by Michael David Smith
The Dallas Cowboys consist of three people: quarterback Tony Romo, wide receiver Terrell Owens, and coach Bill Parcells. At least that seems to be this season's media script.
But Dallas is 7-4, in first place, and looking like a Super Bowl contender because of its defense more than anything else. So why do none of the players on the Cowboys' defense get anywhere near as much attention as the Big Three? I closely watched the Cowboys' defense on every play of their 38-10 Thanksgiving win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to determine why it is playing so well. I came away impressed by nearly everyone, but it was one player -- second-year outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware -- who blew me away with the dominant game he had.
On third-and-4 on Tampa Bay's first drive, Ware lined up on the line of scrimmage opposite tight end Anthony Becht. Tampa Bay's blocking scheme called for Becht to block Ware one-on-one, and that was a huge mismatch. Ware dominated Becht and forced Tampa Bay quarterback Bruce Gradkowski out of the pocket, although Gradkowski made a nice run to pick up the first down. Two plays later, Ware was at it again. This time he lined up at right outside linebacker and was one-on-one with left tackle Anthony Davis. Ware again won the individual battle and forced Gradkowski out of the pocket, but Gradkowski again moved in the pocket and this time found Joey Galloway deep downfield for a 53-yard completion.
On that first series, Gradkowski showed a great deal of athleticism and did a nice job of leading Tampa Bay down the field for a touchdown. However, Dallas harassed him repeatedly for the rest of the game, and the Buccaneers never again reached the red zone, let alone the end zone.
Ware is a freakish athlete, but just as importantly, he's a smart player. On the first play of Tampa Bay's second drive, Ware lined up at right outside linebacker. The play was a handoff up the middle to Cadillac Williams, with flanker Michael Clayton going in motion from right to left and running a fake reverse. The play design assumed that the right outside linebacker would be held in place by the fake reverse and wouldn't need to be blocked, but Ware wasn't fooled for a minute. He recognized the play immediately, ran directly to Williams and brought him down two yards behind the line of scrimmage.
More big plays from Ware: On a third-and-3, Ware lined up at left outside linebacker and destroyed rookie right tackle Jeremy Trueblood. Ware bull-rushed Trueblood, collapsed the pocket, and drilled Gradkowski just as he threw the ball away. (Gradkowski probably should have been called for intentional grounding.) On a third-and-2, Cadillac Williams had a brilliant run around the right end. Four Dallas players -- linebackers Bradie James and Bobby Carpenter and safeties Patrick Watkins and Roy Williams -- had chances to tackle Williams but missed him. It was Ware, lined up at outside linebacker on the other side of the field, who finally caught up with Williams and tackled him 22 yards downfield.
Parcells must be hugely disappointed in Carpenter, the team's first-round draft pick and the son of one of Parcells' favorite players, former Giants fullback Rob Carpenter. When you draft a linebacker in the first round, you're expecting him to make an instant impact on the defense, but that missed opportunity to tackle Williams was the only time Carpenter did anything worth mentioning. He rarely got on the field until it was time for mop-up duty, when he made one tackle long after Dallas had put the game away.
It was Alshermond Singleton, not Carpenter, who moved into the starting lineup when the Cowboys lost linebacker Greg Ellis for the season two weeks ago. Like Ware, Singleton exploited Becht's inability to protect Gradkowski. Roy Williams got an interception when Singleton lined up opposite Becht and ran right past him, forcing Gradkowski to hurry his throw. Gradkowski underthrew the ball and didn't see that Williams was sitting on Galloway's deep post route. Williams had an easy time intercepting it.
Although Singleton and Ware are both good pass rushers on the outside, the Cowboys' inside linebackers are ineffective on the blitz. On a third-and-4, Dallas rushed all four linebackers. That left cornerback Anthony Henry on an island against Joey Galloway, who beat him for a 13-yard reception. Dallas defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer would be wise to leave that blitz out of his game plan from now on.
Zimmer deserves more credit than he has received for his work with the Dallas defense. A Dallas assistant since 1994, Zimmer is the last link on the coaching staff to the team's 1990s heyday. When Parcells became the head coach, owner Jerry Jones urged him to keep Zimmer as the defensive coordinator, and Parcells complied, with the stipulation that he wanted Zimmer to run a 3-4 defense. Even though Zimmer had never before coached a 3-4, he has made a seamless transition to working with Parcells. Although most people think Jones will want to hire a big-name successor when Parcells retires, Zimmer would be a strong candidate to become the Cowboys' next head coach.
Of course, Zimmer hasn't completely abandoned his 4-3 roots. The Cowboys usually switch to a 4-3 on third downs, moving Ware from outside linebacker to defensive end and replacing the huge run-stopping nose tackle Jason Ferguson with one of their quicker backup defensive tackles. The Cowboys occasionally use even more than four down linemen. On first-and-goal from the 5-yard line, Dallas went to a five-man line. On the next play, second-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Dallas used six down linemen.
Although he comes out on many passing downs, Ferguson is more active than most 3-4 nose tackles. On a second-and-7, Tampa Bay center John Wade got a good first step and seemed to have Ferguson back on his heels, but Ferguson recovered, shoved Wade aside and tackled Williams for a gain of three. Later, on a first-and-10 handoff to Michael Pittman, both Wade and right guard Davin Joseph blocked Ferguson, or at least they tried to. Even double-teaming him, they couldn't budge Ferguson, who stood his ground and tackled Pittman for a gain of two yards. Parcells drafted Ferguson with the Jets in 1997 and made signing him as a free-agent a top priority last year. It's easy to see why.
Defensive end Kenyon Coleman doesn't get much attention, but he's an important part of the defensive line rotation. He has a non-stop motor, going until the whistle blows on every play. It's nice to see a 300-pounder trying to run down a running back when the other 300-pounders on the field have decided the play is past them and they can quit. On a third-and-15 shovel pass to Michael Pittman, Coleman, lined up at left defensive tackle, tackled Pittman after a gain of six yards.
Dallas seems to use its linebackers in coverage on wide receivers more than most teams do. Kevin Burnett, who had the 39-yard interception return for a touchdown last week against Indianapolis, showed again on Thanksgiving that he's very good in pass coverage. Dallas even occasionally had him matched up with Joey Galloway, and he did a nice job of jamming Galloway at the line of scrimmage and keeping up with him downfield. Burnett and James were in deep coverage where safeties usually line up and tackled wide receiver Michael Clayton on a 10-yard completion in the fourth quarter. On a first-down pass in the flat to Ike Hilliard in the third quarter, Singleton was in coverage and tackled Hilliard for a gain of just three yards. On a second-and-8, Michael Pittman -- one of the fastest running backs in the league -- ran a slant route, but Akin Ayodele stuck with him and batted the pass away from Pittman. Ayodele also had a beautiful diving interception in the third quarter. When Becht ran pass routes, Ware was usually the one to cover him. On a first-and-10 completion to Becht, Ware jammed him at the line of scrimmage, then covered him in the flat and brought him down immediately after a four-yard completion.
As much as I liked Ware, I wasn't particularly impressed with Dallas's other 2005 first-round pick, Marcus Spears. On Tampa Bay's first play of the second half, Spears lined up at left defensive end opposite Trueblood. The handoff went to Williams, and Spears never even got close to the play as Trueblood shoved him aside easily. Spears is adequate at best against the run and has only 2.5 sacks in 27 career games. Spears did show his athleticism in jumping to bat down a Gradkowski pass in the third quarter, but that was the only time he did anything noteworthy.
Based on the Tampa Bay game, I think Spears should lose his starting job to rookie Jason Hatcher, a third-round draft pick out of Grambling. Hatcher got most of his playing time after the game was out of reach, but he excelled when he got his chance. In the fourth quarter he lined up against left guard Dan Buenning, knocked Buenning to the ground and sacked Gradkowski for a loss of 10 yards. At 6-foot-6 and 295 pounds, Hatcher looks the part of a 3-4 defensive end, and I think he's going to develop into a good one.
Hatcher is still making the adjustment to playing against top-notch opposition after playing in a lower-level college program. That also applies to Ware, who is only 24 years old and was playing his college ball at Troy two years ago. That Thanksgiving blowout was a great game for Ware. I think we'll see many, many more of them.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.