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Can Ryan take Cowboys defense to next level?

Cowboys defense improved at times last year, but can Rob Ryan take it to the next level?

One of the easy-to-see storylines in Cowboys' camp 2012 is the idea that the defense simply must get better for the team to succeed. No matter how many times the network studio shows assure us that this team could go further if they had better quarterback play, people who actually break down the team with thoroughness quickly turn their attention to the defense not pulling its weight for large swaths of last season.


Last year, Rob Ryan was brought in to clean up the mess from 2010. There was improvement, but that doesn't say a whole lot, given the circumstances surrounding 2010. That team quit. Badly. On its coach, Wade Phillips. And on quite a few games at the end of his reign. The team absolutely quit about the time Tony Romo's collarbone snapped, and against Jacksonville and Green Bay in the subsequent weeks, the opposition had free paths to the end zone.


So, to issue statistics that point out that the 2010 Cowboys surrendered 436 points and the 2011 Cowboys improved to allow only 347 is all true. But, that 89-point improvement was not enough to get the team into the playoffs, nor was it enough to slow down the rivals in Philadelphia or New York for even one second in the four meetings against them. And frankly, when you factor in the quit jobs of 2010, it is tough to even quantify how much improvement there really was.


But, as we enter the 2012 year, very little of that matters. Regulars like Terence Newman and Bradie James are in training camps for other employers, and in their place are acquisitions brought in to understand their orders and carry them out. Specifically, if this team is to find postseason play, they must slow down the offenses inside their own division.


And that is the goal of Rob Ryan, who is on camera during Cowboys games as much as any assistant coach in the NFL, a fiery figure who attracts plenty of attention. He has charisma and seems only a short time from his first head coaching job in the league. But, to get there and to get the Cowboys back to the postseason, he must figure out how to make this defense strong again.


They improved at times last year. In fact, as of Week 7, when they traveled to Philadelphia on a Sunday night, it really seemed as if he had things somewhat figured out. The team had allowed just 19 explosive plays (plays of 20 yards or more) in six games, a number that had the Cowboys among the league leaders after conceding 69 in 2010. The final 10 games of 2011 proved that the issue wasn't fixed, however. In those final 10 games, the Cowboys defense limped home and allowed a shocking 45 more explosive plays for a season total that was improved but not fixed. Instead of 69 explosives, they cut it down to 64. Still, four times a game they were being shredded for a big play.


In case you are wondering about explosives, and what they could mean to a team, consider Pittsburgh. The Steelers, who happen to own one of the best defenses in all of football on an annual basis, run the 3-4 in such a way that they almost never concede big plays. They led the NFL in fewest explosives allowed in 2011 with 43. They led the NFL in fewest explosives allowed in 2010 with 36. So, basically, in two years and 32 regular season games, they have allowed exactly 79 plays of 20 yards or more. And Dallas has, over that same stretch, conceded 133. Pittsburgh gives up 2.4 explosives per game over those two years, and Dallas is giving up 4.2 during that same stretch. In a league this close, you don't think two big plays PER GAME make a tremendous difference?


It is a sport of big plays. Big plays are what every offense is looking for. And big plays are what every defense is trying to stop.


The Cowboys went to the obvious solution to fix this. If you are allowing 64 big plays, and 57 of them are through the air, then you understand the premium they put on cornerbacks in the offseason. The acquisitions of Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are well documented and discussed. Tons of money and resources, that surely could have gone elsewhere, were poured into the position of corner. And for good reason. Newman, despite many years of being a good contributor, just had nothing left. His speed, confidence, and ability had all dropped off and when Ryan needed to ask him to man up, Newman seemed to back off even more.


Mike Jenkins, on the other side, had moments of solid play, but for the most part it was another year of wondering if Mike Jenkins can play physically enough in the NFL. Then, every time he would attempt to get physical, his body would break down again. He either plays passively and healthy, or physically and hurt. It is a bad combination for a player who is young.


Now, with Carr on one side and Claiborne on the other, the idea is that Ryan can finally do what Ryan wants to do as the coordinator of this defense: Bring the pressure. And, since the Cowboys have another glaring hole in their personnel structure (they don't seem to have enough guys who can win their battles up front to generate a pass rush without having to resort to risky blitzes) he is asked to make lemonade out of lemons.


To understand his dilemma in simple terms, understand the math of playing the Giants twice a season. Eli Manning, now one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL when he is blitzed, understands this math problem quite well. If the Cowboys played him straight up (rushing 4 and dropping 7) there was almost no pressure on Manning, and he took underneath routes or waited on one of his regular sideline routes at 20 yards, which is precision-based and almost uncoverable, to the sideline. If you would bring the blitz (rush more than 4) than he picks up his hot route, normally, someone like Victor Cruz underneath who knows if you are dedicating more players to a pass rush, then he will be in man-coverage because a safety is making sure that nobody gets beat over the top for a huge play.


Also, if you blitz, the Cowboys are counting on the corners to play tightly enough so when Eli wants to get rid of the ball, there is nowhere to go. Trouble is, Newman was not playing press coverage — even when he thought he was — for most of last season.  He played "off and soft". This prevents more over-the-top plays, but concedes a slow death of pitch-and-catch routes that move the chains as Newman is often not even on the screen when the receiver catches the ball.


Ryan would blitz and would get beat. He would play coverage and get beat. It was at its worst in the division. Against the NFC East last season, the Cowboys were shredded by the explosives. Amazingly, in six games inside the division, there were 33 explosives allowed. In the other 10 games outside the division, there was just 31. So, if you play in a division that gives you fits, then you better sort that out immediately. The Redskins will be better soon with a quarterback, and the Giants and Eagles are already familiar with how to carve Dallas up.


One under-reported item that happened more than a few times in 2011 was that teams like the Eagles were starting to attack DeMarcus Ware. At least six different times in 2011, the Cowboys had a screen pass right into the teeth of their blitz go for an explosive. Many times, the screen would set up right behind where Ware was coming from. Chip him with a tight end, like Brent Celek, then release Ware to the quarterback and Celek would accept the pass with nothing but green grass in front of him. The Jets, Dolphins, Patriots, Eagles, Rams, Lions, and Eagles again all sprung this trap on the Cowboys to back off the blitzing tactics. There is nothing more demoralizing than sending six or seven rushers and then having a quarterback dink a short pass right behind your men and they run free for 30 yards down the field.


Here is a link to all 64 of the explosives Rob Ryan's defense allowed and you can see how many times the screen was stuck on them. Keep in mind, the Cowboys did not generate a single explosive off the screen in 2011 offensively.


So, if you touch a hot stove, you stop touching it. Many close observers of the team last season felt that Ryan caused many of his own problems by being caught badly in blitzes. His biggest weapon had turned into a predictable weakness. And the Cowboys, as best demonstrated at Philadelphia and at New York, would have their hands burned early and often in games and then lose all confidence and swagger with their blitzing tactics the rest of the way. You could literally see in the eyes of many defenders that they knew their goose was cooked before the game reached halftime. They were damned if they blitzed, and damned if they didn't.


Will Anthony Spencer suddenly become the 10-sack guy who can change all of this? Or will more Sean Lissemore and the addition of Tyrone Crawford help the team assemble the pressure from up front? I think all three of those players can help make a real difference. That will get the quarterback worried without exposing a secondary that is better, but far from perfect with a safety group that still sticks out like a sore thumb when opposing teams begin to assemble game plans to expose weaknesses.


People will yell for Rob Ryan to "do something!" and get mad every time the networks show him after a big play. It is hardly an enviable position, but it is what he is signed up to do. Attack, but not too much. Prevent big plays, but hopefully make big plays, too.


In a short phrase, Ryan's job for 2012 is to make the Cowboys defense part of the solution rather than part of the problem. It is an easy charge in August. But, as we saw last year, the deeper you wade into the year, the tougher this job becomes.


But, let's be clear — either Ryan sorts this defense in 2012 and makes himself a candidate for a head coaching job elsewhere, or he doesn't sort it out and gets replaced in 2013.  Either way, I expect this will be the last year for the controversial coordinator in Dallas.