IRVING, Texas – How does the NFL’s worst defensive unit improve after losing its top three players?
Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli provided the answer Tuesday, but it seems a lot easier said than done.
"We just got to get guys to have career years," he said. "I think you set standards for men. If you don’t set standards, you certainly won’t reach them. If I put a ceiling on them and say, ‘This is all I expect of you,’ that’s all you’ll get.
"I take the ceiling off. I want every guy to have a career year. That’s how I do it."
The Cowboys’ all-time sack leader, DeMarcus Ware, is now a Bronco. Jason Hatcher, who led Dallas with 11 sacks in 2013, is playing for Washington. Sean Lee, the Cowboys’ defensive leader, will likely be sidelined for the entire 2014 season with a torn ACL in his left knee.
If there’s any reason for optimism, it comes from Marinelli’s group being in the same scheme for a second consecutive year.
The transition from a 3-4 system to a 4-3 alignment was rough. On top of surrendering a league-low 415 yards per game, the Cowboys were terrible at getting off the field, allowing 388 first downs, second-most in NFL history.
Will a second year mean a better understanding of the philosophy, leading to better play?
If so, Dallas has to be strong up front. Yes, Marinelli is a defensive line guru, but he’s working with several new pieces.
"Every guy, I’m going to coach as hard as I can to be the best pass rusher he can be," Marinelli said, "and if you do that, the numbers will start falling for you."
For the majority of last year, Ware, Hatcher, Nick Hayden and George Selvie comprised the first team defensive line. This off-season, Marinelli is trying to find a new combination that is twice as deep.
Hayden and Selvie still remain, but free agent veterans like Henry Melton, Terrell McClain and Jeremy Mincey will need to mesh with inexperienced talent like DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford.
"Right now, hopefully the strength is the unit," Marinelli said. "Hopefully, we have eight guys that we feel good about and each guy, nobody’s selfish, and you play the game as hard as you can play it and play it as well as you can play it."