The ’07 Giants, ’12 Ravens and ’13 Seahawks. These teams’ strategy to build a core group on the defense highlight the importance of a dominant defensive unit in order to win a championship.
A 13 win season in 2014 with the 19th ranked defense in the NFL for the Cowboys was one of the biggest surprises in the league. Dallas still has plenty of room for improvement on the defensive side of the ball, but many players have given Cowboys fans a renewed hope for their previously dreadful defense.
Marinelli’s defense withstood the loss of Dallas’ all-time sack leader DeMarcus Ware, plus big injuries to key players. Their biggest loss was defensive captain Sean Lee, who tore his ACL prior to the start of the season.
Lee’s injury began a shuffle of linebackers for the Cowboys. The linebacker corps proved to be a revolving door throughout the 2014 campaign. Shortly after he went down, Dallas traded for the underachieving linebacker Rolando McClain. The acquisition of McClain proved to be a key addition. He became a co-defensive captain and showed the league why he was the 8th-overall pick in the 2010 draft.
Playing in 13 games, plus two playoff matches in which he suffered concussions in each, McClain recorded 81 tackles and two interceptions. Jerry Jones has indicated an interest in signing the free-agent linebacker to a new contract, but McClain’s value on the market took a hit after it was reported that he faces a potential 4-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
Dallas never shies from reclamation projects and McClain certainly fits that bill. The Cowboys already took the chance when they acquired him, a twice-retired linebacker who had underperformed greatly throughout his career. If McClain can stay healthy and clean, he and Lee could make a devastating combination in the middle of the Dallas defense.
Justin Durant was also a co-defensive captain of the Cowboys defense, after signing a two-year deal prior to the 2013 season. Durant only suited up for 16 games in two years but proved his value to this team.
Durant recorded 73 tackles and one interception as a Cowboy, but his worth extends beyond the stat sheet. Durant’s leadership of a group of inexperienced linebackers was an asset to the success of the team. Reports have surfaced that Dallas is nearing a 3-year agreement with the free-agent linebacker as of March 8th.
After undergoing surgery to repair a torn triceps, Durant is clear to play and interested in helping bring a championship to Dallas. His injury opened the door for rookie Anthony Hitchens to make his presence felt on a defense that sorely needed it.
The Cowboys 2014 4th-round pick from Iowa played in every game for the Cowboys, recording 75 tackles and one interception. His play following Durant’s season ending injury was pivotal for the Cowboys success. Although his rookie campaign may be overshadowed by memories of the controversial pass-interference play in the wild card playoff game, Hitchens has earned a key role on the Cowboys defense going forward.
The Cowboys will have difficulties contending for a Super Bowl with a mediocre defense, which is why Dallas has big needs to fill on that side of the ball before the 2015 season.
The improvement of this defense starts with resigning McClain and Durant. These two veterans, plus the addition of Lee, while Hitchens provides depth and youth can form a successful linebacker unit in 2015 and beyond.
Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.