Taylor Williams

The Cowboys' Drama And Distress At Defensive End

Created on Jul. 26, 2013 5:26 AM EST

After just three days, the most repercussive group of related storylines from the Dallas Cowboys’ training camp is here. It involves the defensive end position, and it’s all bad so far.

Dallas lost second-stringer Tyrone Crawford, their most promising young pass rusher, for the season with a torn Achilles on Sunday. On Tuesday afternoon, the news broke that Anthony Spencer needed knee surgery. By Tuesday night, thoughts began shifting to the future — the possible free agent signings, the now-heightened roles of Kyle Wilber and the substitution of DT Ben Bass at end during practice. And by Wednesday, the Cowboys inked former Tampa Bay DE George Selvie to compete with reserves Monte Taylor and Cameron Sheffield. 

Even with this addition and Spencer likely to be ready for the season opener, the position went from prized asset to major liability in less than 48 hours.

The biggest reason this holds true lies in the scheme change. The shift from the 3-4 to the 4-3 isn’t the radical makeover it’s often made out to be; most NFL defenses frequently run plays out of both base formations when not in nickel and dime situations. But it can be tricky when you have your top three defensive ends all transitioning to pure pass rushing roles.

The switch negates the element of directional surprise that Spencer and DeMarcus Ware used so well as quarterback stuffers in 2012. Gone is the inherent spacing and mobility that aided their athleticism as middle linebackers, as well as the blocks by tight ends or fullbacks. It’s all big men on the other side now.

Crawford’s loss is potentially staggering. Though he had only 20 tackles in 2012, the 2012 signee represented fresh, quality depth, the lack of which has been the D-line’s biggest question mark all season. He has raw quarterback-demolishing skills, the size to be the team’s leading bull rusher in the 4-3 and the strength to shake linemen and bring down running backs — he’ll be missed.

Financially, Spencer is franchised for $10.6 million in 2013 with no long-term deal — a scenario largely owed to his 11-sack breakout season of 2012. Football-wise, his game as an unleashed pass rusher is now subject to questions about his first step, his quickness off the edge and his ability to contort past defenders. And knee injuries have a well-known tendency to be re-aggravated and nag players. So while the Cowboys may have dodged a future problem if Spencer’s injury proves harmful, they may not get the $10.6 million worth of production from him that they desperately need this year.

Still, while this storyline is textbook cause for panic, it could wind up being little more than a speed bump. Spencer will still be effective, and Ware is still the best pass rusher of his generation, though he’s coming off a shoulder injury.

Wilber, despite bulking up this offseason, remains the real puzzler; he has only four games of NFL experience. In college, he functioned as a run-stopping linebacker who could drop into coverage when needed — hardly the job he’s now being asked to do.

What we do know is that the team’s pass defense, already beleaguered by lack of experience and proven talent at safety, has taken a hit. How much damage that hit inflicts remains to be seen. But at this point, it’s safe to say that the Cowboys pass defense no longer represents the obvious strength of the unit and that training camp 2013 has been pretty harsh (and dramatic) thus far.

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