Dallas defense: Being unheralded is no offense Except for Sanders, Haley, unit is largely overlooked

January 26, 1996|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The images are familiar.

The Dallas Cowboys are the flash-and-glitter team with all the stars, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are the blue-collar, lunch-pail guys.

Maybe it's that way off the field, but certainly not on the field.

The Cowboys will come into Super Bowl XXX on Sunday with a basic offense that simply likes to blow the opposing team off the ball. The Steelers are the team that uses trick plays and gimmicks, featuring four- and five-receiver sets with quarterback Neil O'Donnell sometimes lining up at a wide receiver and Kordell Stewart running the option at quarterback.

That's why the real chess match of the Super Bowl will feature the Dallas defense against the Pittsburgh offense.

The Cowboys at times will counter the Steelers' spread formation with seven defensive backs, as the two sides try to outguess each other.

Despite the importance of this matchup, the Cowboys' defense -- except for cornerback Deion Sanders and end Charles Haley -- usually gets second billing in Dallas, but the defenders don't seem to mind.

"It really doesn't bother us because we've been in the shadows )) since I've been here," said linebacker Robert Jones. "We've got the guys on offense to sell the tickets, [but] we're going to win the championship."

The Cowboys main problem this season has been stopping the run. They ranked only ninth overall on defense and 16th against the rush. That's why there's a suspicion that the Steelers may cut down their gimmicks and try to control the game with their ground attack.

"In every game we lost, we didn't shut down the running game," Cowboys coach Barry Switzer said. "Look at the statistics."

He's not exactly right. The San Francisco 49ers rushed for only 86 yards while beating them, 38-20. But the 49ers aren't a running team.

When the Washington Redskins upset the Cowboys twice, they ran for 118 and 140 yards. In the infamous "fourth-and-one" loss to Philadelphia, the Eagles ran for 149 yards.

"I think the stats can be misleading," said linebacker Darrin Smith. "We have guys who were banged up. We have Russell Maryland back, we have Charles Haley back and we have Leon Lett back [from a drug suspension]. We have people back who can stop the run."

Haley's ability to play should be critical for the Cowboys. He underwent back surgery Dec. 6 and hasn't played since. He also has been bothered with the flu.

But Haley plans to play, and he's likely to make a difference. He had four sacks against the Steelers in the 1994 season opener.

How long Haley can play is the question. Defensive coordinator Dave Campo said he'll talk frequently with Haley to make sure he's not fatigued.

"I'm going to play smart football," Haley said. "Shante [Carver] can handle the job. He's been doing it and they've been winning. When I get tired, I'm going to hand it over to him."

This game means a lot to Haley because he can become the first player in league history to win five Super Bowl rings.

He won two in San Francisco in 1988-89, then added two in Dallas in 1992-93 after the 49ers, who didn't like his off-the-field demeanor, traded him.

"They threw me away," Haley said.

Another plus for the Cowboys is that Sanders has become a true part of the defense. When he joined the team in midseason, he started off in his usual one-on-one style, but it didn't mesh well with a team that has played a lot of zone.

"He's one of the most coachable guys that anybody's ever been around. I love the guy," Campo said of Sanders. "He came to me and said, 'Let me integrate into the system.' We still take advantage of his one-on-one ability, but he plays zone at times."

The Cowboys also have adjusted to stop teams from isolating wide receivers in the slot against linebackers the way the 49ers did with Jerry Rice, who turned a short pass into an 81-yard touchdown on the second play of the game Nov. 12.

Campo got a lot of heat for that play, and he said the criticism bothered him.

"I was a little upset at first," he said. "They outplayed us. It wasn't just a scheme thing. My personality is I'm an up-and-down guy. I questioned some things myself."

Campo said the team subsequently has concentrated to make sure it's not vulnerable to that type of play again.

Haley's explanation for the problems is simple.

"We weren't playing aggressive-enough football, and I think the attitude of the team has changed," he said.

He credits all the criticism in the media for helping to get the team on track.

"I thank you all [media] for that, too, because you brought us together to go out and play."

H

They'll find out how together they really are on Sunday.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.