Cowboys wrap up offseason with revamped defense
IRVING, Texas (AP)
The pass-rushing ends for the Cowboys' return to the 4-3 won't carry out their new marching orders together until training camp starts next month in California, with Ware still recovering from shoulder surgery and Spencer a week removed from hyperextending his left knee in an offseason practice.
Most everyone else hardly missed a snap in four weeks of offseason work that wrapped up Thursday with the final day of a three-day minicamp. They probably have more to learn anyway under new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin with the Cowboys changing schemes after nearly a decade with three linemen and four linebackers.
''Every coverage is new. Every blitz is new,'' said the 73-year-old Kiffin, architect of the defense that won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay in 2003. ''It's all good, but the players have to get it down. But they're really working hard at it. Can't ask more than that.''
Ware and Spencer will spend less time thinking and more time attacking in Kiffin's system. Under Rob Ryan, who was fired after two seasons, they were linebackers just as likely to be chasing receivers and tight ends as they were quarterbacks.
Now, Ware and Spencer will generally leave the reading to middle linebacker Sean Lee.
''Half the weight of learning stuff is gone,'' said Ware, who is fourth among active players with 111 career sacks and is the first to lead Dallas in each of his first seven seasons. ''It's more technique stuff than anything.''
Lee and Bruce Carter were inside linebackers in Ryan's scheme. They will still play alongside each other, but will see a lot less of Ware and Spencer unless the linebackers are blitzing.
''I think it's gone really well,'' said Lee, who missed most of last season with a toe injury. ''I think they have done a good job of progressively giving us stuff to work on and take to the field. So, if you look at our defensive line and our whole defense, we have played faster and faster each week. And that's the key for us.''
Dallas coach Jason Garrett said there was some installation of the defense each of the nine days of offseason workouts, then each of those days was repeated during minicamp this week. The process will start over on the first day of training camp July 21 in Oxnard, Calif.
Rookies got a little extra repetition with their own minicamp before offseason workouts.
''It's a lot of stuff, but it's over and over and over again,'' Garrett said. ''And hopefully over the course of April, May, June, you're ready to play in early September.''
Garrett says the decision to switch to the 4-3 wouldn't have happened if coaches felt the players already on the roster weren't a fit.
''We felt like we could make that transition in Year 1,'' he said. ''A lot of guys have a lot of position flex and versatility to what they can do. We just feel like our veteran players fit into it and our younger players fit into it, and we're excited to really see them play football come training camp.''
The Cowboys poured a lot of resources into cornerbacks last year, trading up to draft Morris Claiborne in the top 10 and giving Brandon Carr a $50 million free-agent contract. They'll be expected to generate more turnovers.
Dallas is essentially starting over at safety with the new scheme. Barry Church is one starter after missing most of last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. The other is likely to be Will Allen, a free-agent addition, or Matt Johnson, a fourth-round pick last year who missed all of his rookie season with a hamstring injury.
''We're still in some foundational stages,'' said Allen, who started his career under Kiffin and new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli at Tampa. ''I think at first with any transition it's a little rigid, but I think now it's starting to smooth itself out.''
The new approach figures to come quickly once Ware and Spencer take the field together. While Ware has been a double-digit sack man every year since his rookie season, Spencer just had his first with a career-high 11.
Spencer was always praised for his run support when his sack totals were modest. Now his priority will be quarterbacks, not running backs.
''It's pretty straightforward for us up front,'' said Spencer, who was a defensive end in the 4-3 at Purdue. ''It's not that hard for an installation for a defensive lineman compared to what I'm used to.''
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