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Trouble In The Trenches: Cowboys Have Concerns At DT

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Dallas Cowboys fans have reason to be concerned over the defensive tackle position. Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Dallas Cowboys fans have reason to be concerned over the defensive tackle position. Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

If they haven’t already, Cowboys fans really should resign themselves to the reality that no matter how much intelligent insight they have about their team, Jerry Jones marches to his own beat of logic and reasoning — and that’s never going to change.

Fans have only so much information to work with in formulating credible opinions. They lack complete access to the players, coaches and underpinnings of management’s thoughts and motives. But while fan knowledge of the team is limited to news from media reports, their capacity to learn about the game — strategies, schemes and statistics — is boundless. We live in a world where any fan can improve their grasp on football theory and tactics, and find dozens of basic and advanced statistics to feed their analytical curiosity, all within minutes. And thus, we have the framework for them to assess their team’s talent and prospects.

In this case, we’re talking about the defensive tackles and how they best function in the 4-3. Jones has offered a rationale for leaving his rotation of run-stoppers untouched in the draft, via passing on Florida’s Sharrif Floyd, and even proclaimed the D-line as “positions of strength.”

But judging by the plethora of digital rants and rumblings, fans aren’t buying it. And that makes sense for several reasons; just think about the issue along the lines of what fans know and don’t know.

Fans know veteran Jay Ratliff has the physical profile to succeed as a “three-technique” tackle in the 4-3. But the basics of the scheme call for the middle linebacker to assume a heavier role in pass coverage, expanding the tackle’s importance against the run. Fans know Ratliff is almost 33 and coming off a series of injuries; what they don’t know is what coaches see in his workouts and practices, and whether the experts consistently have reason to think he’s got plenty of gas left in the tank. Fans have no clue about the extent of any drop-offs in his quickness and agility after last year’s injuries or any empirical evidence to support their owner’s claim.

Fans know Jason Hatcher has spent his entire career as a defensive end, and they’re naturally interested in tracking his adjustment to the line’s interior. They know he has exceptional length at 6-foot-6 and is coming off a breakout year, but they know nothing of his daily progress — save what can be gleaned from media reports.

Fans know Tyrone Crawford has exhibited flashes of talent, and has ideal athleticism for a DT. They also know that Sean Lissemore’s progression has shown his potential to be a key rotation player. Fans know the names of Ben Bass or Brian Price and what the scouting reports say they can bring to the table, but they have zero sense of the actual contributions these players will provide.

Fans know all this. They also know their team finished 22nd in rushing defense last year. And from their perspective, the lack of proven experience among backups, combined with injury concerns and a newcomer’s learning curve among starters, makes this position one of concern — not strength.

What it comes down to is that privately, Dallas may have good cause to be content with its current defensive front and ample reason to expect last year’s run defense to be better. After all, they do have the acumen of defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, a highly respected NFL mind. But publicly, they’ve done nothing more than offer a weak, PR-slanted endorsement of the idea that the team is fine at defensive tackle. In fact, by ignoring the position in the draft and in free agency, they’ve essentially asked fans for some faith.

And with each year the Cowboys fail to make a run deep into the playoffs, that kind of latitude gets harder and harder to grant. But rather than view it as an asset or liability, think of DT as one more position set that heightens the pressure on Jones to produce a championship immediately — and with his current ensemble of players.