Monte Kiffin Looking For A Three-Technique And Third Linebacker

Mike Ehrmann

Kiffin's Tampa-2 defense is predicated on having a disruptive defensive tackle manning the three-technique or undertackle spot. And that, along with plugging some other holes along the roster, means the Cowboys still have a lot of work to do to get their defense ready for 2013.

If you haven't watched Monte Kiffin's introductory press conference yet, make sure you do. It is easily one of the coolest, funniest and energizing clips you'll have seen from a Cowboys coach in a long time. I found myself smiling throughout the impromptu presser and can't help but feel excited by what Kiffin will bring to the table. And I'm not alone in feeling that way.

Incumbent secondary coach Jerome Henderson perhaps summarized the Kiffin Effect best when he said yesterday: "You love his energy," Henderson said. "He is an excited guy. He is always up, always on, always happy. It rubs off on us."

Tom Ryle started the process of looking deeper into what all of the assistant coaches had to say with his piece on Callahan and the O-line, and we'll have a lot more of those posts over the coming days, including this one.

Kiffin talked about a lot of things, but one thing that stuck out to me was his take on the front seven. Kiffin had been talking about his time in Tampa and the personnel situation when he got there in 1996. When asked about the status of the Cowboys personnel, Kiffin said he thought the Cowboys are ahead of where Tampa Bay was when he joined the team in 1996.

"We’re not the 1996 Buccaneers in any sense."

"We have some outside ‘backers that played in the 3-4 that have a chance to put their hand down; I think we have a chance to have a nose tackle or defensive tackle or two tackles inside – and it isn’t just about the three technique, but you’d better have a darned good one."

"Because when you go third down and you have a ‘green’ call on third downs, you don’t have two undertackles, you have two defensive tackles lined up on two guards and two guys lined up on two offensive tackles – and those four guys better get after it!"

"So we need an undertackle."

Terminology can become a bit confusing along the defensive line, what with 3-techniques, nose tackles,1-techniques, undertackles and defensive tackles all over the place. But as Kiffin indicates, all of that goes out the window on passing downs. At that point, you have four pass rushers. End of discussion.

All of this is conjecture of course, but Kiffin seems to indicate that he has two defensive ends, which could imply that he wants to keep Spencer (more on that in a bit). He also seems to say that he has options at nose tackle (or 1-technique). But he's pretty clear that he needs an undertackle (or 3-technique) that can consistently rush the passer. The key to Kiffin's Tampa-2 defense is the 3-technique, the defensive tackle position Warren Sapp played so effectively for Tampa Bay. The question Kiffin and the Cowboys need to answer is: Who will play the 3-technique for the Cowboys?

A couple of years ago, the answer would probably have been Jay Ratliff. However, the Cowboys' best defensive lineman for the last two years has been Jason Hatcher, and he'd be the natural choice right now. But many observers argue that the 6-6, 308-pound Hatcher might be better suited at defensive end than at the 3-technique spot manned by the 6-2, 303-pound Sapp in Kiffin's Tampa Bay defense.

If the Cowboys don't already have their 3-technique on the roster, then it arguably becomes their number one offseason priority, and they'd have to address it either via free agency or the draft. In free agency, that would probably make players like Henry Melton (CHI), Desmond Bryant (OAK) or Jason Jones (SEA) prime targets, while Sharrif Floyd, Sheldon Richardson and Kawann Short could be priority candidates in the draft.

Kiffin also identified an additional hole, that of the third linebacker in a 4-3 defense:

"And our linebacker corps, we got two really good young linebackers and hopefully there’s some others there too that can fit in because we need three linebackers in a 4-3 defense. But we do like what we see."

"We’ve had big evaluations these past couple of days with Mr. Jones and Coach Garrett and Stephen and the whole Pro Personnel Department, the college scouts, everything. We talked all about our personnel and looked at it, evaluated it and have gone through every single player."

"We have a good nucleus here for a 4-3 defense, but we still need to get better. No doubt about it."

Because of the injury situation at linebacker (McSurdy, Lemon, Lee and Carter all ended up on IR) the Cowboys have a wealth of players at linebacker. Could one of them emerge as the SAM? The Cowboys have apparently gone through their player evaluations, so they'll probably already have an answer to that question, but it'll likely be a while yet before we learn that answer.

Another big question mark obviously is the future of Anthony Spencer. Kiffin was asked point blank: "How much would you like to see Anthony Spencer back?" His answer:

"That’s probably not for me to address … I think somebody might have told me that before I got in here [smiles broadly]. I got coached up too now [laughter]."

As a coach, you'd hate to lose a player like Spencer, and Kiffin's earlier remarks about "some outside ‘backers that have a chance to put their hand down" probably included Spencer. But the salary cap ramifications for the next couple of years of giving Spencer a new contract also play a big role in deciding whether to keep Spencer.

A three-technique, a third linebacker, possibly a new defensive end - the Cowboys still have a lot of work to do on their front seven to get their defense ready for 2013.

"No doubt about it."

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