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Rob Ryan expects more from Dallas Cowboys' defense in 2012

James D Smith/Associated Press
Rob Ryan is in his second year as defensive coordinator of the Cowboys, who finished 23rd against the pass in '11.

VALLEY RANCH, Texas -- Rob Ryan took responsibility, pointing the finger at himself for the struggles of the Dallas Cowboys' defense last year. In the coordinator's mind, the problem wasn't the players, even though the team has effectively replaced several starters from 2011.

This is his modus operandi.

The bold and brash Ryan, one of the NFL's most accomplished coordinators, has the luxury of turning the attention to himself. He can say, "It was all me, I screwed it all up," as he stated last week during rookie minicamp, and know his pedigree states just the opposite.

It's not noteworthy that Ryan looked back on his unit's inconsistent performance last season and, in perfunctory fashion, blamed himself. What is noteworthy is that Ryan has learned important lessons going forward into the offseason.

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"When we look back at ourselves, reevaluate, I think I started too fast," said Ryan, the second-year coordinator. "I put in the accelerated program without English 101, which I always struggled with. You have to have a foundation. ... It's like getting a tutor. My kid gets a tutor, he gets 90s in math. He doesn't? Forties. We need 90s or 100s."

Ryan is serving as the teacher and the tutor.

Replacing former key cogs such as cornerbacks Terence Newman (released) and Mike Jenkins (on the trading block), safety Abram Elam (not re-signed) and linebackers Bradie James (not re-signed) and Keith Brooking (not re-signed) should help. So should inserting a new crop of players, including first-round cornerback Morris Claiborne, top-flight free-agent CB Brandon Carr and inside linebacker Dan Connor.

But Ryan went out of his way to say the players last year were fine. The culprit was bad play, not bad players. That's where his new outlook takes shape.

"It just takes time to re-teach everything, get the fundamentals," said Ryan, who expressed confidence in his defensive staff to make it happen. "We're going to teach at a slower pace so we can actually learn. We tried to slow it down (in 2011), and it was a little tough for us. I got to look in the mirror, and that's on me. I'm a better teacher than that. We come back to square one, and it's gonna be great."

In the next breath, Ryan is clear that he's not "dumbing it down." He's not putting training wheels on a 3-4 hybrid scheme that can be unpredictable, convoluted and devastating. He's just going to be holding the back of the bicycle seat a little longer, evening out the wobbles.

Perhaps this time, a defense that prided itself on situational football won't fail so miserably in crunch-time situations. Like blowing a two-touchdown lead against the Jets in the opener. Or botching a 24-point third-quarter lead over the Lions. Or allowing Tom Brady's Patriots to drive 80 yards on the final possession to yank a win from their grasp. Or watching a 12-point lead disappear against the Giants at home.

Statistically, it wasn't a total disaster. Dallas did finish 14th in total defense and 16th in points allowed. Being 23rd against the pass was an issue, but teams have won with less. Instead, it was the high-profile problems when it counted the most that ruined everything.

That's where Ryan thinks the slower, step-by-step approach should pay dividends, particularly because there is no lockout to rob teams of their offseason.

"That's key for us, making plays in the fourth quarter and in two-minute," said linebacker Sean Lee, an emerging leader. "It takes a lot of work learning this defense, and the OTA period will help. Not having the spring (in 2011) and then jumping into things in (preseason) camp, it's tough to get very good at those situations. Now, we can slow things down, work on each situation. When we get into the season, we're more comfortable with certain defenses."

Every team lost their offseason last year, but it hurt teams with new coordinators the most. That may have especially been true for Ryan and his creative scheme. The way Ryan wants it, opponents won't know what defense to expect from week to week. It's the same idea that has helped his brother Rex thrive with the Jets and Ravens. Call it a 3-4, call it whatever you want -- that doesn't indicate what look offenses will face. But that can only happen when there is a supreme understanding of the concept.

A perfect example came in 2010, when a woeful Browns defense led by Ryan engineered back-to-back upsets of the Saints and Patriots. They duped New Orleans into four interceptions with a disguise-happy look, and then stymied Brady with a walk-around front that was never set before the snap.

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Ryan won't use it as an excuse, but the lockout handcuffed him last year. And trying to catch up all at once didn't do him any favors.

The optimistic view is that, armed with better players and a complete offseason program, Ryan will put his team in a better situation. Coach Jason Garrett pointed out that every coach every year has a decision to make about how much of his scheme to put in. Last year, there was simply no blueprint.

"It wasn't a typical installation if you've been a coordinator in this league to say, 'Hey, this is what we've done in the past, this is what works,' " Garrett said. "We didn't have the offseason. We had to make the adjustments. So, one of the things we try to do as a staff is be very self-critical."

Ryan is. In reality, he's always been.

On Aug. 21 last year following a preseason game against the Chargers, he said, "I screwed up." On Oct. 31 after an ugly loss to the Eagles, he said, "It's all on me." On Dec. 15 after back-to-back losses, he said, "I'll get it fixed." Except, with injury issues and lack of execution rampant, he didn't.

When Ryan said it last week, it sounded like he meant it. And there is reason to believe the sun will shine brighter on the Cowboys' defense. Last year's performance was actually an improvement over a Dallas 'D' that gave up 436 points in 2010, ranking 31st. Things, it appears, are improving, and his approach should provide some assistance.

"We're gonna be coached," said third-round defensive end Tyrone Crawford.

Ryan is on his way to really doing it this time.

"We're fortunate enough to get another shot," Ryan said. "And we're committed to getting it right."

Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @rapsheet

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