The key position in the defensive scheme known as the "Tampa-2" has always been the 3-technique DT, or undertackle. From Mean Joe Greene to Tommie Harris, the undertackle has wreaked havoc and powered the defense. So, the question looms: who on Dallas' roster might be able to power the new scheme?
In a recent interview, former Tampa Bay safety John Lynch relates a story that says a lot about what makes a successful "Tampa-2." He and perennial All-Pro linebacker Derrick Brooks "always joke about it," according to Lynch:
We tell the story where Tony [Dungy] once told us, "I want to make something very clear: You and Derrick are wonderful players. I think you're Hall of Fame players. But this defense doesn't work without this guy [Sapp]. This is where it all starts." Wreaking havoc, it's tough to deal with.
As this suggests, the key to Kiffin's Dallas-2 is the 3-technique, the defensive tackle position Warren Sapp made famous in his nine years with the Bucs. Indeed, when he heard that Dallas was going to switch back to a 4-3 and hire his former defensive coordinator, Sapp's initial response was "who is the motor...? Because it's got to be the 3-technique."
Although Sapp made the "4-3 under" the dominant formation during his time in Tampa Bay (the Dungy-Kiffin defensive playbook featured both under- and over-shifted fronts, but Sapp's special ability to wreak havoc from the "under" shift skewed the defensive play-calling toward that front, where he could get one-on-one matchups that allowed him to get penetration), the "3-tech," or undertackle, has always been, as Sapp says, the defense's "motor."
As far back as the scheme's inception, with the Steelers' Bud Carson, the key guy was the 3-technique. For Carson, it was Mean Joe Greene, who rode a series of one-on-one matchups to the Hall of Fame. In the late ‘80s, the Minnesota Vikings, under Floyd Peters and Kiffin, featured Keith Millard in a stunting under front defense. In three seasons, Millard tallied ten or more sacks; in 1989, in fact, he set a record for sacks by interior defensive linemen (with 18!) that still stands today.
The lineage of great undertackles continued in the 1990s. Between 1992 and 2001, the Vikings' John Randle racked up nine seasons of 10 or more sacks, missing the mark only in 2000, when he had a mere eight. Former Cowboy La'Roi Glover's had a 17-sack season in 2000 in New Orleans - one of his few seasons playing as a 3-tech. In the last decade plus, myriad undersized DTs, guys like Minnesota's Kevin Williams, Atlanta's Rod Coleman, and the Bears' Tommie Harris, have all have had very successful seasons playing the 3-technique on defenses that employ a goodly percentage of under fronts.
What is it about the under front that allows quick, undersized defensive tackles to be so successful? In a recent post, I discussed the under front; it would probably be helpful here to revisit the basics, so here goes: although Dungy and Kiffin often get credit for the coverage innovation that gave the scheme its name, perhaps the more important adjustment was the way they aligned and deployed their defensive linemen. An "under front" shifts the entire defensive line away from the offense's strong side, with the linemen deployed thusly:
- The strongside end lines up over the strongside tackle.
- On the other end of the line, the weak side end (usually the team's best pass rusher) is lined up very wide, allowing him to rush from the extreme outside edge of the offensive line.
- One defensive tackle - the 1-technique - lines up in the "a gap" but shades in the direction of the center, making him a de facto nose tackle, and leaving the strongside guard uncovered.
- The 3-technique lines up in the "B gap" between the weakside guard and tackle.
With the 1-technique attacking the gap between the center and the strongside guard, and the weakside OT forced to take the DE lined up out wide, the undertackle is typically isolated against the weakside guard. Thus, the "undershifted" front makes it very difficult for the offensive line to double-team the talented 3-technique, who enjoys one-on-ones with the player who is often the least athletic member of the opposing offensive line.
Obviously, a havoc-wreaking 3-technique would be a welcome sight in Dallas. When we look at the current players on the Cowboys' roster, many of them are nice fits for a "Dallas-2." In his Senior Bowl meet-up with reporters yesterday, Jerry Jones mentioned that two of last year's draftees were taken because they offered scheme diversity. According to Jones, Tyrone Crawford would make a good 4-3 defensive tackle and Kyle Wilber an ideal 4-3 "Sam" linebacker. Watching them in training camp last year, I cannot disagree.
But one question looms: who on this roster can play the undertackle? Who can be this defense's "motor" in the tradition of Greene, Millard, Randle, Sapp or Harris? It doesn't need to be a big guy; Sapp, the biggest of this bunch, made hay at 6'2" and 303 pounds. The ideal undertackle must be strong, relentless, and cat-quick, with the ability to shoot gaps and penetrate. Who fits that bill?
Three years ago, I would have said that Jay Ratliff was a perfect candidate, and he may well be still. But his declining production (his sack totals in the last five years: 7.5, 6.0, 3.5, 2.0. 0.0) suggests his body may have been used up absorbing punishment in a 3-4 - not to mention that his recent DWI arrest presents a PR nightmare. He may be able to offer some useful 3-tech snaps, it's hard to imagine he can be effective starting for an entire season.
The other likely candidate is Jason Hatcher, who has been the Cowboys' best defensive lineman the last two seasons. At roughly 300 pounds, he has the requisite size and strength for the position; the question is whether he has the foot speed and quick hands the ideal undertackle possesses. Perhaps because of this uncertainty, several pundits with knowledge of the scheme think Hatcher would be better suited to play the strongside end.
Given the combination of age (Marcus Spears, Kenyon Coleman and Jay Ratliff are all over 30) as well as Josh Brent and Ratliff's pending legal issues, defensive line - and particularly defensive tackle - was almost certainly going to be a top priority this offseason. Now, with the schematic switcheroo, I think it move up another notch, from yellow caution to red alert.
Without a legit 3-technique, the defense we see in 2013 might well resemble a Maserati without its "motor." And, really, how fast will that go?