Cowboys Draft: What It Reveals About Long-Term Defensive Strategy

Bruce Carter's diverse skillset will allow Rob Ryan to open up his exotic playbook

A couple of weeks ago, amidst the fervor of draft season, I authored a post inspired by Pro Football Weekly’s recently-released "Draft Value Chart." The chart ascribes to a simple formula: each round is divvied up into three tiers, and players are slotted accordingly. The significant aspect of PFW’s chart is that it is derived from information gleaned from actual teams ‘ player ratings. As a result, it gives us some notion of where the league rates the available talent.

Comparing the chart to the list of Valley Ranch and "Dallas Day" invitees, we were able, in mid-April, to see some patterns emerge and, by extension, to ascertain what Dallas draft strategy might be.  At the time, I noted that:

  • Dallas is almost certain to select an offensive lineman in the first round.
  • It appears they will target the following positions: CB, WR, RB and ILB.
  • They will look at CBs and ILBs in rounds 2-3.
  • They would like to draft a WR in rounds 3-4.
  • They would like to draft a RB in rounds 5-6.
  • They have DL and interior OL types spread throughout the draft.
  • Other than Rahim Moore, the safeties in whom they have shown interest are 6-7 round/ UDFA types

From this early evidence, Dallas’ draft played out in highly predictable fashion. They did indeed take a first-round tackle, as well as two later-round interior linemen; they drafted a wide receiver and a running back. In short, the list of pre-draft invitees effectively announced the Cowboys’ intentions and draft strategy: to upgrade the offense. Yesterday, I offered some thoughts on how this might play out on the field in 2011 and beyond.

But how about Dallas’ 23rd-ranked defense? Some thoughts about the relationship between the Cowboys recent picks and their (new) defensive strategy after the jump...

I think we can glean some similar information about their defensive intentions. As I noted my April missive, the Dallas braintrust clearly wanted to draft an ILB with a day two pick, wanted to add a corner in the mid-to-late rounds, had potential 3-4 D-linemen scattered throughout the draft, and would consider a late-round safety if the right one fell to them. Indeed, they jumped on an ILB, Bruce Carter, in the second round, and picked up a gritty corner in Josh Thomas in the fifth.

Although many Cowboys fans like both players, these decisions nevertheless brought about some gnashing of teeth, largely because they appeared to be ignoring what a large segment of Cowboys Nation sees as two positions in direst need of an upgrade—defensive end and safety. Haunted by repeating visions of opponents completing uncontested passes against an overmatched secondary, Cowboys fans are asking: what was Dallas thinking?

Lets see if we can reverse engineer their thinking process. Where the Cowboys sat in the first round, at # 9, it looked pretty certain that they would have their pick of the first-round offensive tackles or could get in fairly early on the D-lineman train. With only one first round pick, however, they would have to choose. Looking at the two position groups made the choice a relative no-brainer. After the first-round OTs, the talent level at the position dropped off a cliff—unless they, like Seattle, loved Alabama OT James Carpenter. The D-line talent pool, however, was considerably deeper, with guys like Christian Ballard and Cameron Heyward likely to be on the board at pick # 40.

If Dallas took a defensive lineman in the first round (let’s say J.J. Watt), their offense would be hamstrung once again by mediocre offensive line play. Thus the only choice, really, was to take an O-lineman first, with the hope that a first-round caliber DE might fall (I think this would been the strategy even if they dealt down). That didn’t happen; the last first-round 3-4 DL went off the board when Cam Heyward went to the Steelers at # 31, so the Cowboys went in a different direction.

In fact, they went a different direction for most of the draft: six of their eight selections were offensive players. Last weekend, they had the fewest defensive selections in a single draft since 1962—and all this for a unit that gave up the most points in franchise history. In the post-draft presser, Stephen Jones called this an "offensive draft" and suggested that that's the way the cards fell, but I think their intention all along was to load up on offense. What this says to me is that Dallas doesn't believe they need a radical talent overhaul.  Clearly, the Dallas braintrust believes that they have talented players; they merely need to deploy them more intelligently.  And that's where Rob Ryan comes in.

In Tim Layden’s book, Blood, Sweat and Chalk, a general history of football’s schematic innovations, there is a chapter dedicated to what Layden terms "The Ryan Family Defense." He examines several defenses that have been run by Buddy Ryan and his defensive-minded offspring, all of which are predicated on two central tenets: stop the run and put the quarterback on his backside. The latter is key: the Ryan boys have long been successful at devising ways for their defenders to get to opposing signal-callers.  Indeed, Buddy’s famed "46" defense, which he drew up in a team meeting as the defensive coordinator for a bad Bears team in 1979, lined three defensive linemen over the three interior members of the offensive line, to insure that none of them could be double-teamed. The result: pressure in the quarterback’s face. 

Many years later, Rex and Rob have adapted the traditional zone blitz and enhanced it, largely by dramatically altering the placement of players on the field.  Indeed, his willingness to move players anywhere on the field allowed him to conceive an almost limitless number of blitz packages. Layden writes:

It became common to see the Ravens line up with only one player in a three-point stance and five or six other linemen and linebackers strolling around the tackle box, waiting for the offense to call an audible before deciding where to attack from, or whether to attack at all.

A look at Rob’s defense in Cleveland last year--especially in back-to-back upset victories over the Saints and Patriots--shows that he follows in his brother's philosophical footsteps.

What the Ryan’s schemes require to be optimally successful are groups of players with diverse talents. Buddy's Bears has a linebacking corps who could all stuff the run, chase and cover, and blitz effectively. Adalius Thomas, who played for Rex when he was the Ravens’ defensive coordinator, say of Baltimore’s league-leading 2006 D, asks us to "Look at the collection of athletes we had in Baltimore. There were a bunch of versatile guys out there…" Such diversity leads to confusion for the QB: when every one of their defensive players is a capable blitzer, the brothers Ryan can disguise the actual source of pressure by making it seem as if any--or all--of the eleven defenders might actually bring the heat. 

This is why the acquisition of Bruce Carter—and players of his ilk—is so important: Dallas’ 2009-10 starting ILB tandem isn't athletically diverse enough for Rob Ryan to open up his portfolio of exotic blitz packages. In one of the recurring nightmares from the 2010 season, Keith Brooking and Bradie James struggle in coverage against backs, tight ends and--worst of all--slot receivers. In another bad dream, one or both of them blitz into a gap on either side of the center only to be stonewalled by the opposing O-line as the quarterback sips iced tea, calmly surveys the scene and completes yet another deep ball.

In the Cowboys’ past two second-round picks, Carter and Sean Lee, they have added two athletic linebackers who can both cover backs and tight ends and blitz with tremendous explosiveness. "Bruce Lee" (all credit for the nickname goes to the esteemed ChiaCrack), will be a diverse combo: when they are in the game, Ryan can move them (as well as DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer) around the line of scrimmage, finding matchups he can exploit.  And then exploit them. Opposing offensive coordinators won’t know exactly where Bruce Lee will line up or what they’ll do from that position.

In other words, they will be more able to confuse rival quarterbacks—which is what playing defense in the NFL is all about.  Other than a brief stretch at the end of ’08, the Dallas 3-4, since its inception in the midst of the Parcells era, has been very poor at disguising its intentions. 

I expect that to change in 2011—and beyond.

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