m. walkthrough. Newbie Thornton is looking forward to making a great impression.
"I'm very excited for training camp," Thornton said. "I'm excited to come back and just kill Marinelli drills. Conquer that and then come to training camp and just try to conquer the season."
Said Claiborne: "I think all the guys are all-in. The coaches have been tough on us this off-season and the camps and mini-camps and all that. And just anxious to get to camp and see where we're at and take what we took from what we did into camp and mini-camp and OTAs and take that over to camp and make ourselves better each and every day."
For the Cowboys defensive coordinator heading into his third full year at the post, training camp is where the work is substantial. Everything in OTAs and mini-camp, as encouraging as it appeared to be -- well, except for the suspension news on Rolando McClain and Tank Lawrence and Randy Gregory (big exceptions, obviously) -- was all "underwear" to him.
"It's just better in pads," Marinelli said. "When I see it in pads, then it's just a different game. I try not to over-evaluate and teach. And then evaluation comes in camp."