OXNARD, Calif. -- Three thoughts on Day 9 of Dallas Cowboys' training camp:
1. The general thought about the Cowboys’ defense seems to be that it can’t be any worse than it was last year.
Well, it can.
The first few practices have provided no indication this defense will be better than last year’s version that allowed 415.3 yards and 27 points per game. It’s not about a lack of effort, it’s about a lack of talent.
Melton has the best pedigree, but he’s fighting through the mental hurdles of the knee injury that cost him 13 games last season. He's still too worried about his knee to play with reckless regard for his body, which is what it takes to succeed at defensive tackle.
And when he did play his best football in Chicago, he had Julius Peppers at defensive end and Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher at linebacker. No one remotely resembling those players starts for the Cowboys.
Talk to enough coaches and staff members at training camp and they’ll tell you the scheme has been tweaked and there’s even more emphasis on teaching than usual because the Cowboys don’t have enough talent to overcome poor technique or mental mistakes.
None of that guarantees a better performance.
2. For the Cowboys to end this wretched four-year streak of not making the playoffs, they must play better in the fourth quarter.
Jason Garrett emphasizes it to the players regularly -- and he’s right.
Last year, the Cowboys led San Diego, Denver, Detroit and Green Bay in the fourth quarter and lost. They had double-digit leads over Detroit and Green Bay.
In the last three years, the Cowboys have been within seven points of their opponent -- ahead or behind -- in 38 of 48 games. Their record in those 38 games is 20-18.
The Cowboys won the fourth quarter seven times last season. They were 6-1 in those games with the only loss coming against Denver.
Their margin for error this season will be slim again, in part, because of the defense. They’ll need to win a lot of fourth quarters to make the playoffs.
3. Garrett and playcaller Scott Linehan insist the Cowboys will run the ball this season.
Before you roll your eyes, understand this season they’re equipped to run it because of an offensive line that has been fortified with three No.1 picks in the last four years.
Teams had no respect for the Cowboys’ running game so they often used seven defenders in coverage and still managed to contain DeMarco Murray. Play coverage this season and the Cowboys should be more than happy to punish teams with their running game -- at least that's what Garrett and Linehan want you to believe.
More importantly, a better running game will make the passing game more efficient because the Cowboys can use play-action passes to generate big plays. Tony Romo attempted just 74 play-action passes last season, one of the league’s lowest totals.
Key number: 1
The Cowboys blitzed 132 times last season, one of the lowest totals in the league, and produced just one interception and nine sacks.
Blitzes are supposed to disrupt the quarterback and force mistakes because the quarterback is making decisions under duress. Opposing quarterbacks had a 117.5 passer rating when the Cowboys blitzed last season.
Look at the personnel and there’s no reason to think the Cowboys will be any more effective blitzing this season. Their defensive line doesn’t have a proven pass-rusher.
The coaching staff has no idea how it's going to create pressure on the quarterback
Player to Watch: Justin Durant
With Sean Lee out for the season with a knee injury, recently signed Rolando McClain trying to earn trust and rookie Anthony Hitchens not ready for a starting role, Durant is making the most of his opportunity.
Durant, who had 24 tackles for the Cowboys last season, has impressed the coaching staff with his grasp of the system and his play so far in training camp.
He’s not going to be a difference-maker, but he’s been a solid player at various times in Jacksonville and Detroit. If he can duplicate that performance here, it would be a big help for the defense