Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys continue to get most out of uninspiring defensive personnel

July 31, 2015 - Oxnard, CA, USA - Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Rod Marinelli holds up a play for the linemen during the morning walk through in the team's Oxnard, Calif., training camp on Friday, July 31, 2015

In an era where second-chance coaches have become en-vogue hires, given that the past three Super Bowl champions received guidance from a retread, Rod Marinelli would be one of the boldest picks out there.

Given what happened the last time he was given permission to lead a team, that seems unlikely. But his failure as a head coach has been the Cowboys’ gain.

What’s happening this season in Dallas is getting lost because everything Dak and Zeke, but the Cowboys’ defense again is overachieving based on the sum of its parts. Much like the last two seasons, Dallas’ stoppers are outperforming their projections and helping to the 6-1 cause.

It’s helped Dak Prescott- and Ezekiel Elliott-fueled ground game has been so dominant it’s taking pressure off this defense, but the Cowboys being the only team in the league that hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher or receiver shows the kind performance the defense is receiving.

Because Dallas has put three teams, and the Bengals, Bears and Packers boast top-10 receivers. A.J. Green, Alshon Jeffery and Jordy Nelson having off games — Green, especially, who managed to total more yards against the Broncos (77) than Cowboys (50) — against Dallas including mop-up time is a low-key achievement for the third-year coordinator’s unit.

As for rushers, the Cowboys have faced some teams that don’t use workhorse backs in the Giants, Eagles, Bears and Bengals, decreasing the chances one of those teams’ backs exceeds 100 yards on his own. And the team’s own ground force prevents opponents from sticking to theirs for as long, generally. The Cowboys have only allowed 100 yards to two teams this season — the Giants (113) and the 49ers (106) — en route to the No. 9-ranked rush defense.

They of the 12th-ranked total defense and 14th-slotted DVOA group, the Cowboys are getting the most out of what they have. That’s one of the hallmarks of a quality coordinator. The players expected to perform well — Sean Lee, Byron Jones, etc. — are. The rankings are unspectacular, but Marinelli is not working with the kind of talent Wade Phillips or Kris Richard is. He’s managed to construct an upper-echelon defense without the aid of a high-end pass-rusher.

01 SEP 2016: Dallas Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence (90) waits on the sideline during the NFL Preseason game between the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. Houston defeats Dallas 28-17 (Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportwire)

01 SEP 2016: Dallas Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence (90) waits on the sideline during the NFL Preseason game between the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. Houston defeats Dallas 28-17 (Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportwire)

The Cowboys’ 14 sacks tie them for 21st, but even that’s an achievement considering what they’ve been without. Post-suspension Demarcus Lawrence has none after registering a team-best eight last season, and the ’15 team’s mercurial cogs — Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory — are gone (for all intents and purposes, with the latter being suspended until late December). A makeshift collection fronted by the probably overpaid Tyrone Crawford (team-high 3.5 sacks) has done enough to stop opposing passing offenses despite often playing with leads.

Denver frequently plays with leads as well, but the defending champions possess Von Miller and a throng of able supporting-casters. Looking at Dallas’ front seven, you’d be hard-pressed to pick three players who’d start there.

Marinelli also didn’t have the benefit of either of the team’s top two draft picks going toward his 2016 team, heightening the degree of difficulty.

Down Rolando McClain as well, Marinelli’s managed to make this work. Somehow, a Chiefs 2015 practice squad player, David Irving, rates as Dallas’ top edge defender, per Pro Football Focus.This, coupled with the stunning competency of Morris Claiborne, continues the weirdness going on in Dallas right now.

Claiborne didn’t even have his fifth-year option picked up, yet is looking like he’s going to require a much bigger financial commitment come 2017 than the one-year, $3 million deal it took to bring him back to Dallas — against relatively no competition for his services — his sports hernia injury notwithstanding.

New secondary coach Joe Baker has excelled as well, clearly, with overall unspectacular charges coming into 2016 (Barry Church, Brandon Carr, Claiborne) responsible for a now-solid back line. Without Claiborne and Church in the coming weeks, though, the Cowboys’ 100-yard receiver streak will be put to the test — not this weekend in Cleveland, probably, but soon.

While Marinelli’s 0-16 season essentially disqualifies the 67-year-old DC for another head-coaching job, he’s been a gem for the Joneses in Dallas. The Cowboys’ defense has done more with less over the past three years than just about any defense in football.

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