Pressure point: Cowboys

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Dallas Cowboys and why.

The Cowboys' problems are defensive problems, and for this reason the man under the most pressure in Dallas in 2012 is second-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Brought in to fix a defense that ranked among the league's worst in 2010, Ryan enjoyed some good early returns but saw his defense collapse and effectively give away a division title that was within the Cowboys' grasp with five games left in the season.

There was improvement, of course, as there almost had to be. The Cowboys allowed the second-most points in the league in 2010 and only the 17th-most in 2011. And in terms of yards allowed, they improved from 23rd in the league to 14th. But grading a defense against the one the Cowboys employed in 2010 is like grading a song against Rebecca Black's "Friday." Just because it's better doesn't mean it's acceptable. Ryan was brought in to be a savior -- to overhaul the defense and elevate it to a championship level. Not only did he not do that in 2011, but the defense was the clear reason the Cowboys failed to reach the playoffs. The Cowboys couldn't stop anyone in December other than the sorry Buccaneers, and that's why they lost four of their last five.

Now, if the Eagles are allowed to use the lockout and the reduced preparation time as an excuse for why things didn't work as well as they'd planned, the Cowboys can too. It's fair to assume that Ryan's defense will be better in his second year in Dallas, given a full offseason in addition to the year he's already spent installing and running it. And the additions at cornerback -- free-agent cornerback Brandon Carr and first-round draft pick Morris Claiborne -- address what was the defense's biggest problem. But Ryan's got to show something really impressive this year, because if the Cowboys' defense is costing them games again in December, his record and his pedigree aren't going to be enough to spare him the blame.