Sports Outside the Beltway

2007 Dallas Cowboys Taking Shape

There are still two more preseason games and some tough decisions ahead. Still, the coaching staff — and the fans — have a pretty good idea of what the 2007 edition Dallas Cowboys will look like.

AP’s Stephen Hawkins notes that, although the 2007 defense looks like the 2006 version, first impressions can be quite deceiving.

Nothing really looks different when Dallas Cowboys defenders get set for a play. Basically, the same players from a year ago are lining up in the same spots. Then the ball is snapped and it becomes very clear – this isn’t Bill Parcells’ 3-4 defense anymore.

“Nah, it’s totally, totally different,” linebacker Bradie James said. “You see the smiles. I think you can see from our body language, we’re actually having fun.”

While the base formation hasn’t changed, new coach Wade Phillips brings an attacking philosophy with his 3-4 defense. Phillips adjusts the scheme to fit the players, freeing them to make plays instead of forcing them into set roles that can shackle them. “You’ve got an opportunity to move around and run places and not have to worry about technique all the time,” Marcus Spears said. “You’re just trying to get in gaps, stunt and make plays.”

In their two preseason victories, the defensive starters didn’t allow a touchdown against Denver or Super Bowl champion Indianapolis. Denver’s first-team offense went 0-for-5 on third-down conversions. Some Broncos even grumbled afterward that Dallas blitzed too much for a preseason game. After the Cowboys’ first practice this week since beating Denver, the good-natured Phillips wasn’t even prompted when he cracked that the team “decided to put in a blitz this week since we hadn’t had any.”


When asked Wednesday what differed about the “Phillips 3-4″ from other three-man fronts, the grinning coach responded, “Beside being better?” “It’s not really the scheme itself,” he said. “It’s always the players.” Phillips said so many 3-4 defenses “play it only one way … and you have to plug in a player that can play that way. … Ours, we have the players and then we plug in saying this is what we’re going to do with the 3-4 because you can stunt, or you’re stronger, or you’re quicker or you can rush the passer.”


Phillips isn’t so sure of the characterization that it’s a blitz-blitz-blitz scheme. Aggressive and attacking doesn’t only mean blitzing – even if that’s what Dan Reeves used to think when Phillips was his defensive coordinator in Denver and Atlanta. “You only have three down linemen. Always with us, there’s going to be a fourth rusher,” Phillips said. “Some people call that a blitz. Dan Reeves used to call anytime you brought a linebacker, that was a blitz. … If you call that a blitz, then we blitz coming out of the dressing room.”

Heh. Rob Phillips (no relation) notes that Wade Phillips takes the customization down to the level of backup nose tackle.

As [Jason] Ferguson enters his 11th season, the Cowboys need a capable backup to emerge as a potential injury replacement and simply to spell the 32-year-old starter, who looked effective as ever last Saturday with two tackles, a sack and a pass deflection.

Phillips was pleased with [Remi] Ayodele’s performance against the Broncos and likes the first-year tackle’s quickness and savvy. [Jay] Ratliff’s switch to nose tackle Saturday doesn’t eliminate Ayodele, [Ola] Dagunduro and [Montavious] Stanley as backup candidates.

But the aforementioned trio has played a combined three regular-season games – all by Stanley, the Cowboys’ sixth-round draft pick last year who was released at final cuts and played part of the season in Jacksonville before getting signed back to the Cowboys’ active roster.

Ratliff (6-4, 305) is smaller than Ferguson but has great athleticism for his size, having converted from tight end after his freshman year at Auburn. Phillips said he plans to take advantage of Ratliff’s quickness by using more stunts when he’s in the game. “A few more blocks and everything is happening a little bit faster, that’s all,” Ratliff said of the differences when moving inside. “I just want to play. Wherever they need me, I’m willing to go.”

And, indeed, the major controversies on this team seem to be finding a backup nose tackle; deciding whether to retain veteran kicker Martin Gramatica, rookie Nick Folk, or both; and how many tight ends, wide receivers, linebackers and fullbacks to keep given the bevy of talent at those spots.

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