Cowboys: One big question

Have the Dallas Cowboys really fixed their defense?

I'll give them cornerback. With the free-agent signing of Brandon Carr and the surprising trade up in the first round of the draft to pick Morris Claiborne, the Cowboys have worked hard to make sure that this year's starting cornerbacks will be much more difficult for Giants fullbacks to jump over. Assuming Claiborne is the instant-impact guy he was drafted to be, he, Carr, Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick make one of Dallas' weakest 2011 units a 2012 strength.

But questions remain at other places on a defense whose total system failure was the sole reason the Cowboys lost four of their last five games and the division title. Is Brodney Pool an upgrade over Abram Elam at safety? Can they get reliable production from that other inside linebacker spot from the combination of Dan Connor and Bruce Carter? Will Anthony Spencer be a more effective pass-rusher? Do they have a plan for limiting the wear and tear on nose tackle Jay Ratliff, to help him maintain a high level of performance throughout the second half of the season?

The Cowboys' active and productive offseason has done nothing to directly address the pass rush. There is a theory that the improvements at cornerback will help the pass rush, since better coverage of receivers could give the men up front more time to get to the passer. And that may well be true. But any and all improvements the Cowboys have made on defense remain theoretical until we see that defense on the field. Last year, the party line in Dallas was that the defensive personnel were good and had underachieved and would improve in the first year under new coordinator Rob Ryan. That turned out not to be the case, and now some of the personnel have been changed. But it remains up to Ryan to put it together as a cohesive unit more capable of stopping opponents than the 2011 version was. Right now, we're taking the Cowboys' word that the new faces are dramatic enough upgrades to pull that off. But aside from the money spent on Carr and the high draft position of Claiborne, there's little outside evidence to support it. More could have been done to improve at safety, outside linebacker and defensive line, and it was not. Although Ryan may be able to make it all work, it's hard to feel too certain about it on May 3.