Cowboys' defense gets second look
Subtle changes under new coordinator Paul Pasqualoni produce eye-opening results
IRVING, Texas -- There have been plenty of changes at Valley Ranch in the past two weeks, the biggest coming when Jason Garrett took over for Wade Phillips as head coach.
But when Phillips was sent home, the Dallas Cowboys also lost their defensive coordinator. Jerry Jones and Garrett elected to put the best man remaining in charge of the defense in Paul Pasqualoni.
The long-time coach who considers himself a teacher -- he even taught in elementary school -- took charge of a defense in need of something.
In the three weeks before Phillips was replaced, the defense was in shambles. It allowed 121 points and 1,299 total yards. The three opponents in that span -- the New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars and Green Bay Packers -- rushed for over 100 yards, with the Giants picking up 200.
When it came time for sacks and pass coverage, the defense couldn't perform on a consistent basis.
"Bottom line is that as players, when we weren't playing good, we weren't going out there and executing the play called," Cowboys inside linebacker Keith Brooking said. "It wasn't for a lack of effort."
Enter Pasqualoni, who didn't make too many changes to the defense. Under Phillips, the Cowboys played mainly man-to-man in the secondary and blitzed off the edge with DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. There were also blitz packages up the middle and from other areas in the field.
In Pasqualoni's first game in charge last week in the rematch with the Giants, the Cowboys forced three turnovers. They didn't get any sacks, but they were in zone coverage an estimated 20-plus times out of 76 defensive snaps.
Ware said there were only three blitzes called. At least two of the turnovers were caused by the pass rush. Bradie James came flying through a gap in the line and forced Eli Manning to rush a throw that was picked off by rookie Bryan McCann, who returned it a franchise-record 101 yards for a score.
The other blitz forced a hurried throw that gave Alan Ball a chance to jump a route and get his first interception of the season.
"That was different for me," Ware said about the lack of blitzes. "The majority of the time they think I'm coming, but sometimes I can drop out of there. They look and say, 'Ah, DeMarcus is dropping this time.' And they have to go to that second read and that gives some other guys the opportunity to get pressure on them."
Now, this is not to say the Cowboys' defense was perfect Sunday. The Cowboys allowed 480 total yards -- 107 rushing -- and the defense was on the field for 37:51.
Pasqualoni might take on a conservative approach to a defense with more zone coverages and fewer blitzes, but that doesn't mean he's not willing to disguise coverages or a blitz's origin.
"In this league you want to present as many looks as you possibly can for the quarterback," Pasqualoni said. "You like for the quarterback to make some decisions after the ball is snapped. So we're trying to do that and we will keep working on that. It's hard to do. You can't always do it as much as we can we like to do it."
While many of the defensive players didn't know much about Garrett because he worked as the offensive coordinator, the defensive players were quite familiar with Pasqualoni and his background.
He started his coaching career in 1968 as the linebackers coach at Penn State. He was the head coach at Syracuse, where he coached current Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb. He's coached both offensive and defensive units and called plays on both sides at Syracuse.
The Cowboys first hired him in 2005 to coach the tight ends. He ended up coaching the linebackers the next season. After a two-year stint as the defensive coordinator with the Miami Dolphins, he returned to the Cowboys toward the end of last year as the defensive line coach when Todd Grantham left to become the defensive coordinator of Georgia.
Many Cowboys were glad to see him return, including Ware and defensive end Stephen Bowen.
Pasqualoni, who can be seen jogging around Valley Ranch between meetings and practices, speaks direct, firmly and with an authoritative voice. If a young player was just signed to the team, Pasqualoni is on the practice field early showing him the proper techniques.
Whether Pasqualoni can fix the defense long-term is undetermined, but the Cowboys should feel confident they have a man who has plenty of experience at the job.
"I learned to never take one thing for granted," Pasqualoni said. "When you're teaching in elementary [or somewhere else], that's a principle that carries very, very well."