With Dallas Cowboys WR Dez Bryant's limited role last week, how do you configure for this week? Do you assume he's going to have a large role?
COACH DAVIS: We do; we expect a full game out of Dez Bryant. Probably even more targets at him than it was last week. He's getting healthier and healthier. I think he kind of tested the waters last week and he passed all the tests, so we think we're going to get a big dose of a healthy Dez Bryant.
You had all four inside linebackers practice yesterday; LB Kiko Alonso says he is going to play and it sounds like LB DeMeco Ryans is going to play. How do you see that all shaking out?
COACH DAVIS: Well, with the nature of the injuries and how they are coming, we need them practicing again to take that first step kind of like LB Mychal Kendricks did two weeks ago. So if they pass the test during the week, then we will be excited about having all four of them up.
Again, we'll use them as their health allows us to use them; how much and how well they did. We'll put them in certain packages and see who the healthiest are.
The other factor is when you have those four healthy players, they also have some special teams contributions that they have to do. If, for instance, somebody just covered a kick and is winded from that, we'll put the other guy in. So, there's a rotation that's kind of fluid during the game on their health, stamina, and special teams involvement, which we need a big role from all of them in that also.
This will be the first time that you have had all four. Are you looking forward to the different things you can do with having them all healthy?
COACH DAVIS: Absolutely. But one of the things -- you can't expand any of the roles of the guys that haven't been practicing. First, you got to get them back into the main role, get them oiled up to where they're very confident and play well at that spot before I can get too exotic with packages.
If all of them had been playing for the whole season, then I would say, "Okay, now we're going to start going outside of the box". But right now, they haven't had enough practice or game reps to do that.
Is it a challenge for you to get all of them reps in a game?
COACH DAVIS: It's a challenge; it's a great challenge to have. We've got different packages that they all kind of fit and we can make those packages fit their talents, which is a good thing to have. But it's a great challenge to attack and to solve, but we're excited about getting them all back on the field.
How much has your perception of your optimal rotation changed since the beginning of the season because of the play of LB Jordan Hicks?
COACH DAVIS: It has changed a little bit; he has moved himself up into the conversation. In the beginning of the year, he wasn't in the conversation other than special teams and a backup role as we grew him. But, he jumped in and did such a nice job that now he has brought himself into the conversation of a main rotation.
What does Dallas Cowboys QB Matt Cassel do well?
COACH DAVIS: He has got a lot of experience and it's not too big for him; he manages the offense.
Now, what he's trying to get is the new offense and all the intricacies of it. When we played him in Minnesota, he had the full year with [current offensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders] Bill Musgrave and he had a great game against us, both with his legs moving the sticks a little bit, and throwing for, I believe, 370 or 380 yards.
We have a lot of respect for Matt Cassel and what he has done against us and what he's now doing. I know he didn't have all the success he would have liked against Seattle, but few do.
It's a different offense than what you saw in Week Two in terms of the quarterback, the skill guys, the running backs, the receivers. Is that game plan from Week Two applicable? Or do you go back to the drawing board?
COACH DAVIS: Parts of it are, but not all. We have to adjust a little bit. We have [WR] Dez Bryant in the game now. That's another weapon on top of the weapons they already have. The running back is a different running back with a different style. I think their running game is kind of morphing a little bit and playing to what his strengths are. So there are those aspects that are changing, and a little bit of protection changes with who the running backs are and tight ends. So there are parts of it that will apply and parts that we need to expand.
What about the quarterback situation? Obviously the first game, you saw Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo, and now it is QB Matt Cassel?
COACH DAVIS: Well, [QB] Brandon Weeden, at the end of that game, did pretty well against us. We have respect for Brandon. I was with Brandon in Cleveland, so I know him well and what his skill set is. We think we're getting [QB] Matt Cassel and we'll get his best. And the offense with [WR] Dez [Bryant] in there, will be better than it has been, I think.
How is LB Kiko Alonso unique among the inside linebackers that you have? Is there one or two things that he might do best out of the four?
COACH DAVIS: Kiko, and I'm still learning Kiko as we see him out there, he hasn't been there a whole lot, but Kiko is a very instinctive football player. You don't have to say much, he can go out there, and probably not even give him a call, and he could probably float to the ball and be at the ball, be in coverage, be in a good spot.
He really gets the game of football; he sees it well; he has got great eyes. So no matter what you put him in, like yesterday was his first day in a while and it was like he didn't miss a beat.
So I think he has got great football instincts and an IQ that helps him make all those plays you saw him make in Buffalo.
How does the edge rush look to you when you watched back film?
COACH DAVIS: The pass rush is good. We looked at it obviously all week, and I have said this before up here, "Are we moving? Are we affecting the quarterback and moving him off his spot?" There were a handful of things that would have been sacks, but [Giants QB] Eli [Manning] grounded it or [New York Jets QB Ryan] Fitzpatrick threw it with his left hand in the shovel, so the pocket was collapsing.
I love the way the guys are rushing together. I think this is the best year we've had of four guys being where they're supposed to be together. Now, you put a good coverage behind that like we are, and now the quarterback has to make that choice, "Am I going to force the throw and throw interceptions," which we're getting more of, and that's kind of replacing some of the sacks that were happening a year ago.
I think we're doing a nice job in our stunts, and games are way more efficient than they were a year ago. So we are excited about self-scouting that and seeing how that has grown.
How do you think CB Byron Maxwell's tackling has been?
COACH DAVIS: Max has been doing a solid job like all of them. Our last game we didn't tackle as well as we had been prior to that, but Max has been doing a good job. I can't think of a blatant one that he missed.
How about the one down the goal line against Carolina Panthers FB Mike Tolbert? Should he have had him there?
COACH DAVIS: He should have tackled him instead of going for the strip. He put his focus on getting the ball out. That one was not even a tackle, it was a missed tackle. But he was at the ball trying to strip it instead of tackling like he should have been.
When you play a team like the Cowboys that puts multiple weapons out on the field, it increases the chance that you're not going to be in base and you may use more specialty packages. Does that make the use of your inside linebacker rotation more challenging? Do it make you look at it a little bit differently when you realize you may not be in base a whole lot?
COACH DAVIS: Well, what you don't know is what they're going to come at you with. So, you can go with what they've gone with, but what we're challenged with now, is we've got really three different quarterbacks that we're looking at, two different main running backs we're looking at and an offensive line that shifts some of the protection. We have to be prepared for being a full game of base or a full game of nickel or dime or whatever they throw at us. But as far as the inside backers go, so far our base and our nickel have been about equal; so, those reps as we interchange them even up. Then [it's about] what's the offensive score? What's the score differential in the game? That affects a lot of what they do in terms of what we do.
Your defense leads the league in takeaways. Has that been the main emphasis since the beginning of the year?
COACH DAVIS: We put a huge emphasis on it and we've got the [tackling] dummies all throughout the building. We really believe that since the beginning of football, that stat, the takeaway differential, has been a huge stat in wins and losses. So, we put a lot of focus on it and the guys have it on the front of their mind. Therefore it's where we're at, at the halfway point and we need it to be there at the end of the season.
*Back in training camp, you mentioned the possibility of CB Byron Maxwell following the opponent's top receiver around wherever he lines up. Is that no longer a possibility? *
COACH DAVIS: We've done it in spurts; we've done it in different packages. I think it was in the Jets game in dime only, he followed Brandon [Jets WR Brandon Marshall]. He followed Julio [Falcons WR Julio Jones] in the first game. We move in and out of that and it's kind of attached to -- You can put a guy on there and leave him alone, or you can put two guys, like we did on Beckham [Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr.] -- we always had two guys with a little bit of an eye on him – so, if you have that, you don't need to match up. If you're going to where you're giving help maybe somewhere else, then you want to match up. So, there are a lot of things that go into it, but that is absolutely still in the mix, that we can and will go in and out of doing.
Against a guy like Cowboys WR Dez Bryant, that's a possibility?
COACH DAVIS: Yes, we could, and we might.
Whose idea was it to put the tackling dummies all around the building?
COACH DAVIS: It was a collective idea. We looked at a lot of different things and we just said, 'How can we really put it on the front of their mind?' We put the dummies in and we've got one [dummy] throwing and one [dummy] holding the ball, so [the dummies can resemble] a passer or a runner. We just said, 'Hey guys, in and out of every meeting, just put it on your mind.' We always talk about habits and that habits reflect the mission. It's a habit we're trying to get to. Then it's about, does it happen on the practice field? And most importantly, how many times are we actually attempting to punch a ball out in the game? Because the more shots on goal you get, the more success you have.
There have been a lot of hidden punches. Now one of the bad parts of it is like when Max [Maxwell] tried to take the punch and the turnover instead of the tackle on Tolbert [Panthers FB Mike Tolbert], and we lost on that one. It's a fine line between the tackle and the turnover.
When at the 3-yard line, like on Maxwell's strip attempt on Tolbert, do you have a better chance of getting a stop if you punch it out?
COACH DAVIS: Yeah, but the tackle has to be secured first. Earlier in the season, Max had a great one, I think against Dallas – Yeah, it was [against Dallas]; it was on Escobar [Cowboys TE Gavin Escobar]. Max came up and tackled and punched at the same time, and Malcolm [Eagles S Malcolm Jenkins] came and scooped it up. That is an example of the tackle first, the body in position, and then the punch. What happened against Carolina was not right; he went on one half of the man trying for the ball and didn't secure the tackle. He knows how to do it. He's actually really good at it.
How did you think DE Vinny Curry did at outside linebacker and why is he no longer playing there?
COACH DAVIS: Well, we've got multiple packages that Vinny is in. That was putting him in all of the packages. I don't think it was real fair to Vinny, not giving him the offseason to [play outside linebacker]. Really when we had [LB] Travis Long [healthy] and we had some other bodies out there, we felt like we had some depth and we had a lot of competition and Vinny could grow inside and do all those things.
When we lost Travis, and we lost numbers there, we put Vinny out there. But it kind of weakened the rest of his game. So, we kind of put him back in there and said, 'Hey, go do what you do. You've had a lot of success there and let's look at some other spots.' Outside backer conversion takes a lot of reps to get it down. It wasn't real fair to Vinny to throw him out there that quick. I was trying to manipulate what he was doing out there, but we felt like it weakened us and Vinny's game.
Are you looking at any other alternatives at the third outside linebacker spot? Possibly LB Brad Jones?
COACH DAVIS: Well, Brad practices out there a lot. Recently he's gone inside because of the injuries.
Why hasn't he been the third guy at outside linebacker?
COACH DAVIS: He has been early in the season. When Marcus [LB Marcus Smith] wasn't active, Brad Jones really was the guy active for the outside backer spot. He was available to us. Now we were going with Vinny, but we could have gone with Brad. He's definitely an option for us at the outside backer spot.
How do you go from where you were a couple years ago, among the worst in the league, to now leading the NFL in turnovers?
COACH DAVIS: I think it's a credit to the organization, the player selection and the personnel department. I think it really goes to the players, more than anybody. When you have a group of guys that work as hard as they work and put their focus in the right spots.
I think I'm more excited about -- The conversation we had when I first got here -- and we had it a hundred times -- was about tackling. Tackling, tackling, 'Are you guys doing tackling to the ground drills in training camp?' Where the tackling has come, I'm more proud of. The turnovers are always part of winning NFL football games. You have got to get the turnover ratio.
But it's the players putting the emphasis on it. It's the position coaches daily in meetings pointing out where we're doing it right and where we're doing it wrong. Then in the individual period, and Chip [Head Coach Chip Kelly] does a great job of -- better than most places I've been -- giving extended individual periods, which lets us work the fundamentals a lot more and put that emphasis in.
You see guys out here, and you're [the media] watching, you see that part of practice. That's a big chunk of why you play well, is because the fundamentals are right, the footwork is right, the eyes are right, and the tackling is where we work on that there; that's where we work turnovers. So it's a combination, like all things. You succeed as a group and an organization, and you fail as a group and an organization.
Of the four inside linebackers, could you cross-train any of them on the outside?
COACH DAVIS: We could.
Is that something you've done?
COACH DAVIS: I have done that. But right now, especially with the injuries that are happening – For instance, Brad Jones is both: he is in and out of both meeting rooms at all times. Some of the other guys could, but right now we're just coming in and out of the injuries. Without reps on the field, you've got to have reps to really learn and get it right and play well in a game.
So, if they're having multiple reps and multiple weeks of having reps, then I'm more comfortable moving them and cross-training them. When they're just coming off an injury and they're working their way back in and their reps haven't been huge, then it's just stay there until we get real comfortable there. Then we'll go outside of the box.
Down the road could LB Jordan Hicks have that type of versatility?
COACH DAVIS: Jordan has the skill set to do it. I think he could. Really, I don't think any of them couldn't. [LB] Mychal Kendricks has a nice pass rush off the edge. Kiko [LB Kiko Alonso] has length to get out there. But right now we've got to kind of get them in there. There are packages where you can get them out in space a little bit. We'll play the healthy ones as much as we can and get the best 11 on the field at all times.
DT Bennie Logan said yesterday that offenses are starting to double team all three of those guys up front. Are you seeing that?
COACH DAVIS: At times they get the doubles, but the backers – How do I say this easily? When you're playing split-safety coverages, double-teams stay on the D-line longer. So, when you're trying to stop the run and split your safeties so you're better in the passing game, the double-teams can stay on D-linemen longer.
We've done a little bit of that lately. So schematically I know when it's happening. If it becomes a problem, I bring a safety down in the box, which gives everybody a single gap. So now that double-team can't stay on as long because the backer takes the gap, the double-team comes off and now they're not double-teamed as much.
That is scheme-related: our scheme and their run of choice. So some of that has happened lately.When I try to go split-safety to the run game, that definitely happens more.
As the season goes on here, is DB Eric Rowe's role going to expand?
COACH DAVIS: Yeah. As we go and grow the corner spot and who we're playing, how we're playing it. We're very happy with Eric's progress. We think we're probably taking the right pace with him. We are very excited about where he's going to go in the future.
Any other major takeaways from the evaluations during the bye week?
COACH DAVIS: I think we're getting better each week and that's the goal. We talk about it all the time. The goal of this season; we're chasing greatness, but it takes one week at a time. Greatness is being defined as being better than your former self. So, 'Are we better than we were last week?' We were a little disappointed in Carolina because we didn't feel like we took that step forward in some areas. We've got to take the second half of the season and grow it. We've got to get better than we have been. The X-plays have been like this: seven in one game, zero the next; six in one game, three in the next. We're in a good spot with X-plays over the seven games, but that has to be more consistent. Our third down has to be more consistent. We have one good game and then one bad game. The third-and-longs, which should be knocked out every time, that's been a little bit of an Achilles' heel. We talked about that a lot. Those are the type of things that we looked at hard and put our focus on.
You mentioned the improved efficiency of the defensive line stunts. Why do you think that's gotten better?
COACH DAVIS: We worked at it and we put more time into it. You get better at what you work at. Year One we said, 'Let's get this two-gap stuff down and let's really put our focus there.' In my whole career, what you put your emphasis on, you'll get. You just can't emphasize everything at once. So you have to pick and choose as you go and say, 'Ok, that's intact and that's intact. This is weak, so let's dive into this and add more to it.' That's kind of how we grow it.