Dallas Cowboys Defensive Backs: Taking Advantage Of Positional Diversity

In 2012, expect to see DBs like Brodney Pool rushing the passer...from the outside linebacker position

This is a follow-up post to O.C.C.'s superb analysis of the Cowboys' defensive backs and their propensity for "unannounced blitzing" vis a vis the rest of the league.

In a recent post on how the Cowboys recent offseason acquisitions will affect their defensive scheme in 2012, I noted that Rob Ryan's brother, Rex, runs a lot of "Cover One" (corners locked up in man coverage with one deep safety) and "Cover zero" (the same, but with no deep safety help) in New York because his premier cover cornerbacks, led by all-world Darrelle Revis, allow him that luxury. With two big, physical corners in Brandon Carr and Mo Claiborne now on the Dallas roster, I opined, we should see Rob Ryan adopt a similar scheme, with the potentially delicious result that he'll be able to open up several chapters in the playbook that collected dust last season because Dallas simply didn't have the personnel to run them.

What the Ryan brothers' defensive schemes require to be optimally successful are groups of players with diverse talents. In another recent post, this one on a defensive watchword, "multiplicity," that I expect to hear repeated a lot this upcoming season, I suggested that the point of such positional diversity is twofold: one, find guys who can line up line up anywhere, across the formation; two, ask them to to multiple things: rush, cover, play the run, delayed blitz, etc. In this way, multiplicity leads to confusion for the QB: when any of the nine non-cornerbacks in the defensive huddle can line up anywhere in the formation, the defense can disguise the actual source of pressure by making it seem as if any (or all) of those nine defenders might actually bring the heat.


Related: Dallas Cowboys Defensive Backs: Unannounced Blitzers

Which is why I was so pleased to see the following Tweet from the Mothership's Byan Broaddus, reporting on Wednesday's OTA session:

If a team has big safeties who can play the run well enough to function as nickle linebackers, the defensive coordinator suddenly has a lot more possible toys in his stocking.

What might these toys look like? Some further thoughts and a trip down memory lane after the jump...

The first thing I thought about when I read Broaddus' Tweet was the 1992-93 championship teams, whose defensive coordinators, Dave Wannstedt and Butch Davis, assembled a "base dime" package wherein they lined up in a fairly traditional 4-3, with Ken Norton at middle linebacker and hard-hitting safeties Kenneth Gant and Darren Woodson as the two OLBs. The NFL is all about match-ups; this formation allowed the Cowboys advantageous match-ups in shorter-yardage nickel situations and against teams like the Bills and 49ers who ran and passed equally well from three-wide sets (it must be noted that, in Super Bowl XXVII, the Bills exploited a mismatch by having Andre Reed line up opposite Gant in the slot; once Dallas figured out how to corral Reed, the game turned into a rout).

The 90s Cowboys used Woodson and Gant largely in the way Broaddus describes them deployed in his Tweet: as players "trying to be physical at point vs run but cover too." Indeed, Woodson and Gant functioned as elite coverage linebackers, guys who were stout enough to help stop a draw play but whose primary responsibility was to match up against the likes of Ricky Watters, Tom Rathman and Thurman Thomas in the passing game. That team, unlike the current Cowboys defense, generated pressure almost exclusively with their front four (indeed, Jimmy Johnson was on record as saying that, at both "the U" and at Dallas, his teams won with superior quarterback and defensive line play).

I'd expect the case to be very different here. As the inimitable O.C.C. points out, the Cowboys sent one of their DBs on 20% of their plays last season. But, he suggests, Rob Ryan would like to take a page from his brother's book and up that percentage; last year, his brother Rex sent a defensive back on an astonishing 44% of the opposing teams' dropbacks. Consider: in 2010, when helming the Browns defense (and when he had recent Dallas FA pickup Brodney Pool at safety), Rob Ryan rushed his DBs on 27% of dropbacks (last year, with the Jets, Pool ranked 7th among 3-4 safeties in blitz attempts, and was 14th among all safeties). From this information O.C.C. draws the following conclusion:

Ryan's Cowboys could be looking to rush the passer even more often next season than they did this year, and I would not be surprised if the number comes in at around 30%.

I'm inclined to agree. The interesting thing here is that, by lining up guys like Pool and Barry Church at linebacker as opposed to the more traditional safety alignment, Ryan does a few interesting things:

  • he gets more coverage players on the field at the same time, thus gaining more favorable match-ups
  • with more DBs on the field, he makes it more difficult for opposing signal callers to determine the coverage scheme: who will be covering whom, and in what combination?
  • he brings a potential blitzer that much closer to the line of scrimmage (thus allowing him to get to the quarterback that much faster)
  • he brings faster, quicker blitzers closer to the quarterback
  • by keeping a safety or safeties at traditional depths, he doesn't announce his safety blitzes. Remember that the point of multiplicity is to prevent the opposing QB to determine who will be bringing pressure, and from where. When a safety creeps up to the line of scrimmage, that advantage is relinquished.

One final point: the guy who made the 90s Cowboys' "base dime" work was OLB linebacker Ken Norton, who kicked inside when Gant and Woodson moved up to the front seven. Norton was a bit undersized, but boasted superb wheels and excellent read-and-react recognition skills. On third downs, he stuffed draws, blew up screens, and covered backs and tight ends across the field. The current team's version of Norton is Bruce Carter, the ILB who runs like a deer safety. At present, Sean Lee is the team's best nickel linebacker candidate at, because his ability to diagnose is still well ahead of Carter's. Once Carter's recognition skills advance - and from all indications, they will, albeit perhaps not until midseason - he could do for this defense what Norton did for Wannstedt's troops: be the do-everything man in the middle that allows everybody's positional diversity to shine.

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