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No more vanilla: Dallas ‘D’ to switch up its identity

Staff Writer
Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise

By Clarence E. Hill Jr.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

(TNS) — Through the first couple of days of practice, the Dallas Cowboys defense has been aggressive and active.

There have been interceptions by safety Donovan Wilson and cornerbacks Chido Awuzie and Anthony Brown, a forced fumble by cornerback Daryl Worley and a number of would-be sacks.

The quarterbacks have on red jerseys so touching them is not allowed.

Making plays is the No. 1 priority and that is a good early sign.

But what also is standing out as evidence of positive change to help them make plays is how they are lining up and the way they are lining up.

New coach Mike McCarthy promised multiple looks on defense with new coordinator Mike Nolan and so far they are delivering with the team alternating between its traditional 4-3 scheme and the 3-4, as well as disguising the looks pre-snap.

“Yeah, I would say schematically, we have changed it up a little bit more,” Awuzie said. “We are doing a lot of different things. We are being a little bit more multiple. Guys on the defensive line and the front seven, they are really letting them work. So we are really excited about what the defense is going to look like.”

Two-time Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence talked before camp about his excitement of rushing from a stand-up position as a 3-4 outside linebacker. That was evident on Sunday with he and Aldon Smith standing up, while Antwaun Woods lined up at nose tackle with Tyrone Crawford and Gerald McCoy at end.

“DeMarcus is a great athlete,” Awuzie said. “I haven’t seen him do it (rush from a stand-up position) too much in my career so far. I don’t think his game is limited. I think it’s going to be great to see him. Yeah, I think it’s going to be great for him.”

Sunday’s lineup doesn’t even include newly signed Pro Bowl defensive end Everson Griffen and mammoth free agent nose tackle Dontari Poe, who is still rehabbing from off-season surgery. Neither have yet to be cleared to practice.

Guard Zack Martin, however, said the unit is already making an impact.

“Obviously, we’ve had big-time additions on the defensive side, defensive line,” Martin said. “I think those guys are finding different ways to get those guys in a position to make plays. It’s been great work for us up front; obviously we’ve got a bunch of studs on the D line so it’s going to be a great camp to get everything fine-tuned going into the season.”

The team’s willingness to disguise schemes and coverages under the new coaching staff could be beneficial for the entire defense.

The lack of disguised looks under defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and passing game coordinator Kris Richard the last couple years proved to be a problem.

In 2019, the Cowboys ranked 11th in yards allowed but were 26th in turnovers and 20th in sacks.

“It’s about the pre-disguised looks,” Awuzie said. “Last year, everybody knew what we were running. Not saying it was bad. We had great players. We wanted to execute. Now, we’re starting to be a little bit more multiple, pre-disguised looks.”

Awuzie said one of the quarterbacks admitted to the defensive backs that he didn’t know what they were doing.

“It’s like a game,” he said. “They’re trying to figure it out.”

Awuzie said the Cowboys are going to be multiple in their alignment, looks and coverages.

But the biggest difference is they are going to disguise it more than in the past when they were accused of being vanilla and predictable with the single high safety look.

“We’re going to be running all the same coverages out of different looks,” Awuzie said. “I think it’s going to produce a lot of mistakes by the offense and quarterbacks.”

It’s just going to throw it into the coverage that they were expecting, but they’re not.

“When you have two high safeties or one high safety before the play starts, it’s very easy for a quarterback to diagnose where they’re going to go with the ball before the play starts. But when there are disguises, moving, being active and not being statues, it’s going to be real hard for them. They’re going to have to decide while the play’s going. I think that’s going to produce turnovers.”

The turnovers are already coming.