By Mike Fisher, 105.3 The Fan | CBSDFW.COM

DALLAS (105.3 THE FAN) – Last spring, in Rod Marinelli’s first-ever meeting with his players after taking the job as Dallas Cowboys defensive line coach, he grabbed their attention by opening a speech with five simple words:

“Men,’’ he said softly, “give me your eyes.’’

Just one week ago, The Cowboys were plotting on being 3-1 with a win over San Diego that would be fueled in large part by Marinelli’s unit, which he’s labeled “The Rushmen.’’ The attention began in the spring. The bond was growing. So were the sacks. And the nicknames. It was sunshine and lollipops.

Then came a loss to the Chargers, a drop to 2-2 and heavy criticism of a defense line that today faces the challenge of harassing Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.

“They did not play to their level, and a lot of different reasons for that,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said of a line that came into the game with 13 sacks but only managed one against the Chargers’ makeshift offensive line. “We’re playing a lot of different combinations, all of that, but there are no excuses.”

The issues are real. DeMarcus Ware strained a muscle in his back early in the game. George Selvie went out late in the game with a head injury. Dallas’ thin blue line was running out of bodies … and running out of guys who’d earned funny nicknames from Marinelli..

New coordinator Monte Kiffin and right-hand Marinelli have taught and inspired a line missing two Pro Bowlers.

Defensive tackle Jay Ratliff is on IR, hoping to make a return in Week 7. Anthony Spencer is on IR, out for the season. Ware remains a Hall-of-Fame-level star, and tackle Jason Hatcher (who calls himself “just a journeyman’’) has, at 32, elevated his game to star-level. But Nick Hayden (out of the NFL last year) excelling in Ratliff’s place? Selvie (with his fourth team in four years) excelling in Spencer’s place? Or this week, other backups like Kyle Wilber (a converted linebacker) and Drake Nevis (just picked up off the street)?

And doing it against the undefeated Broncos?

Can teaching and inspiration and dedication from a man who served in Vietnam at age 19 really do all that?

“It’s on us to play and on him to coach,’’ Hatcher said of Marinelli, last year the Bears defensive coordinator and before that a head coach in Detroit. “But I will say he’s about as good a coach as I’ve ever had. He puts people in position to succeed.’’

Marinelli’s “Rushmen’’ was just the beginning of his fun nicknaming. He also refers to them as “The Fearsome Four.’’ The players have individual monikers, too. Hatcher is “Big Daddy.’’ Ware is “Long Arms.’’ Selvie (who wouldn’t be here had Tyrone Crawford and Ben Bass not been injured) is “Brick Layer.’’ Hayden (given a tryout because of the Ratliff injury and Josh Brent’s off-the-field tragedy) is “Golden Cock.” Um, because he is Caucasian, tanned and because of how 1-technique tackle in this scheme angles (cocks) himself toward the center.

The nicknames were revealed last week at Valley Ranch because personalized notes of inspiration, scribbled by Marinelli, were spotted in the lockers of “The Rushmen.’’ The tactic didn’t quite pay off in San Diego.

What will work against the Broncos and Manning?

“Don’t think for one minute we’re scared,’’ Hatcher said. “We ain’t scared of nobody. I don’t really care who it is. They’re going to make plays. We have respect for him, but at the end of the day, they got to have respect for us as well. We’re not a pushover team at all. We’re definitely ready to play.”

This effort began with Rod Marinelli urging his guys to “give me your eyes.’’ Now it’s Manning who has the full attention of “The Rushmen.’’

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