Cowboys’ New Look Defensive Line
The Cowboys recorded 35 sacks last year. DeMarcus Ware recorded 11.5 sacks. Anthony Spencer had 11. No other Cowboy finished the year with 5. Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett felt like Dallas needed more plays from their defense so they made a change. They fired Rob Ryan and his 3-4 Defense and hired Monte Kiffin. Kiffin brings with him an impressive resume and the 4-3 defense. So, what does the 4-3 defense bring?
Switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3
Last year the Broncos, Rams, Bengals, Vikings, Dolphins, Bears, Panthers and Titans finished in the top 10 in sacks. Those 8 teams run a variation of the 4-3 defense. The strength of the 4-3 defense is that it allows the defensive lineman to attack the line of scrimmage and read the play on the move. They can literally defend the run on their way to pressuring the quarterback. Last year the Rams and Bengals recorded 35 and 32 sacks respectively on 1st and 2nd down alone. Remember the Cowboys had 35 sacks all year. The 3-4 Defense Dallas ran relied too much on the talent at OLB to make plays. Dallas got 7 sacks from their entire defensive line last year. Dallas needed a scheme change to get more production from the defensive line.
Remember the 4-3 defense is a 1 gap system. It allows undersized defensive lineman to win with quickness and technique. The 3-4 Defense requires specific personnel. 3-4 Defensive linemen are worker bees. They need to do the dirty work so the linebackers around them can fly around and make plays. The 4-3 defense allows coaches to get the most out of their personnel. Terrific players like Geno Atkins and Henry Melton excel in the 4-3 defense. They would struggle mightily to make plays in a 3-4 Defense. There isn’t room in a 2 gap 3-4 defense for an undersized defensive lineman. Josh Brent and Kenyon Coleman are gone so Dallas doesn’t have a good two gapping player on their roster at the present time. So how does the switch from a 3-4 to 4-3 impact the Cowboys defensive line?
Monte Kiffin is known as the father of the Tampa 2 defense. The Tampa 2 is a type of coverage; it is not a type of defense. Kiffin has coached the 4-3 since the 70’s. He has two primary fronts, the 4-3 Over and the 4-3 Under. Let’s take a look at the current roster and determine where and how each player fits.
I am going to assume that Jay Ratliff and Anthony Spencer will both be on the team next year and that Marcus Spears will be cut. I am also going to assume that Marcus Spears will be cut. DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher, Sean Lissemore and Tyron Crawford will be back. Dallas signed an interesting player, Brian Price, at the end of last year. Price at 6’2” and weighing 300 lbs was selected by Tampa Bay in 2010 in the 2nd round. The problem is Price is recovering from a major injury, and can’t be counted on next year. . Anything he does should be considered a bonus. Dallas will need to add to this group via the draft. For now, let’s focus on how these players fit into Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 Over/Under defense.
Weakside Defensive End:
The weakside defensive end is also known as the open end. He lines up on the opposite side of the tight end. In Kiffin’s system he is responsible for the backside C gap in both the 4-3 Over and the 4-3 Under. This player can be undersized and is usually the best pass rusher on the team. We know that Ware will be the weakside defensive end. Ware has been battling left tackles for 7 seasons as an outside linebacker. I don’t expect Ware’s responsibilities will change too much. In fact I don’t think we should assume that he’s going to be in a 3 point stance 100% of the time. Ware does have run responsibilities. He can’t get hooked or lose containment. He is still responsible for the C gap. Ware need to get better at recognizing run plays. He took himself out of too many plays last year. If there is a fear it’s that Ware will continue to be too aggressive and take himself out of too many plays. His first steps will always be up field. If he reads run then he needs to stick his foot in the ground, set the edge and keep the play on his inside shoulder.
The strongside defensive end:
Let’s assume Spencer is back next year. Spencer has developed into a terrific outside linebacker in a 3-4. He’s great against the run and really came into his own as a pass rusher. Some would say that Spencer is too small (6ft 3 and 261 lbs) to play strongside defensive end in a 4-3 system. He’s not. Spencer has been setting the edge against right tackles and tight ends since he became the starter. The strongside defensive end in Kiffin’s system lines up to the same side as the tight end and is responsible for the strongside C gap. Spencer will not have to cover tight ends nearly as often as he did from his OLB spot. This will give him more opportunities to rush the quarterback. According to profootballfocus.com Spencer played 872 snaps last year. He dropped into coverage on 172 snaps, 3 times more than Ware. Spencer can really benefit in Monte Kiffin’s system. No player had more on his plate than Spencer did last year. He rushed the passer, played the run and dropped into coverage. This year Spencer will be able to attack more. Like Ware, Spencer can defend the run on his way to pressuring the quarterback. Spencer was great last year at abandoning his pass rush and setting the edge when he recognized the play was a run. That skill and awareness will allow him to make an easy transition to strongside defensive end.
In a 4-3 Over the strongside defensive end’s alignment will vary depending on the call. Remember he can’t get hooked and must keep containment. You will usually see him line head up on the tight end in a 6 technique. This prevents the tight end from easily blocking down on him and helps him keep containment. In a 4-3 Over it is important that the strongside defensive end and SAM linebacker are always on the same page. If the DE loses containment then SAM needs to quickly step outside and set the edge. If the DE gets too far upfield then the SAM must take over the C gap responsibilities.
In a 4-3 Under defense he can line up as a 5 technique because the Sam LB is lined up outside the tight end. The SAM in a 4-3 Under is responsible for keeping containment. The defensive end can attack the line of scrimmage freely knowing that the SAM is there to set the edge.
I believe that Spencer will play defensive end 85% of the time next year. I do believe that Kiffin will play Spencer at Sam LB on obvious run downs or against “running teams”. This won’t happen often. When it does, I believe Tyrone Crawford will take Spencer’s place at strongside defensive end.
Final analysis for defensive end:
There are a lot of teams around the NFL that would love to have Ware and Spencer. The issue for the Cowboys at defensive end is depth. Spencer and Ware will drop in coverage less next year. Therefore they will have to battle offensive lineman more. Will their bodies hold up? Victor Butler is an unrestricted free agent and it would be surprising if he is back next year. Tyrone Crawford can play end, but he isn’t going to pressure the QB consistently from the outside. I expect Crawford to slide inside to defensive tackle when the Cowboys go to their nickel defense. Dallas needs to find someone in the 3rd or 4th round of the upcoming draft that can get to the quarterback and add depth to the position. Some names to remember are Lavar Edwards-LSU, William Gholston-Michigan State and Michael Buchanan- Illinois. Dallas will need to find a defensive end early on the draft if Spencer leaves. BYU’s Ezekie Ansah, UCLA’s Datone Jones and UT’s Alex Okafor could be first round options.
The beauty of the 4-3 Over and Under is it allows the coaches to get the most out of their personnel. When Jimmy Johnson was at Miami he took his defensive ends and made them defensive tackles. He took his linebackers and made them defensive ends. Johnson wanted to win with speed and quickness, and to do that, he was willing to sacrifice size. Kiffin has a similar philosophy. He says “of course everyone want to find the big guy that can run fast. If you have to sacrifice one, sacrifice size. This system wins with quickness.” You only need one true defensive lineman in a 4-3 Over/Under defense, the one technique. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how the Cowboys stack up at defensive tackle.
1 technique defensive tackle
The 1 technique (nose tackle) always lines up in between the center and the guard. Which guard depends on the front and the tight end. He is responsible for the A gap that he lines up in 90% of the time (Sometimes he will twist or slant, but that conversation is for another day). The 1-technique will face constant double teams from the guard and center. He is the one guy on the defense that needs to be big. You want your 1 technique to use his size to play with leverage, anchor and control the LOS. The best one techniques hold up double teams long enough to keep bodies off the linebackers. On pass plays you want him to collapse the pocket, don’t allow the quarterback to step up in a clean pocket. In today’s NFL the 1-tech is a 2 down lineman. He is usually replaced by a better pass rusher when the defense goes to their nickel packages. He comes off the field in favor of a better pass rusher. Is there a player on the Cowboys’ that fits this description?
Let’s look at the roster. Josh Brent would be a great 1 technique. He’s big and stands up to double teams. He can collapse a pocket and occasionally rush the passer. Unfortunately, Brent will not be playing football for a long time. I really like Jason Hatcher’s game but he is 6ft 6 and 285 lbs. The question is, can he stay low and hold the point of attack against double teams each game? I don’t think he can give me 40 snaps a game for 16 weeks. I think Hatcher is better suited to rush the passer in nickel situations. Sean Lissemore(6ft 4, 286 LBs )played 329 snaps last year. He is young and has a friendly contract. I love his fight and, he is a terrific role player. However, it’s unrealistic to think Lissemore can handle the responsibilities of being a full time 1 technique. That brings us to Jay Ratliff. Ratliff has battled double teams since he came into the league back in 2005. It shows. Ratliff’s body is breaking down and his production has really dipped. Despite everything going on with him on and off the field, I expect him to be on the team in 2013.
The Cowboys’ currently do not have a full time 1 technique on their roster. They could get by with a NT by committee in 2013. Dallas could also draft a NT in the upcoming draft. There will be some intriguing options staring at Dallas in the 1st and 2nd rounds. Georgia’s John Jenkins, Ohio St’s Johnathan Hankins, Purdue’s Kawan Short and Alabama’s Jesse Williams should be there when Dallas makes their first selection. 1 techniques tend to fall in the draft because they are known as 2 down players. They aren’t seen as elite pass rushers. A couple of other names you should remember are Missouri Southerns’s Brandon Williams and Tennessee-Martin’s Montori Hughes. Both players impressed me at the Senior Bowl, and I think they both should be there in the 3rd, maybe even the 4th round.
The 3 technique
The 3 technique defensive tackle in Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 Over/Under system is the difference maker. He is the best interior pass rusher. Kiffin’s scheme is designed to minimize the amount of double teams the 3 technique will face. This is why smaller players can excel in a 4-3 Over/Under. Henry Melton terrorizes offensive linemen and he is 5 pounds lighter than Anthony Spencer. Kiffin’s scheme was perfect for one of the greatest 3 techniques of all time, Warren Sapp. There is little doubt that Sapp was a special talent, but Kiffin’s scheme allowed him to thrive. Sapp was undersized, but had elite quickness. Sapp was never asked to tie up offensive lineman in a 2 gap system. He played in a system that allowed him to penetrate the line of scrimmage and disrupt countless plays in the back field. Sapp averaged 10 sacks per season under Kiffin’s guidance. Today, Geno Atkins, Gerald McCoy, and Henry Melton are standout 3 techniques. They constantly make plays behind the line of scrimmage and at times take over games.
Dallas has players on their roster that can play the 3 technique. Jason Hatcher intrigues me. He had 5 sacks last year while facing a lot of double teams. He could benefit the most from Kiffin’s scheme. Jay Ratliff was a perfect 3-technique 2 years ago. Sean Lissemore will provide depth to the position and should make his fair share of plays. Tyrone Crawford could be an option when Dallas goes to their nickel packages. The combination of these players could get Dallas by in 2013. However, drafting a 3-technique in the first round could impact the entire defense.
Take a look at the defense below.
Let’s keep the focus on the 3-technique. The 5 technique to his outside keeps the tackle from double teaming him on passing plays. If the tackle did double team him then the tight end would be asked to block the defensive end 1v1. The defense would gladly take that matchup. It would eliminate an eligible receiver and give the defensive end a matchup that he should win 7 out of 10 times. In most cases the right tackle is going to block the defensive end leaving the 3 tech 1v1 with the guard.
The above defense is a 4-3 Under. The 3-technique(red arrow) and SAM linebacker (blue arrow) tell us what the front is. In a 4-3 Under the 3-technique goes to the weakside, opposite side as the tightend. The Left tackle has to focus on Ware. This leaves the 3-tech DT 1v1 with the left guard. Dallas must find someone in the draft that can take advantage of these 1v1 opportunities. Maybe Jason Hatcher can do the job and maybeJay Ratliff gets back to his old self. I still think Dallas needs to add youth and quickness to the defensive tackle position.
A pass rushing defensive tackle changes the entire defense. Dallas can already get to the quarterback from the outside. I can’t tell you how many times Ware or Spencer had clean wins on the outside only for the QB to avoid the sack by stepping up in a clean pocket. A good 3 technique would allow Dallas to blitz less. They could rush the QB with 4 and drop 7 into coverage. The strength of this scheme is its simplicity. It removes a lot of thinking and allows fast players to play fast. It doesn’t need a lot of fancy blitzes to get to the quarterback. What this defense needs is playmaker on the inside that can take advantage of the 1v 1 matchups the scheme creates. Dallas must find someone in the upcoming draft, and I for one, would have no problem if they drafted two defensive tackles