Perfect fit: Olshansky, Phillips' scheme

IRVING, Texas -- One of the Dallas Cowboys' more understated free-agent signings from the 2009 offseason involves one of the largest players on the team.

Igor Olshansky -- all 6-foot-6, 315 pounds of him -- signed a five-year deal worth $22 million to be the Cowboys' replacement for Chris Canty at defensive end.

The Cowboys were not willing to pay Canty an expensive contract, and he signed a six-year, $42 million deal with the New York Giants. Olshansky was shunned by the San Diego Chargers because they didn't believe he could play at a high level anymore.

As a run-stopper, Olshansky's numbers had declined in San Diego. In 2007, Olshansky had 49 total tackles with nine quarterback hurries and 3.5 sacks. Last season, those numbers dipped again to 29 tackles, 1.5 sacks and five hurries.

Enter Dallas, where Olshansky was reunited with coach Wade Phillips and his defensive scheme, which allowed him to make more plays.

In San Diego's 3-4 defense, Olshansky was asked to eat up two blockers so the outside linebackers could make tackles. In the Cowboys' 3-4 scheme, Olshansky is mainly asked to face one blocker and beat him so he can produce tackles.

"Igor is playing at a better level than we had at that position," Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said.

Olshansky has 40 total tackles and 12 quarterback hurries with the Cowboys this season. And while he has only 1.5 sacks, the Cowboys' run defense has improved to fourth in the NFL after being 12th versus the run in 2008.

"Igor is one of the strongest guys in the NFL," Cowboys defensive line coach Todd Grantham said. "He takes pride in his work, he plays technique well and he's a constant pro and gives you maximum effort."

Olshansky said he understands the Chargers' decision to not sign him, but he felt like he couldn't play effectively in that defensive scheme after Phillips left in 2007 to become the Cowboys' head coach.

"It's business," Olshansky said. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't care. That's how they play their card. I think they're [20th] against the run and we're like [fourth]. In the long run, I think I got the better end of the deal."

And when the teams met Dec. 13, it did get personal.

Olshansky was a pregame captain and led the team out of the tunnel before warm-ups. During the game, he had five tackles and a tackle for loss. After he tackled running back LaDainian Tomlinson, he bowed to the Chargers' sideline.

Several of the Chargers players and staffers shot him dirty looks or made obscene hand gestures.

"I feel like I'm appreciated here," Olshansky said of Dallas. "In San Diego, it was like, 'You're expendable. We can get A off the streets and play.' They got like three guys off the streets [to replace me]."

Olshansky was replacing a popular player in Canty, who didn't miss a start from 2006 to 2008 and was considered a leader among the defensive linemen. But when Olshansky arrived, the Cowboys' defensive players took him in quickly.

Nose tackle Jay Ratliff, who still speaks to Canty, said the linemen have a code -- nobody is bigger than the defensive line. So when Olshansky moved into the locker room, it was no different. Ratliff said he enjoys playing with Olshansky and said he's one of the best run-stoppers in the league.

The key for Olshansky is his easy-going personality. He calmly walks through the Cowboys' locker room on most days and speaks in a deep voice. He's very approachable, and he quickly developed relationships with his teammates.

"I'm in the weight room working out, and he comes up to me and says, 'What's up Brooking, I'm Igor,'" inside linebacker Keith Brooking said. "He tells me, 'I just want you to know, man, I came here to stop the run.' That's the first thing he said to me.

"He just loves the game, and that's what defines our defense. We have all these guys here that have the same mentality that he has. I'm glad that he's here helping us."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.