Rod Marinelli
Rod Marinelli

In 2012, during his last pre-Cowboys season, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli led a Bears squad that finished 3rd in scoring, allowing just over seventeen points per game. He did it with a defense that had some of the issues his current unit faces.

For starters, the 2012 Bears were old.  Top rusher Julius Peppers was 32, as was fellow starting end Israel Idonije. The team’s two best linebackers were also far past 30.  Lance Briggs was also a member of the 32 club while middle ‘backer Brian Urlacher was 34. Charles Tillman, the veteran leader of Chicago’s secondary, was 31.

The squad also lacked great depth, relying heavily on its starting eleven for sacks and interceptions.  The starters produced. Chicago’s starting secondary snagged eighteen interceptions, a total the Cowboys have not topped as a team since 2010. The Bears line rode the starters and key sub Corey Wootton bagged 78% of the teams 41 sacks.

The current Cowboys have some of the key pieces necessary to mimic those 2012 Bears.  Here’s the recipe Marinelli needs to get this defense headed towards better days.

1.  Get healthy and physical play from the cornerbacks.  Marinelli runs a Tampa-2, which puts the corners in short zones on the field. This puts them in prime position to close on any runs or quick passes to the perimeters. The starting Bears corners, Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, ranked 2nd and 4th on the defense in solo tackles. They combined for thirteen interceptions, and they both earned Pro Bowl berths.

The Cowboys don’t have as much invested in their defense as they do on offense, but they have spent heavily on their cornerbacks. Last year, Dallas saw decent play from the corners on the edges against the run, but starters Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick nabbed only five opposing passes.

If the Cowboys hope to turn things around, they and Morris Claiborne will need to double their pick totals and up their play a bit on edge runs.

2.  Get good health on that unit.  We’ve talked about bad luck and bad practices by the team in recent days. Some good fortune, which would see Claiborne and young safeties J.J. Wilcox and Matt Johnson play extended reps, would go a long way.

The back unit may be the one that leads the way in 2014.

3. Find an unsung rush rotation.  Marinelli has made it clear he was trying to build rush rotations on the edges.  He can’t count on Anthony Spencer?  Can he get something extra from Jeremy Mincey and Tyrone Crawford?

No Demarcus Ware?  Get a George Selvie/Demarcus Lawrence duo to pick up the slack..

His starting closed end, Idonije, had only topped 5.0 sacks once before 2012. That year, the aging vet got 7.5. His rotation partner Wootton added 7.0. Their 14.5 combined sacks topped Julius Peppers’ 11.5.  It was three more than DeMarcus Ware totaled that year.

No names at the left end, but a Pro Bowl level rush. Marinelli’s task will be harder this year because he’ll have to perform his magic on both ends.  Still, getting double digits on one end, and say, eight from the other would go a long way.

4.  Get the old Henry Melton back, or get him and a kid like Ben Bass to approach Melton’s ’12 total of six sacks.

Get these four ingredients into the mix and he could hit the most important target.

5.  Lower the points allowed per game down to 21.0 – 22.0

That’s not a great number.  There are several teams that set 17.0 points per game as their season goal. That’s what Wade Phillips aimed for. Seventeen or lower will get you comfortably into the top 10 in scoring defense.  Those 3rd-rated ’12 Bears allowed 17.3

We’re talking about the Cowboys’. You’ve probably suppressed it, but we need to look this stat squarely. Since finishing 2nd in scoring defense in 2009, the Cowboys allowed 400 or more points in three of the next four seasons.  That’s 25.0 points per game or more.

Last year’s offense averaged 27.4 points, good enough for 4th in scoring offense.  The defense allowed 27.0.  That’s how you go 8-8.

The team has added numbers, but they have not added an abundance of stars. A seven or ten points per game decrease seems unrealistic. But then, it may not be necessary. The offense could be even more explosive this year. Aim for a modest decrease. If this team could allow just four or five fewer points per game, that could be that extra win or two this team has not found lately.  Even a three point improvement could see Dallas get past that last week playoff wall.

Marinelli is looking for a point less here and a point less there.  It’s a defensive Mulligan Stew.  A pinch of this.  A helping of that.  If it gets the Cowboys into January, it will be the tastiest of recipes.

Rafael Vela
Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ TheBoys.com in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for SportsTalkLine.com
Rafael Vela
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  • connery

    This defense will be better. I think people underestimate truly how bad some of the players we had to insert last year were. I think we’ll be better at every position other than the 3 tech (when Lee was out). If the first 15 defensive lineman get injured again then we’ve got no shot. Again.

    Seriously, just average players in a rotation will be an immense upgrade from what we were dealing with last year.

  • Taylor

    There is not one solid position group on the defense. There is not even one player around whom the defense can be built. Melton, maybe, but he’s unknown after acl reconstruction. We’ll win some games with the offense, but I don’t see the defense rising up to middle of the road.

  • Football Mensa

    Raf on paper it doesn’t look good for Dallas in 14. My hope of hopes is we have one of those “come out of nowhere” seasons on d and have a magical run.

    • Prince Of Heck

      NY, Washington, and Philly each took their turn as the NFC East Cinderella the last 3 seasons. Maybe 2014 is Dallas’ turn?

      • Football Mensa

        Maybe….but it’s real hard for me to have any faith in this team. Still I hope.

    • Hardwater

      Agreed. On paper there is absolutely no reason to think this defense will improve. As Marinelli said he somehow has to get career years out of these guys. That’s no real plan but it’s all he’s got.

      • Michael

        I am not a big Marinelli fan, but the front office hasn’t done him any favors this year. He is really between a rock and a hard sport with this bunch.

        • Hardwater

          Marinelli will get all he can out of them. We just have to hope there’s something to get.

  • C. Joseph Wright

    What gets lost in the discussion about the defense is the great impact a very slight improvement would make. If the Cowboys defense could manage to give up 1 less TD every 2 games (i.e. 3 to 4 points per game), the would have won 10 or 11 games the past 2 years.

    • Michael

      Except that is not how scoring works in actual football… it is how scoring works in the world of fantasy football. You have your cart in front of the horse here.

  • Yuma Cactus

    We will be hopeful of some Marinelli Magic.

  • Austonianaggie

    Secondary will be key to this team. They have got to get JJ Wilcox or a safety that can play man coverage. The one bad secondary member gets a lot of targets

    • McShrek

      NO pressure from the front seven and these DBs will all struggle..no shutdown types in the bunch, and our safety position is a wing and a prayer

  • Sam

    I appreciate this breakdown Raf….it gives a clear picture into what can make the defense (and maybe the team) successful and what’s realistically “probable” without the sensationalized cynicism (or optimism). One thing that is forgotten many times by fans is that names (i.e. big names or names you know) never make plays on the field…players do. Now we’ll have to wait and hope that some of the work put in by some of these lesser know quantities bears some fruit. Something my dad would always say to me…”History will only mean as much as you allow it to in relation to the present. Nobody will think you can do anything…until you actually go do it”