The date was January 11th, 2015. After winning the NFC East with a 12-4 record, the Dallas Cowboys found themselves a win away from the NFC Championship game. Standing in their way was the Green Bay Packers, as the Cowboys visited Lambeau Field for the Divisional round.
In a more literal sense, it was Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers that stood in Dallas’ way, as the hobbled signal caller faced little resistance from a Cowboys’ defensive line that hit him just 3 times – resulting in Rodgers completing 24 passes for 316 yards and 3 touchdowns.
While this game will be remembered for the Dez Bryant catch-that-was-not, it’s important to step back and realize how much this offense carried the team through the regular season.
When Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and DeMarco Murray needed their defense to step up the most and support them (yes; DeMarco’s fumble was another incredibly costly play for the Cowboys in this game) by forcing some takeaways and making big plays, they simply could not rise to the occasion.
I bring up this painful date in recent Cowboys’ history merely to make a point for the upcoming 2016 season. When Jason Garrett and this team decided to draft Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick in the draft, it was a commitment to return this team to that 2014 form in the most literal form.
Put a special running back behind the best offensive line in the game, bring back a healthy quarterback to keep defenses honest, and stick Dez Bryant on the outside. Dominate the game with your offense on the field, put up points, and watch as your defense plays with the lead against offensive coordinators and quarterbacks needing points in a hurry.
We all watched this team in 2014, so it goes without saying that watching a similar team in 2016 would be a lot of fun on both sides of the ball. The Dallas defense forced 31 turnovers that year, the second-highest mark in the league.
However, after forcing the least amount of turnovers in the history of the sport in 2015, Cowboys Nation can likely envision a scenario pretty clearly where a dominant Dallas offense is once again let down in a pivotal spot by this defense.
Rod Marinelli’s unit is going to be on the field in big spots and they are going to have to make plays. With that, let’s explore some players that could emerge as leaders and help this defense thrive in 2016.
LB Sean Lee
There’s no question that the Cowboys’ defense is a much better unit with six-year veteran Sean Lee on the field than it is without him. Unfortunately, they have been forced to play in many big games without the service of the dominant linebacker.
Lee was never on the field in 2014 after suffering a torn ACL during OTAs, and has to be ecstatic about the opportunity to lead this defense in 2016 – hopefully seeing most of his snaps in the favorable position this offense can put the entire defense in.
With 14 games and a new career high in tackles under his belt from 2015, it’s hard to look further than Sean Lee when it comes to leaders and impact players for the Cowboys 2016 defense.
CB Orlando Scandrick
While it was Lee that missed all of 2014, veteran cornerback Orlando Scandrick missed all of this past season with a torn ACL and MCL of his own – suffered in Oxnard during training camp.
While he had just 2 interceptions in 2014, the absence of Scandrick could still have been a big reason why this Cowboys defense was so starved for turnovers in 2015. As an emotional and spiritual leader, Scandrick does whatever is asked of him on any given Sunday for this Dallas secondary, while elevating the play of everyone around him.
The Cowboys have decided to roll into a fifth consecutive year with Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr as their projected starting outside corners. With Orlando Scandrick added to this mix, Rod Marinelli’s secondary has some continuity that could lead to consistency when it comes to playing sound coverage and taking the ball away in 2016.
CB Morris Claiborne
Speaking of Morris Claiborne, it will be interesting to follow exactly what this team gets from the battle-tested corner this season. Claiborne’s first four years with the Cowboys on his rookie deal certainly did not live up to the expectations placed on him when Jerry Jones traded up to the 6th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft for the LSU product.
After struggling through his first three seasons, Claiborne seemingly miraculously figured things out for himself as a NFL defender in 2015. His campaign was good enough to earn him a new “prove-it” deal for 2016, where Claiborne has reportedly added some more weight to his frame for the season after doing so before 2015 with success.
Claiborne needs to not only focus on building his own consistency this season, but can work on inspiring others around him to play their best football for this Dallas defense.
DT Tyrone Crawford
We opened this article talking about the Cowboys inability to get to Aaron Rodgers with their pass rush, which brings us right to a hot topic for this current off season – the lack of established talent along the Dallas defensive line.
Even in week 5, when the team will welcome back Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence at defensive end, there is reason for concern when it comes to the overall effectiveness this defensive line can have in helping this team make a deep playoff run.
Crawford, although a quieter leader, has emerged as a veteran for this scrappy group – and should be in store for a dominant season. Crawford enters 2016 at full strength after being no where close to 100% healthy in 2015.
Not only does he have his full health and strength back, but Crawford will get to play next to free agent acquisition Cedric Thornton, as well as the likes of rookie Maliek Collins, David Irving, Jack Crawford, and Terrell McClain.
At times in 2014, it was evident that the Cowboys ball-control style of offense helped the pass rush come up with sacks that weren’t available in 2015. If that’s the case again in 2016, it will be in large part because of the interior push Tyrone Crawford can provide.
Who do YOU want to see step up as a leader for this defense in 2016? Let’s talk about it! Comment below to start the conversation, or take it to Twitter and find me @ShoreSportsNJ!
You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.