The Dallas Cowboys defense you wanted to run out of town on a rail last season is now the defense you want to treat to a steak dinner at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. Just save defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli a prime cut, because he deserves a great deal of the credit.
Sure, the players are executing. Sure, the Cowboys defied all expectations Sunday against Seattle by limiting the Seahawks to just 206 net yards and nine first downs. Sure, Rolando McClain is a revelation six months after being consigned to the NFL retirement list.
But it’s Marinelli, the former Vietnam veteran who values discipline in everything, who is pulling the strings and turning this unit into something respectable.
At 5-1, the Cowboys have the best record in the NFL, and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli deserves the lion's share of the credit.
You didn’t think he could do it, did you? You shouldn’t beat yourself up. No one saw this coming, not after Monte Kiffin allowed this same defense sail off into oblivion as it gave up the third-most yards in NFL history a year ago.
The Cowboys are 5-1, possessing the best record in the NFL (shared with the equally surprising San Diego Chargers) and doing so with a defense that doesn’t make you want to assume the fetal position.
The job Marinelli has done is remarkable. Consider that the Cowboys’ best pass rusher of the last decade (DeMarcus Ware) is in Denver; that the Cowboys’ top pass rusher of a year ago (Jason Hatcher) is in Washington; and that the Cowboys’ best linebacker (Sean Lee) is out for the season. Oh, and their top defensive draft choice of this year, Demarcus Lawrence, is on injured reserve and won’t be back until November.
Have fun with that, Rod, most thought. And Marinelli has, just not in the way anyone expected.
Marinelli has turned a bunch of spare parts, rehabbing veterans and untapped young players into a competent defensive line that is finally rushing the passer consistently. They put Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson on the run Sunday, forcing him into several uncharacteristic sloppy throws, two of which were nearly picked off.
He’s supplemented this pass rush with a set of revolving linebackers he brings on delayed blitzes. They rotate because every week it seems a different linebacker gets hurt (this is the Cowboys after all). The sack numbers aren’t stellar, but it’s been clear the last two weeks this wrinkle is putting quarterbacks on their heels.
In the secondary, Marinelli is getting improved play from cornerback Brandon Carr and safety J.J. Wilcox. The return of Orlando Scandrick in Week 3 made this group stronger, and Sterling Moore is making you forget about the injured Morris Claiborne. Marinelli is playing to their strengths — man coverage — when possible, even though the Cover 2 scheme he believes in calls for more zone.
But it’s more than improved play. The Cowboys are getting team off the field on third down more often (5-of-13 against Seattle). The Cowboys are forcing teams to accept field goals instead of touchdowns more often in the red zone (Seattle had to kick two field goals in three red zone trips on Sunday).
And while they’re giving up chunks of yardage — the Cowboys entered the game giving up more yards per play than any team in the NFC East — they’re not giving up points. Entering Sunday no team had given up fewer points in the NFC East than the Cowboys.
Finally, Marinelli’s tough, no-nonsense personality has manifested itself in one other way. The Cowboys, especially the past two weeks, have tackled with such fundamental intensity that it makes you want to show their game tape to youth football teams and say, “Now that’s how you tackle.” Can you remember the last Cowboys defense that made you say that?
If you’re like me, you can’t remember the last time a Cowboys defense made you say many of these things. That’s a credit to Marinelli, who finds himself leading the Cowboys’ sudden, but welcome, defensive renaissance.