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Eagles Opposition Report: Cowboys Defense

Oct 28, 2011, 1:44 PM EDT

Our look at the star players on the Dallas Cowboys' defense, led by new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
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Hate to say it, but while Juan Castillo is still finding his way as the Eagles’ defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan has reinvented the Cowboys’ defense. He’s taken their existing personnel and made them one of the better units in the league. Dallas is 11th in points per game (21.3), and seventh in yards allowed (300.5). But most impressive of all, they feature the top run defense in the NFL, conceding a paltry 69.7 yards per game, along with the second-lowest yards per carry at 3.3. They pressure quarterbacks and create turnovers as well.

And as you’re about to see, they are doing it with almost exactly the same crew they’ve had for the last few years.

OLB DeMarcus Ware
Is there a more dominant pass rusher in the NFL over the last seven seasons? Ware is poised to go down as one of the all-time greats, his 88 career sacks second only to Reggie White for the most over a player’s first 102 games. The remarkable thing is the consistency. While some ends and outside linebackers tend to get dinged up or have statistical down-years, this guy has never once missed a game since coming into the league in 2005, and has not finished below 11 sacks since his rookie season.

The scary part is Rob Ryan’s defensive scheme appears to have only made Ware better. Simply put, he has been unstoppable in 2011. Ware has already totaled eight sacks thus far, with three multi-sack games, and only one week out of six where he failed to record a sack at all. He lines up on both sides of the field, so Michael Vick and the offensive line have to figure out where he is before every snap — but that doesn’t mean he can be blocked. There is a shred of good news though. With the exception of last season’s meaningless Week 17 game, when Andy Reid only played backups, the Eagles have held Ware without a sack in four consecutive regular season meetings.

However, he did explode for three in their 2009 Wild Card playoff.

NT Jat Ratliff
Ratliff emerged as one of the premier interior rushers in 2008, but the numbers have been trending down ever since. He’s on pace to finish with fewer sacks than last season, which would make this the third consecutive year his stats dipped. Football Outsiders saw some improvement in the number of quarterback hurries in 2010, it just has not translated in impact plays. That doesn’t mean Ratliff should be taken lightly, especially with a pair of rookies along the Eagles’ interior, but it is possible at 30 years old, the undersized nose could be declining.

OLB Anthony Spencer
The player the Cowboys selected with the Eagles’ first round pick in 2007 is still around and kicking. Spencer never developed into a feared rusher, but he is a competent starter. He also seems to be benefiting from Ryan’s introduction as defensive coordinator, his three sacks having him on his way to breaking his previous career high of six. However, he can be incredibly streaky, going on long stretches without sniffing the QB at all. Case in point, Spencer has sacks in each of the first three games this season, but none since.

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ILB Sean Lee
If there has ever been a player on Dallas who is tough to dislike, this is it right here. Taken in the third round last year, Penn State fans probably had a feeling he would go on to be a solid pro, and it stings to see that happening for a hated division rival. Lee took over as a starter this season, a move that’s paid dividends already to the tune of 51 tackles and three interceptions. A tremendous two-way player who can wrap up runners or drop back in coverage, Lee might be adding “playmaker” to his repertoire as well if he keeps up with the dramatic interceptions. A fine young player, who unfortunately happens to be wearing the star.

ILB Bradie James and Keith Brooking
James remains the other starter, capable if unremarkable. After notching 100 tackles for five straight seasons, it looks like he won’t get anywhere near triple digits in 2011. With the Cowboys’ coaching staff unable to get Lee off the field, James is probably losing snaps to Brooking, who in his 14th year in the NFL continues to be a viable run-stopping specialist. The two should cycle for one another depending on whether it’s a running or passing down.

CB Mike Jenkins
Is this the Jenkins circa ’09, or Jenkins circa 2010? Watching him play last year, it was hard to imagine how he garnered a Pro Bowl selection the season prior. There is no question he has the talent, but something went wrong — maybe that something being related to the Cowboys’ 1-7 start. All I know for sure is I had to give him props for his Week 1 performance against the New York Jets. Jenkins was hurt and questionable to play, and Dallas was already thin at corner, so he gutted it out, and actually played quite well despite the fact that you could tell he was in a lot of pain.

CB Terence Newman
Wow, you’re still here.

There’s been plenty of talk that Newman’s time in Dallas could be over for what seems like the past two or three years now, but he is still holding a job down at age 33. Obviously he’s out of his prime, and not quite the caliber player he was when the Cowboys selected him fifth overall in 2003, but he plays through injuries, and can still go when healthy, his most recent Pro Bowl coming in 2009. He set a career high with interceptions last season, so don’t let all the talk of him moving on after this year fool you. This guy clearly is gonna play forever.