By Shawn Lealos

The Dallas Cowboys finished the 2013 NFL season with second worst defense of all time, just falling short of the ineptitude of the 2012 New Orleans Saints. What was even more discouraging for fans was that the Cowboys fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan after the 2012 season and he moved on to help improve the Saints defense by leaps and bounds in 2013 while Dallas fell hard.

In the offseason after that monumental collapse of the defense, Dallas lost their two best players on that side of the ball. Cowboys’ all-time sack leader DeMarcus Ware went to the Denver Broncos while their leading sacker from 2013, Jason Hatcher, left for the division rival Washington Redskins. All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee fell to a season ending injury in practice and then Dallas learned that fellow linebacker DeVonte Holloman’s career is likely over with.

With all those losses, it looked like the Dallas Cowboys would be in for a very long season. However, defensive lineman Anthony Spencer feels that the Cowboys will surprise people in 2014. Spencer himself is returning from knee surgery and missed most of 2013, only playing in one game. While he won’t be ready to start the season, he will return to the field very soon.

“I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people,” Spencer said. “That’s what I believe. I believe that this defense is going to surprise a lot of people in the things that we’re going to be able to do and that we are going to do. I’m looking forward to getting back out there and being a part of this defense.”

The Dallas Cowboys will open the 2014 NFL season with 11 defensive linemen on the 53-man roster. While that seems excessive, it means that Dallas can rotate freely on the defensive line, keep everyone fresh, and actually play to strengths when deciding who will line up on each play. Spencer said that he feels that will keep offenses frustrated.

The Cowboys will likely struggle in Week 1 against the powerful San Francisco 49ers. Spencer won’t play. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick and safety Jakar Hamilton are both suspended for the first four games of the season. New defensive tackle Henry Melton and rookie DeMarcus Lawrence are both banged up after a tough preseason. The Cowboys defense that takes the field this weekend won’t be at 100 percent strength.

However, the test will be how well the Cowboys play as the season wears on and they start to develop as a young unit. With new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, all eyes will be on this defense and their performance will determine if Dallas contends in 2014 or completely falls off the rails.

For more Cowboys news and updates, visit Cowboys Central.

Shawn S. Lealos is a freelance writer who graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2000 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism. He writes for a variety of national publications and has over 15 years of sports journalism experience. Follow Shawn on Twitter @sslealos.