Without the grand announcements of the past and with little fanfare, Sean Lee became the lead middle linebacker in the Dallas Cowboys 2011 defense. He had more gameday reps than both veterans, Bradie James and Keith Brooking, and appears to be the one calling the huddles with the coaches' speaker in his helmet. There was a very telling sideline moment as Lee and James were on the bench and Rob Ryan is speaking primarily with Lee about defensive adjustments. While this is surprising news, perhaps Cowboys Nation, myself included, missed a very obvious sign. There is one word that is routinely used when describing how Rob Ryan uses his players in his defensive schemes...versatility.
Versatility could be seen all over the field Sunday night, and not just on defense. The players that saw the most reps were those that were most versatile. And when young players were called upon to play due to injuries, Ryan seemed to maximize their abilities as well, switching to more zone coverages for Bryan McCann and Alan Ball, not to mention the big payoff of using McCray as a blitzer in a defensive back heavy formation instead of forcing him into coverage. Along the defensive line, Ryan would rotate the players depending on their skill set and the design of his defensive scheme. But concentrating on the linebackers, it is clearly evident that versatility is rewarded with more snaps as Ryan opens up his bag of tricks and defensive schemes.
Taking a closer look...
There was a great linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys that was often underrated considering how much he did for the team. A personal favorite, Dat Nguyen played for the Cowboys until 2004. The following season, in his third year in the league, Bradie James became the team's leading middle linebacker upon the switch to a 3-4 defense and led the team in tackles. He has done so ever since, leading the Cowboys in tackles six years in a row (2005 to 2010). Now in his thirties, Bradie James is still reliable and strong in the box, though he is no longer as good in coverage.
Keith Brooking has over 1,000 solo tackles in his career. But he too has grown long in the tooth. While he can still move quickly on the field, he is not very stout against the run in a 3-4 defense where he often has to fight off offensive linemen. Considering the versatility Rob Ryan asks for the majority of his players, is it surprising that the young Sean Lee, who is good in coverage, quick to react to plays, and strong against the run, is now the lead linebacker? Add in all the reports of Sean's work ethic and football smarts, and this seems to be a "classic" Garrett-Ryan era coaching decision.
Throughout the night, Sean Lee showed good instincts reading and reacting to plays (like his interception) and was often around the ball (like his fumble recovery). Sean Lee was so involved in the game that he even had a solo tackle on special teams. There was a question about the Cowboys inside linebacker depth, but so far, Lee appears to be the real deal and well-rounded linebacker, not to mention the clear number one. Bradie had the second most reps and Brooking has become the third inside backer on the roster. It appeared that when Ryan was worried about the run (even from passing formations), Bradie James was the usual choice beside Lee. However, on clear passing downs and secondary heavy formations Brooking would sometimes take Bradie's place beside Lee in coverage. The most evident example being when he deflected a pass intended for Dustin Keller as the Jets reached the redzone in the third quarter. Interestingly enough, the play that followed was a good example of Ryan's use of versatile players as well, specifically his outside linebackers.
On that third-down play following the Brooking pass deflection in the redzone, Ryan decided to rely on a 3-man rush (two of the top three corners not available) using only his three down-linemen. Of course, two of those were also his starting outside linebackers. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer were often found with their hand on the ground and one play specifically showed that this was a variable "flex" lineman spot depending on the offensive formation, as Ware had his hand on the ground at the start of the play, but the offense sent a man in motion and Ware backed off the line and Spencer became the fourth "lineman."
Because Ware and Spencer have the ability to play with their hand on the ground, fast enough to rush but strong enough to play the run, Ryan has the ability to utilize interesting schemes and even switch between three and four-man fronts pre-snap, not only between plays. This kind of versatility helps disguise his aggressive blitz packages and adds fuel to the "organized chaos" fire. Ware and Spencer also switched spots as left and right outside linebackers to confuse the offense, and Ware even blitzed from the position of an inside linebacker. Finally, the other aspect of the Ware-Spencer duo that is often forgotten is their ability to play coverage in space, providing Ryan even more ability to disguise coverages and blitzes.
There were many examples of this versatility being used throughout the Week 1 game, but just reviewing the first defensive stand on the Jets opening drive can show what these versatile linebackers can do when used in a multifaceted scheme like Rob Ryan's.
First offensive snap for the Jets (1st and 10) - By now a well known fact, Ware and Spencer switch spots and Ware abuses the right tackle for a sack. Bradie James and Sean Lee were the starting inside linebackers in this "base" set, though this is something that could certainly change in games where the offense isn't known for running so often on first down, though the Jets surprisingly opened up in a three wide receiver set.
Second offensive snap for Jets (2nd and 15) - The Jets again line up in a pass heavy formation, with their tight end lined up as a lone wide out to the left and three receivers on the right. This time Ryan brought in an extra corner and slid Scandrick into the slot. Interestingly, what I had begun to call the "Spencer Nickel" in the preseason with Spencer playing as the third down-lineman when an extra corner was brought onto the field, actually became the Ware Nickel against the Jets, or at least this specific play where Marcus Spears was replaced by Ware as the 3-4 defensive end. In this specific play call, Spencer and Bradie also blitzed, and though with no proof, I believe this was called as a run blitz with Rob betting his brother and the Jets (known for their rushing prowess) would run the ball after taking a sack on first down.
Third offensive snap for Jets (3rd and 10) - Ryan calls up a four-man front with the Jets facing third and long. Ware and Spencer are both on the line as defensive ends beside Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher, while the inside linebackers can drop back into coverage. Ryan manages to blitz his best pass-rushing outside linebackers while still keeping seven in coverage with both inside linebackers and extra defensive backs. Sending only four, the Cowboys created pressure and forced a quick throw short of the first down marker.
In just the Cowboys three opening defensive plays of the 2011 season, we already saw more creative use of personnel for this defense than our former head coach and defensive guru had ever attempted in years past. Later in the game, on a goal-line play, Ryan actually uses all three inside linebackers on the field at once (something I've never witnessed before). This is an exciting defense to watch, with more formations and player rotations than I have ever seen in Dallas. If Rob Ryan can continue to create a strong pass rush with three-man fronts (like Ware, Ratliff, and Spencer) and disguising pressure packages with versatile linebackers, the defense should be able to compensate for the injuries to the corners and shortcomings in the secondary. If the Cowboys can get everyone healthy and playing to their full potential, this good become a very scary defense. Tracking how Ryan uses the personnel has been as fun as the early results have been, despite the loss. I assume if anyone asked Rob Ryan, he would explain this is the best and most versatile core of linebackers he has ever had to utilize in his defense...and Victor Butler is getting better and Bruce Carter is still rehabbing before his unveiling.