SAN ANTONIO (AP) – After giving up a franchise-worst 436 points last season, the Dallas Cowboys are depending on basically the same defense to be better this year.
There are 10 of 11 defensive starters back in their positions. It would be all 11 if not for Alan Ball returning to cornerback from safety, where Abram Elam takes over after the free agent signed this week.
Sure, there is new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan — the son of Buddy and twin brother of Rex. But the brash and confident coach with a different playbook inherited a group coming off a season that started with hopes of being the first team to play in a Super Bowl at home and instead turned into an absolute misery.
“It’s the same players, but different mentality, different motivation and sort of like a new rebirth,” Pro Bowl linebacker DeMarcus Ware said.
So just how can they expect to be a better defense with the same players?
Because they have been good before.
Those 10 returning starters were also part of one of the NFL’s best defenses in 2009, when the Cowboys were NFC East champions. They finished that regular season with the only consecutive shutouts in franchise history before the team’s first playoff victory in 13 years.
“I do know that we all thought we had the players on the defensive side of the ball last year that could play better than we did,” owner Jerry Jones said. “You’ve got different potentials out here. You’ve got some that are not going to play over their potential, really. But I am satisfied with our personnel right now. We’ve got defensive personnel that can play at a level you might say we expected last year.”
Jones never made a secret of his desire for the Cowboys to be in the Super Bowl being played at their new stadium last season. That dream got shattered in a hurry.
Despite all the players back from a playoff-winning team, the Cowboys lost seven of their first eight games last year. That led to Jones making the first midseason coaching change in team history. Head coach Wade Phillips, also the defensive coordinator, was fired after a 45-7 loss at Green Bay.
The Packers were among eight opponents to score at least 30 points against Dallas (6-10). The previous season under Phillips, the Cowboys allowed an NFC-low 250 points with only two teams getting to 30 points.
“Last year was a little bit predictable, I guess,” safety Gerald Sensabaugh said. “Rob moves around a lot. Last year’s defense wasn’t to trick the offense. It was more like we are just going to win our one-on-one battles. This defense has a little bit of trickery to it. Everybody line up on the line of scrimmage and stuff like that. It makes it hard on the quarterback. As long as you have the athletes to play in a system like this, you should be good to go.”
Jason Garrett, who replaced Phillips as head coach midway through last season and had the interim tag removed after the season, likes the new defensive scheme. He believes that will make a big difference even without a bunch of personnel changes.
Soon after taking the job, Ryan declared that the Cowboys defense could be among the best in the NFL this season and that he would be tough and aggressive. After the 4 1/2-month NFL lockout took away the chance to install the system during offseason workouts, his message to players when camp started was that they have to do their part.
“The first thing he said, the players make my defense, my defense don’t make the players,” Ware said. `It feels really good coming from a guy like Rob Ryan, because everybody knows how good his defenses have been. … With our defense, we have a lot of athletes, guys that can play multiple positions, and that’s what he likes.”
Ware said having the continuity of the same teammates helps since they are all familiar with each other while moving around in the scheme. And they are not harping on the disappointment of last season.
“You sort of let the offseason lull let down and quiet that, and really just look forward to this season. Getting better and sort of getting that bad taste out of your mouth,” Ware said. “You know what, we weren’t a 6-10 team last year, but that’s what the record was. With new improvements we have on defense, and the offense is always going to keep rolling, I think there’s not going to be a 6-10 season this year.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)