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NFP Sunday Blitz

The Dallas Cowboys’ new-look defense, Matt Ryan’s new-look offensive line and more in this week’s Blitz. Len Pasquarelli

Print This July 07, 2013, 05:30 AM EST
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More than any of the free agents or draft choices the Dallas Cowboy added in the spring, the team’s most notable offseason acquisition was almost certainly the hiring of venerable defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who at age 73 returns to the NFL after a four-season hiatus from the league.

Kiffin, who spent the past four years working with son Lane on college staffs at Tennessee and Southern Cal, is charged with revamping a Dallas defense that rated 19th statistically in the NFL in 2012, disappeared in some key stretches, and did not take the ball away very often. As if that daunting task isn’t enough, the Cowboys will convert from the 3-4 “base” front that they have played, and for which they have drafted, 2005-2012, to a “Tampa-2”-style 4-3 in 2013.

Last week, former Dallas standout wide receiver Drew Pearson audaciously predicted that the Cowboys will play in Super Bowl XLVIII. But for the Cowboys to even advance to the postseason for the first time since 2009, and after a lackluster 8-8 campaign a year ago, Kiffin will have to work his magic. Maybe even more important, key defenders who have played much of their careers in the 3-4 will have to make a speedy transition.

So far, Dallas veterans have publicly expressed confidence that Kiffin and the new scheme will significantly address the team’s shortcomings.

DeMarcus WareWare amassed 31 sacks over the last two years in the Cowboys' 3-4 defense.

“The differences aren’t as (considerable) as some people have made them out to be,” suggested DeMarcus Ware, who at age 31 will move from rush linebacker to right end, a position he hasn’t really played since college. “Actually (the defense) allows us to be just as aggressive, maybe more so, and guys have taken to it pretty well. There haven’t been a lot of mistakes. It’s going well.”

Nothing against former coordinator Rob Ryan, whose verbosity played a lot louder than his unit did in two seasons with the franchise, but the gravitas and track record of Kiffin should count for something. Still, simply having Kiffin on the sideline, or concocting game plans, isn’t going to be enough, in and of itself. “We’ve bought into (the 4-3),” acknowledged emerging cornerback Morris Claiborne, “but it still about doing it physically. And mentally, too. (But) the results should be there.”

Those results might not show up in Dallas’ league-wide ranking versus the run and the pass, but most notably in scoring defense. Kiffin’s units have traditionally been more about points surrendered (or, more accurately, lack of) than standing against the run and pass. In his 15 seasons as an NFL coordinator, Kiffin units have ranked just once in the top 10 in total defense, and that was way back in 1995, with the New Orleans Saints. Somewhat stunningly, in his celebrated 13 seasons in Tampa Bay, the Bucs never statistically ranked higher than 16th in yards allowed and 11 times were 20th or worse. Yet the Bucs were in the top 10 in fewest points allowed in all but one of Kiffin’s seasons there, and never gave up more than 22.1 points per outing.  Dallas, by comparison, allowed 25.0 points per game in 2012, ranking No. 24 in the league.

Said Kiffin, whose defenses permitted an average of only 17.8 points per game during his NFL tenure: “Those (points) are the numbers that count the most.”

A hallmark of Kiffin’s defenses has always been the ability to turn the ball over, and the Cowboys, who had a measly 16 takeaways in 2012, and averaged just 20.5 in the two seasons under Ryan, seem to have adopted that aggressive philosophy during their offseason workouts. “We’re definitely going after the ball,” Claiborne said.

All the optimism aside, though, there figure to be some bumps in the road as Dallas moves to a 4-3 look after spending the past eight seasons playing a 3-4. Players, coaches and team officials have acknowledged as much. Even coaches from some of the opponents the Cowboys face in 2013 have allowed that Kiffin may have to put some square pegs in round holes for this year. There are some good fits: The team has a pair of solid corners, linebacker Sean Lee has the kind of speed to get the depth necessary to play in the middle of the 4-3, and Ware and Anthony Spencer should still provide pressure from the edges, even though both will now play end instead of linebacker.

The Cowboys will be smaller, and presumably quicker, but during the breaking-in period, the bet around the league is that opponents will test the new front four in the running game.  Ware, who said he has gained 7-10 pounds to make the move to end, has been a better player against the run than some critics suggest, but he’ll now face bigger tackles on every play, instead of just “rush” downs. Ditto Spencer, who has not always played the run well. At one tackle spot, Jay Ratliff, who was definitely an unconventional and undersized 3-4 nose tackle, won’t be able to out-quick people as often. And the other projected starter, Jason Hatcher, is a converted 3-4 end, and the unit’s only 300-pounder. Kiffin and longtime sidekick Rod Marinelli, the new defensive line coach, will have to make do for now with a starting foursome that should average in the 280-pound range. And with a pair of 260-270-pound ends whose anchor ability will be tested.

In the eight years the Cowboys aligned in the 3-4, they never rated in the top 10 in defense against the rush, and just once were in the top half of the league. Six times, they were 20th or worse. Then again, Kiffin’s defenses haven’t ranked in the top 10 against the run since 1996, his first season in Tampa Bay. But that statistical wart didn’t keep Kiffin’s defenses from getting the job done. And the Cowboys players certainly appear to have the kind of faith in the legendary coordinator that, all the potential blemishes aside, could potentially make for a much more attractive and productive defense in 2013.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*At some point before the start of the coming season, perhaps in the next month or so, the Atlanta Falcons will make Matt Ryan the league’s next $20 million-a-year quarterback. The move is hardly a risky one, given Ryan’s emergence as the face of the club, his five-season track record, his leadership and endurance, and the fact he helped rescue a franchise that had become irrelevant even in its own city following the twin disasters of Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino. But that’s not to say Ryan, who absorbed a career-worst 28 sacks in 2012, won’t be at some potential risk.

Matt RyanICONRyan will enter the 2013 season behind a new-look offensive line.

For most of his five seasons in the league, Ryan has played behind a fairly stabile line unit, one with a core five-some that hasn’t undergone a lot of change. But with the retirement of iron-man center Todd McClure, the release of former Pro Bowl right tackle Tyson Clabo (who subsequently signed in Miami), and an unsettled situation at right guard, the offensive line is definitely in flux. Assistant coach Pat Hill, in his second season with the team, will have to cobble together a group from a lot of guys who haven’t played much before. Second-year veteran Peter Konz likely takes over the center spot. While Konz started 10 games as a rookie in 2012, all of them were at right guard, so he’s never started at center in the NFL. Presumptive right guard Garrett Reynolds has 13 career starts, but twice has failed to nail down a spot that opened up when Harvey Dahl left in free agency in 2011. The right tackle slot will come down to Lamar Holmes, who appeared in just one game in 2012, and Mike Johnson. A third-year veteran, Johnson has one career start, and that came as a third tight end, and he was principally drafted to play guard.

The pending investment in Ryan is a smart one, for sure. But the Falcons need the investment in offensive linemen they’ve made in the draft the past few years, one that team officials are fond of emphasizing, to begin amassing returns in 2013.

*The legal situation with former New England tight end Aaron Hernandez continues to be a matter for local law enforcement officials. And it likely will stay that way. But two well-connected officials with outside agencies tell NFP that there eventually could be – and they emphasize could – some federal involvement with the case. The officials in the Boston and Gainesville, Florida, areas have not reached for any kind of federal assistance in their investigations. That said, the possibility that there might be some interstate implications to the Hernandez affair, has, at least unofficially, piqued the interest of some federal agencies. The “Feds,” suffice it to say, have maintained keen interest in the ongoing investigations.

*The Houston Texans chose DeAndre Hopkins in the first round 2 ½ months ago, in large part to provide an explosive complement to Andre Johnson at wide receiver. And the former Clemson star has, coaches acknowledge, been one of the standouts in offseason workouts. “You can really see the obvious (playmaking) skills,” Texans general manager Rick Smith said. But the Texans may need to start looking down the road as well to a future replacement for Johnson, who turns 32 this week. The 10-year veteran still rates among the NFL’s premier wideouts – he started all 16 games in 2012, the first time that has occurred since 2009, and posted 112 catches – and there has been no real discernable drop-off. But some opponents suggest that Johnson has lost perhaps a half-step, and isn’t as explosive. Johnson had only four touchdown catches last season, his fewest since 2002 in a season in which he played at least nine games. So while the bigger emphasis has been on Hopkins, who should provide Houston and quarterback Matt Schaub a quality No. 2 starter, the club has privately allowed there is a need to start developing one of the other young wide receivers as well. Second-year veteran DeVier Posey had some flashes as a rookie in ’12, and fellow youngsters Keshawn Martin and Lestar Jean have promise as well. One of them needs to step up as a viable No. 3, and possible Johnson replacement in a few years.

*There will probably be just a dozen teams playing a “base” 3-4 defense in 2013 – the fewest in several seasons – and about half of them figure to have new nose tackles. That’s a fairly substantial amount of newcomers at a position that is so key to the success of the 3-4 front. The nose tackle spot doesn’t merit much publicity, and is largely a “sacrificial lamb” endeavor where statistics hardly mirror the significance of the position, but few insiders underestimate just how important the position is to the scheme. One man who doesn’t fall into that category is Steve McClendon, who will inherit the nose tackle position where Casey Hampton was such a fixture in Pittsburgh for 12 seasons. “That’s where it all starts (in the 3-4), with the (nose tackle),” McClendon said. “You’ve got to control the inside. It’s not about making tackles, being flashy, it’s about control, and tying people up so that other guys can make the play. There’s a reason that (Hampton) made so many Pro Bowls (five). Players around the league knew what he was about.” 

*One of the more progressive initiatives in the NFL, one that has essentially made race a non-issue anymore at quarterback, is that, thankfully, a player’s skills-set, not the color of his skin, has become the overriding factor at the game’s most conspicuous position. Still, it’s notable that the league has now gone 14 straight seasons with at least five black starting quarterbacks on opening day. The last time there were fewer than five was is 1998, when there were four. The streak likely will continue in 2013. Barring injuries, there are five black quarterbacks almost certain to start their teams’ openers. And that’s not counting Michael Vick, who will battle Nick Foles in Philadelphia for the No. 1 job. If Vick wins the job, and rookies E.J. Manuel (Buffalo) and Geno Smith (N.Y. Jets) somehow overcome the odds to earn starter’s status for the opener, it could make eight black starting quarterbacks for the opener. That would tie for the most in NFL history. In 2002 and 2003, there were eight black quarterback starters for opening day.

Kevin SumlinTexas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin appears to be in high demand.

*”Maybe later.” That was the reaction of Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin to reports last week that he had been strongly considered by NFL teams as a head coach candidate, and even offered the Philadelphia Eagles’ job, before Chip Kelly of Oregon accepted it. No one should be surprised, though, if “later” is a lot sooner than even Sumlin anticipates. Several team executives to whom NFP spoke this week cited Sumlin as the college coach most likely to be eyed by NFL teams looking to make a change, and take a fresh approach, next spring. “The bias against (college coaches) isn’t nearly what it used to be,” one personnel director said. “And if (Kelly) does well, people will be even more open-minded.” No doubt, owners and general managers are going to scrutinize just how Kelly’s up-tempo offense operates at the NFL level in ’13. But the barriers between the college and the pro game have been broken down a bit by elements like the read- or zone-option attacks being run by an increasing number of quarterbacks now, so unconventional offenses like those of Kelly and Sumlin are better received than they were a few years ago. So no one should expect the Sumlin rumors to go away.

*Even though the relatively unknown Joique Bell caught 52 passes for Detroit last year, the fourth-most among NFL running backs in 2012, the Lions coaches feel they can get more out of the passing game at the position. Enter Reggie Bush, who some feel may have the best pure hands on the team outside of Calvin Johnson. “He catches the ball so effortlessly,” said offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. “And he’s a factor up the field, not just in the flat, or on screen or swing passes.” Bush caught 88 passes as a rookie in 2006, and averaged 80.5 receptions in his first two seasons with New Orleans. He’s been under 40 catches in two of the past three years. While Bush continues to insist he can be a regular 1,000-yard rusher, a threshold that he reached in Miami in 2011, he’s also excited about the potential that the Lions’ potent passing game should offer. “There are plays to be made there,” he said.

*The aforementioned Anthony Spencer signed his one-year, $10.63 million tender as a “franchise” player last month and, after some talks between Dallas officials and agent Jordan Woy, the negotiations on a long-term extension to that deal broke off. One reason: The Cowboys want to see how Spencer -- who had 11 sacks in 2012, the first double-digit sack season of his six-year career – responds to playing left end in the 4-3. There are still five seasons, counting this year, on the seven-year, $78 million extension that Ware signed in 2009, so there’s not much the Cowboys can do about that. Make no mistake, all parties remain cordial, but there’s definitely a “wait and see” approach with Spencer, a player whom the Cowboys internally debated about the “franchise” tag before applying it. The other element is that Spencer has unwittingly been affected to some extent by the blunted market for pass-rushers that has evolved this offseason.

SHORT YARDAGE

*Tennessee coaches continue to stress accuracy with quarterback Jake Locker, who completed only 56.4 percent of his passes in 2012, and they want him to be more patient in the pocket in general. Still, they don’t want to totally subjugate Locker’s raw athleticism, which some Titans’ officials have likened to that of Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young. . . . Two of the prominent veterans cut by Atlanta in the offseason, defensive end John Abraham and tailback Michael Turner, remain unsigned, but neither has considered retirement. At the same time, neither has received a contract offer to his liking, and there isn’t much time left until the start of training camps. Both players would prefer to be in camp for the start of practices, rather than wait for an injury somewhere. . . . In addition to the addition of Bush, the Lions feel the return of wide receiver Nate Burleson will boost an already strong passing game. Burleson appeared in only six games in 2012 before his year was ended by a broken leg, and he had just 27 catches, after notching 73 in 2011. After Johnson’s 122 catches, the next-most by a Detroit wideout in 2012 was 33 by the departed Titus Young. Burleson’s return should provide a little more balance. . . . Tailback Ahmad Bradshaw still isn’t 100 percent recovered from the foot problems that plagued him the past few seasons, and eventually precipitated his release by the Giants, but Indianapolis coaches seem certain he’ll add a boost, and some “edge” dimension to the Colts’ running game. . . . The Miami staff has done a lot of “route” work with high-priced free agent wide receiver Mike Wallace in the offseason. Arguably the league’s fastest receiver, Wallace was often chided by Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin for being a “one-trick pony.” But even though it was a motivational jibe more than anything else, Wallace is determined with the Dolphins to demonstrate he’s more than just a deep-ball threat.

BY THE NUMBERS

*Indianapolis qualified for the 2012 playoffs, as a wild card entry, despite a minus-30 point differential, scoring 357 points and surrendering 387. But as history has demonstrated, reaching the playoffs with a negative point differential is a difficult task. Since the current eight-division/12-playoff team alignment was enacted in 2002, only seven of 132 playoff clubs made it to the postseason while allowing more points than they scored. That said, the Colts were the fourth negative-differential team in the past three seasons to go to the playoffs. The worst differential club to make the playoffs was, not surprisingly, Seattle in 2010, which advanced to the postseason despite a 7-9 record and minus-97 point disparity. 

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