As the Dallas Cowboys transitioned from the 3-4 to the 4-3 defense, one of their more curious decisions was moving Kyle Wilber, who was an outside linebacker in the 3-4, to defensive end in the 4-3.
Two things made the move curious. First, Wilber was on the south side of 250 pounds. Second, the Cowboys knew as little about whether Wilber was a good fit for the 3-4 as they did about whether he was a good fit for the 4-3, since he didn’t play at all last year.
The Cowboys chose to develop Wilber instead of going after more experienced defensive ends on the free-agent market. The team probably didn’t expect Wilber to have to play much as the backup to DeMarcus Ware. But a quad strain changed that Sunday night against the Washington Redskins. Ware missed most of the game.
Wilber played his first significant stretch of football as a “starter,” and his game-changing play in the fourth quarter may have, at least for one night, validated the Cowboys’ faith in him.
"We have a lot of guys that have been working behind-the-scenes to get better and tonight it paid off, " linebacker Sean Lee said.
Dallas led 24-16 in the fourth quarter and Washington had the football at its own 11 after two penalties. Washington’s Robert Griffin III dropped back to pass and Wilber, working on Griffin’s blind side, actually overshot Griffin trying to rush past the left tackle. Once Wilber finally extracted himself from the lineman, he found a surprise – Griffin, standing right in front of him.
Wilber stepped up and knocked the football out of Griffin’s hand, forcing a fumble and recovering it for the Redskins’ first turnover of the game.
The turnover was a game-changer. The Cowboys had the football in the red zone and three downs to punch it in for a two-touchdown lead. Two plays later, Joseph Randle (the rookie who replaced the injured DeMarco Murray) scored to give the Cowboys a 15-point lead.
Wilbur's night underscored a game in which a bunch of guys you really don't know gave a yeoman’s effort up front. By game’s end, defensive tackle Jason Hatcher was the only defense lineman that the Cowboys had intended for the starting lineup this season, and Hatcher had a fantastic game, sacking Griffin twice.
Ware? Hurt and his return date is unknown. Anthony Spencer? Out for the season and replaced by George Selvie. Jay Ratliff? On the physically unable to perform list and it’s unclear if he’ll be back this season.
So it’s time to get to know these no-name defensive linemen. Selvie is playing for his fourth team in five years and his three sacks this season is as many as he had in his first four seasons combined. Nick Hayden, the other starting tackle, has never played a full 16-game season as a starter or reserve.
Wilber’s strip-and-sack of Griffin was the second sack of his career. His first was against St. Louis last month. The Cowboys dealt a late pick for Caesar Rayford in September. He’s a 27-year old rookie who played in the CFL and af2.
No-name indeed. But they appeared motivated by what linebacker Sean Lee called the Cowboys’ “disgraceful” defensive performance against Denver last week. "We have a lot of guys that have been working behind-the-scenes to get better and tonight it paid off, " Lee said in a post-game interview.
These short-timers, journeymen and no-names are, for right now, your defensive line rotation. On Sunday night they became major players in an effort to bottle up Griffin, an effort that was, for the most part, successful.
For many of them it was the biggest night of their young careers, and they played well in a gut-check game for the entire team.
Can they keep it up? That’s the huge question, especially if Ware is out for any length of time. It’s hard to see this band of no-name lineman maintaining this effort for the rest of this season.
But at least on Sunday night, when the Cowboys needed a group of young players to step in and step up, Wilber and the rest of them did just that.