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Battles In The Trenches: Cowboys 2012 Defensive-Fronts

In recent news, the Cowboys defense led by Rob Ryan has been tagged as one utilizing "multiplicity." Last season, it was usually defined in terms of Ryan's need for players with "versatility." A few decades ago, these same concepts were discussed as the revolutionary defensive-schemes of Tom Landry and his development of "flex-linemen." In all instances, it was about the conceptual designs of defensive-fronts and how the defense would attack the line of scrimmage.

While Tom Landry is known for creating (if not perfecting) the 4-3 defense in the NFL, personally, I also consider him a forefather of modern 3-4 defenses. What Tom Landry was doing was finding ways to make his defensive-fronts more flexible, creating multiple fronts to disguise and vary how the defense would overwhelm the offensive-line. It also allowed his players to excel in gap recognition and Landry's read-and-react defensive philosophy. Landry would move around some defensive-linemen (Randy White, especially) and usually had two of them off the line, thus allowing the defense to choose where to "set the edge" and complicating blocking assignments for the offense. In effect, by creating the "flex-linemen," Landry opened Pandora's Box on multiple defensive-fronts. The days of the conventional bull-rush were replaced by more intricate pass-rush and gap-penetration schemes, and eventually led the NFL to classify and track sacks as a statistic.

In the first preseason game of 2011, Rob Ryan's Cowboys defense opened up the year with a tribute to Tom Landry and the flex-linemen. While it wasn't exactly a formation Landry would use, the concepts were very similar...and something Rob Ryan regularly tries to do with his organized chaos. Rabblerousr summed it up quite well in his post about multiplicity, including Jason Garrett's statement:

Mr. Jones mentions the multiplicity. We play a lot of multiple fronts. Hybrid type fronts, where it looks like we might have three-down [i.e., 3-4) personnel in there but we play it as a four-down [i.e., 4-3], and a lot of teams in the league do that. We feel good about that, so a lot of these players are not necessarily the fencepost defensive end, five technique, every down - that's not what we're talking about.

And similarly with our nose tackle, with Jay Ratliff, he's very rarely in a zero nose, meaning he's lined up head-up over the center. He does a lot of different things in our fronts. I think Rob Ryan does a great job providing the variety within our fronts and the versatility of our defensive linemen is a big part of that.

By using varied and hybrid fronts, not to mention the pre-snap chaos, Ryan can have his defense both confuse offensive-blocking assignments and adjust to be more effective against the specific offensive-formation. When Ryan has two down-linemen and then pre-snap Anthony Spencer or DeMarcus Ware put their hand on the ground to become the third, which of the two takes on this assignment will usually depend on how the offense is lined up. Depending on who goes in motion or where the strong-side blocker settles, Ryan's defense can adjust and shift the pressure, choosing where to set the edge rushers or overload the line of scrimmage.

Keeping this in mind, let's take a look at some formations from 2011 and which players may excel in these schemes in 2012.

At its most basic design, the defensive-front in the NFL will provide a four-pronged push with two interior and two edge points of attack. Even 3-4 defenses are designed for a four-pronged attack, using at least one outside linebacker as an edge-rusher. So whenever you hear the term "blitz" in the NFL, it will usually mean the defense attacked the line with more than four defenders. The advantage of having shifting and hybrid fronts is making blocking assignments more difficult for the offense to recognize. When an offensive-line prepares for a play, they read the defense and assign their blocking duties accordingly. When rushers aren't identified or difficult to locate, the defense has a greater chance of benefiting from mismatches and/or confusion. This is one reason the Dallas Yuglies had more problems against 3-4 defenses, since the first-year starters struggled to identify pre-snap assignments and adjust to post-snap realities.

It didn't take long to realize this was Ryan's plan, when as early as week one of the 2011 season the Cowboys defense lined up in virtually every conceivable front. The following images are examples of his three, four, and five-man fronts. While the final image has only three down-linemen, Spencer and Ware are on the line of scrimmage, effectively creating a five-man front for the offensive-linemen determining blocking assignments.

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These fronts are very telling. First, you will note Ware is lined up to attack the right-side of the offensive-line in each of these plays, avoiding the offense's best pass blocker. This is the simplest form of disguise in Ryan's 3-4 defense, masking where his best pass-rusher is coming from and trying to create advantages for the defense (and avoid double-teams). You will also note Ware is rushing the passer from different positions. In the first, Ware has lined up as a traditional 4-3 defensive end. In the second, he is playing like a "wide-nine" defensive-end, and in the third he is playing as a 3-4 outside linebacker. While all three are based on edge-rushing assignments, the stances, techniques, and footwork can vary for each.

This kind of versatility, or multiplicity, is also evident with the defensive-linemen. It is one reason guys like Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher (and Sean Lissemore, not pictured) excelled in Ryan's defense. You will notice in the first picture, Ratliff has lined up as a 3-4 nose tackle (zero-nose directly over center). Yet, in the second Ratliff is playing as a 4-3 defensive tackle, and the third he is back to playing as a nose tackle, but off-center (one-technique). The same thing is evident with Hatcher. In the three-man front Hatcher is actually playing like a 4-3 edge rusher, then in the four-man front he is playing as a 4-3 defensive tackle (3-technique), and in the final frame lined up as a 3-4 defense-end (5-technique). You will notice in each picture his stance is different. This is because each position requires different techniques, even for the same assignment. In the first two images, it seems likely Hatcher will be rushing the passer, once around the edge and the other straight up the gut. In the final image, his more compact stance suggests (to me) he has a 2-gap assignment and is preparing to anchor at the point of attack. These three formations (all during Ryan's first game as Cowboys defensive guru) show a clear intent in his defensive-schemes and varied fronts, as well as the type of defensive-linemen that Ryan would need on his roster.

As such, it makes complete sense that the Cowboys drafted rookie Tyrone Crawford. Even during his college career, the young man had experience playing multiple positions along 4-3 and 3-4 defenses. He has the length and agility to become a threat as an edge rusher in the NFL, but also has the strength and size to play the three and five-technique. A statement that also holds true (to varying degrees) for the following Cowboys linemen: Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher, Sean Lissemore, Marcus Spears, and Clifton Geathers.

As for the 2012 Cowboys 53-man roster, I assume the Cowboys will try to keep six d-linemen. Ratliff, Hatcher, and Lissemore are my predicted starters, and Crawford will be the talented rookie that makes the team and contributes in sub-packages. After those four, things get tricky. While "multiplicity" would suggest Spears and Geathers round out the six that will likely survive the cuts, Josh Brent appears to have earned himself a roster spot due to his ability to back up Ratliff as a true nose tackle. So it seems there will be some legitimate competition at training camp. Not only are the starting defensive-end positions up for grabs, but if Dallas keeps only six d-linemen, then guys like Spears, Geathers, Coleman, and Callaway will be fighting for the last remaining spot on the depth chart.

Many Cowboys fans would like some better known quantities along the defensive-line and still consider this a weakness for the team. While my hopes are primarily based on the development and progression of existing talent (and the introduction of Crawford), the Cowboys defensive-fronts were successful in 2011 and I imagine they will only improve in 2012, especially with an improved secondary and bolstered middle-linebacker depth (coverage sacks and improved run stuffing). But one thing is certain; the Cowboys roster is full of versatile linemen (and Spencer and Ware) that can help achieve multiplicity in Ryan's organized chaos that often appears a tribute to Landry and his flex-linemen.

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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