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?
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.