Dallas Cowboys  

 

DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee control Cowboys' defensive destiny

OXNARD, Calif. -- It was scheduled as a walk-through practice on Day 1 of Dallas Cowboys training camp, but it was more like a run-through. No pads. No helmets. No walking or slacking, either.

Monitoring it all was Jason Garrett, the head coach whose time calling plays is done, having had those duties stripped and passed along to offensive line coach Bill Callahan.

For several moments Sunday morning, Garrett stood over the first-team defense, flush with talent, namely middle linebacker Sean Lee and outside linebacker-turned-defensive end DeMarcus Ware.

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"He (Garrett) has a lot more time to go to the defensive line to outside linebackers and give us keys," said Ware, who has been fully cleared after shoulder surgery that limited him in offseason workouts. "On offense, he goes in each one of the pods, as we call them, or huddles to coach each guy up. He played quarterback. He knows how to attack offensively and defensively. He's a lot more involved, and that's helping us a lot."

It's helping now. We'll see when it's money time because not every dalliance from one's specialty translates into better production. Still, Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones wanted Garrett to focus more on team management and each individual game, and so far in practice -- literally and figuratively -- it's working.

It's hard to imagine Garrett dipping his toe into the defensive water too often. New coordinator Monte Kiffin has retooled the 3-4 fronts run by predecessors Wade Phillips and Rob Ryan to the four-man, Tampa 2 front that Kiffin helped shape in Tampa Bay, with coaches like Tony Dungy, Leslie Frazier and Lovie Smith.

Kiffin was hired in Dallas -- surprisingly to some -- after a so-so tenure with his son, Lane, at USC. The Cowboys posted the ninth-worst scoring defense in the NFL last season, managed a meager seven interceptions -- tied for worst in the league -- and had just 16 total takeaways.

The cogs to this latest attempt at improvement are Lee and Ware, whose injuries hampered them in 2012 during another 8-8 Cowboys finish. Lee missed 10 games because of a toe injury, but he's full go -- and better be.

No player is asked to do more in Kiffin's scheme than the middle linebacker. From pass coverage 30 yards down the field to jack-hammering ball carriers in the center-guard gap. In principle, the fast and talented Lee is the prototype. Think Brian Urlacher-ish. On the field, Lee could be that good. But we just don't know.

Lee hasn't played a full season in the three that he has been in the league. The Cowboys and the NFL are waiting to see if he'll become the next Great One.

"My top concern is being out here and being a better football player," said Lee, who had 58 tackles in the six games he played in 2012. "I'm excited to play this defense. It gives me opportunities to make plays. Some of the situations, I've been in before. Some are brand new. I have to take advantage of this camp. We did a good job of improving in the spring, but we have a long way to go. We're working on being a consistent defense. That's something we haven't been."

Consistent is something Ware always has been, but as we've seen, one dominant pass rusher does not a winner make.

Ware's move from a 3-4 outside linebacker to a 4-3 defensive end isn't as radical as the move the other way, he said. It's why we shouldn't expect any drop-off or confusion from one of football's best defenders.

"Going from defensive end to outside linebacker, the transition is so much different," said Ware, who played defensive end in college at Troy. "You're rushing 90 percent of the time, but you are standing up, diagnosing 12, 13 personnel and reading. In a 4-3, going from outside linebacker to defensive end, you know specifically that you're a right end or left end rushing the passer and play the run. I don't have to worry too much."

Like Garrett's new role, Ware and Lee look like potential standouts in Kiffin's new scheme -- on paper. Their durability and the functionality of the unit's other nine players will determine if the Cowboys' defense is good enough. If healthy, Ware and Lee should be fine.

If and should being the operative points.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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