The real hot topic revolving around the Dallas Cowboys right now is the future of the defense. There are a bunch of theories and rumors floating around the NFL and the internet right now. Jason Garrett only added to the hysteria with his comments in his press conference last week.
"We played a lot of three-man line, and we also played some four-man line in different situations this past year," Garrett said Thursday at Valley Ranch. "We haven’t gotten to the point where we’re going to talk about what we’re going to play yet. We’re still evaluating the tape. ... Let us go through the process. You’ll see some of that stuff once we get back on the field."
On my radio show the other day I went over this a little bit. Basically what I take from the JG5000's comments, is that the Cowboys are having discussions about the future of their defense. They haven't fully committed to running the 3-4 defense that has been in place since 2005 when Bill Parcells installed the change.
That tells me that they are indeed thinking about the idea of moving back to a 4-3. It doesn't mean they will, but the idea has been planted and there is discussion going on around that topic.
I think it is a wise decision to at least consider the possibilities of considering a change.
On my radio show and recent comments on BTB, I have displayed my concerns with the 3-4 defense in Dallas. I think people are starting to get the impression that I don't like the 3-4 defense and I don't want people to get the wrong idea.
I like the 3-4 defense, when it's working. I just prefer the 4-3 defense because I think it is easier to draft for.
- I think the 3-4 is the harder defense to draft for. Most college teams play a 4-3 defense and there are very few schools that run a true 3-4. In my opinion, I think it's more difficult to evaluate college talent that has to change position in order to fit your 3-4 defense.
- Of course you set a profile for the type of player you are looking for, but that doesn't mean it is easy to find them.
- When looking for 3-4 DE's, you are looking for disruptive players who can rush the passer and stop the run.
- The NT position is one of the most important. Usually you are looking for a prospect with size and strength. NT is one of the harder positions to find when evaluating college talent.
- When looking for 3-4 OLB's, usually you are looking for prospects who were 4-3 DE's in college. This is risky because they have to make the position change from a down lineman, to a stand up pass rusher. We had great success with DeMarcus Ware, but we are still looking for his compliment on the other side.
- When looking for 3-4 ILB's, you want to look for prospects who have good range and can play sideline to sideline. These prospects must have the speed to play in pass coverage and also be strong enough to take on blockers and fly into the gaps in the run game.
I think if you find and have the right talent for the 3-4, it then becomes a great defense. When the 3-4 is working correctly, you confuse the opposing offense with your blitzes. I think the 3-4 does a good job against the run and when the pass rush is working, the 3-4 defense can be deadly.
But over the recent years in Dallas, I haven't seen our 3-4 work properly. You can put it on the lack of talent we have for the system and the coaching. Whatever area you want to place blame on is fine with me.
There are reasons why I like the 4-3 defense.
- I think it is easier to find talent for since most college teams run a 4-3 defense. Most of the time, you don't have to worry about a prospect making a positional change.
- The 4-3 defense primarily gets pressure from it's front four. When you have a good front four, you can generate pressure without blitzing and drop into coverage.
- Dropping back into coverage makes it harder for teams to throw the ball.
- Later on in games, you start bringing a fifth or sixth man in blitzes and then you can really get after the quarterback.
- I think the 4-3 is less gadgetry and gimmicks when compared to the 3-4. I believe that sometimes the 3-4 defense is too confusing for players and I believe the 3-4 defense sometimes relies too much on these gadgets and gimmicks.
- The 4-3 is more of a straight up defense.
I don't hate the 3-4 defense, I actually was very fond of it when we changed to it under Bill Parcells. It's just that over the years, I have come to the understanding that the 3-4 is a personnel based defense. You truly need the right personnel and if you don't have the right players for the scheme, the results could be disastrous.
Free Agency And The Draft
I believe that the Cowboys will remain in a 3-4 defense under head coach Jason Garrett. Garrett has always preferred the 3-4 defense and when he was interviewed for head coaching jobs, he had the 3-4 defense in mind.
What the Cowboys do in free agency could then dictate their draft strategy and eventually what defense they run.
If the Cowboys signed a marquee free agent like Mario Williams or Cliff Avril, would they then switch back to the 4-3 defense? I think Mario is a long shot and it is very unlikely that he will be a Cowboy. But the dream is possible I suppose.
Adding Mario Williams would then give you one of the most dominant 4-3 DE's in the league. Obviously, Mario Williams made the transition to a 3-4 OLB last year under Wade Phillips in Houston. But having DeMarcus Ware and Mario Williams as your DE's in a 4-3 could be a really dynamic duo.
A lot of our current personnel could play in the 4-3.
- DeMarcus Ware was a 4-3 DE at Troy and people say he would be too undersized to play the 4-3 DE position. Well then I encourage you to go look at the size of some of the best 4-3 DE's in the NFL. Look up Jared Allen and Dwight Freeney and tell me what they weigh in at.
- Anthony Spencer has always been a 4-3 DE. Spencer has been playing out of position since he left Purdue, where he was dominant as a 4-3 DE. If we resigned Spencer, I would love to see him as a 4-3 DE.
- Marcus Spears is another player playing out of position. For years people have said Spears would benefit as a 4-3 DT.
- Jay Ratliff is one of the most undersized NT's in the league. Imagine him not having to face double and triple teams every series on defense? A move to the 4-3 might lengthen his career and unleash Ratliff.
- Jason Hatcher looks like a great piece for the 4-3 defense at either DT or DE.
- Sean Lissemore is a young, up and coming player who could play in either system. His skill set would translate well to the 4-3.
- Josh Brent would be a very solid DT in the 4-3.
Then you look at our linebackers.
- Sean Lee is the Chuck Norris of linebackers. He can play anywhere and be damn good at it. Lee would make one heck of a MLB (Mike LB) in the 4-3.
- Bruce Carter is a relatively unknown commodity at this point in time. But what we do know is that he was a great player for Butch Davis at UNC in the 4-3. Bruce Carter has the athletic skill set to play almost any LB position in the 4-3.
So this is where the draft comes into play. Moving to a 4-3 would make us play the card some of us fear the most, drafting yet another inside linebacker.
But with arguably the best inside linebacker in the entire draft possibly available when we go on the clock at pick 14, Luke Kuechly from Boston College would be a home run draft pick. Now hear me out before you stop reading this article and Chuck Norris your computer.
Moving to a 4-3 with that grouping of talent at linebacker would be amazing.
- Luke Kuechly
- Sean Lee
- Bruce Carter
That would be one of the most talented linebacker cores in all of football. Not only would you have three athletic linebackers with speed, you would have three intelligent and smart players who have a great grasp of the 4-3 scheme.
Our front seven would be in my opinion, one of the best in the NFL then.
- Luke Kuechly LB
- Sean Lee LB
- Bruce Carter LB
Then our defensive front.
- DeMarcus Ware DE
- Jay Ratliff DT
- Marcus Spears DT
- Anthony Spencer DE or Mario Williams DE
Then your rotational players.
- Jason Hatcher DE/DT
- Sean Lissemore DE/DT
- Josh Brent DE/DT
Then you figure in any players we sign in free agency or any players we draft. Adding another DT/DE in free agency and the draft would be beneficial to the defensive front. There are draft prospects like Whitney Mercilus and Chandler Jones who would be great fits at defensive end. Then at defensive tackle, you have prospects like Marcus Forston, Jerel Worthy, and Kendall Reyes. Adding one or two of those players, paired with the other moves I suggested would make a great front seven.
I just wanted to touch on the 4-3 topic a little more. It gives us something to talk about and the X's and O's get pretty interesting when you start to dig a little deeper here. We will most likely stay in our 3-4 defense under Rob Ryan, but it does give us something to talk about.
The Three Levels, Three Playmakers Theory
Last week on KD's podcast, Krunchtime With KD, I brought up an interesting theory. I said how the Ravens have playmakers at three different levels on defense. Those three players are Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis, and Ed Reed. They have a playmaker at each level of their defense. ProBowlFactory went on to write a fan post on the same topic, http://www.bloggingtheboys.com/2012/1/14/2707864/watch-and-learn-how-to-improve-the-defense
- Haloti Ngata is a playmaker on the defensive line. He is a tank that plugs the run as a 3-4 NT and also has the versatility to shift out to DE and rush the passer.
- Ray Lewis is the force in the middle and it's amazing to me how he is still running strong after all of these years. Ray Lewis is still a playmaker at 36 years of age.
- Ed Reed is one of my favorite players of all time. The ball hawking FS has 57 career INT's and is one of the best safeties in NFL history. At the ripe age of 33, Reed is still to this day one of the most feared players in the secondary.
When I look at the Cowboys, I break it down like this.
- DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff would be our playmakers on the first level. Ware is still in his prime and is one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, if not the best. Jay Ratliff had a good season in 2011, but he is not the same playmaker he was a few years ago. Whether it's age or the physicality of the position, it's beginning to have an effect on his body.
- Sean Lee would be our Ray Lewis in the middle. Sean Lee is definitely becoming one of the best inside linebackers in football and looks to be one of the epic steals of recent draft history.
- In the secondary, who is our Ed Reed? It's definitely not Gerald Sensabaugh. It's definitely not Abe Elam. The best player in our secondary is Mike Jenkins, but he is far from a ballhawk right? To be frank, we simply do not have a playmaker in our secondary and this has really been a major reason for the lack of success the Cowboys have had over the years.
Will the Cowboys ever land a playmaker in the secondary? Will we ever see a Ed Reed like player back there? It's going to be tough to land a playmaker at safety. Across the league as a whole, safety play is down. In the college ranks, the quality of safety prospects has been real thin.
Part of the problem is the mental aspect of the game. Ed Reed is a devoted film room fanatic and is one of the smartest players in the NFL. He takes a student like approach to the game. He is always watching, he is always learning.
I believe that most of the young safeties that come into the league aren't as hungry as Ed Reed is. If some of these young safeties with the athletic ability would get into that film room and become a student of the game, maybe they would elevate their play.
It won't be easy for the Cowboys to land a ballhawking safety. They know this and this is why they signed Gerald Sensabaugh long term. I believe that they feel somewhat safe knowing what he can bring to the table. I believe the Cowboys are scared of the unknown. They possibly fear going out and playing a young safety in the secondary after the Alan Ball experiment of 2010 and being burned on big contracts like Ken Hamlin.
But at some point, they are going to have to take a stab at the position. I don't know if that is signing a free agent safety like Michael Griffin and his 17 career INT's, or drafting a young free safety prospect like Markelle Martin.
There is some hope that the Cowboys are looking at teams like the Ravens. Listen to the Jerry Jones video above and you will see that he does indeed value what the Ravens do, so that is some comforting news.
A lot of the great defenses in the NFL have playmakers in their secondary. It is an element that we desperately lack and one day, hopefully sooner than later, it is finally addressed.