Dallas Cowboys Switching Defenses: A Strategic Look


A lot has been written about the mechanics and personnel fit of the Cowboys' switch from the 3-4 to the 4-3 defense. The change also represents a major shift in the strategy, driven by the coaches involved.

It was a major change when the Dallas Cowboys parted ways with Rob Ryan and his 3-4 defense and hired Monte Kiffin (followed shortly by his trusty sidekick Rod Marinelli) to install a new version of his 4-3 scheme. The defense is certainly going to look different in 2013. But behind the change in formation and what stance some players will be in is a more fundamental change. The underlying strategies applied by Ryan and Kiffin are quite different, and I think that is going to have more impact on the game than anything else.

If you were around back when I first started to pop up in the Fanposts under my old Pineywoods moniker, you may remember that I have a real weakness for applying some military analogies to football. It probably comes from the fact that I have way, way more experience with the former. But today, while I was mulling over how the Cowboys will likely be approaching the defensive game, a certain parallel hit me that illustrates something that I think is rather important. It is a little bit different, but I hope some of you enjoy this.

Rob Ryan had a defensive approach that relied on disguise, reading the offense and reacting, and what were by all reports very complicated assignments and roles. When everything came together, it could be wildly disruptive, throwing things like two man fronts and dropping OLBs into coverage at the other team. The idea was to surprise and confuse the opponent, often by making the adjustments and shifts at the last moment when they could not make a counter-adjustment, and get them to throw or run to the wrong place.

This reliance on surprise, complexity, and concealment is very reminiscent of one of the great military masters of those things, World War II Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. His masterpiece was the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the entire opening phase of the War in the Pacific, when he dealt the US Navy a body blow and put Great Britain almost completely out of the fight for some time.

Like Ryan, Yamamoto used unexpected techniques, like dropping aerial torpedoes in shallow water, and the entire concept of taking out major surface combatants with air strikes. It was brilliant and a huge tactical success.

However, even in this, his most successful operation, things broke down, at least partly due to the complexity of the plan. The attack on Pearl Harbor called for three strikes by the air wings of the Japanese task force, but the commander on site became nervous because one thing was not accounted for, and that was the American aircraft carriers, which were not in port. Admiral Nagumo decided to withhold his third wave of aircraft to make sure he was not caught unawares by the missing carriers. The Americans had no idea where the Japanese fleet was, and would not have been able to mount an effective attack. Had the third wave gone in and hit certain targets that survived, such as the dry dock or submarine pens at Pearl, the damage to the US Navy would have been much greater.

Later, Yamamoto was to have much less success. His greatest failure is likely the Battle of Midway, where he attempted to lure out and destroy those carriers he had missed at Pearl. Unaware that the Americans had broken his codes and guessed the primary objectives of the operation, he went ahead with a typically complex plan. The US ignored the feint at Alaska and scored a huge victory, effectively giving themselves an advantage in the war that they never relinquished. The war would drag on for three more years, but after Midway, the outcome was nearly inevitable.

This is what happened, on a much smaller and almost infinitely less significant scale, with Rob Ryan's defense on so many occasions. Someone would miss an assignment, or the reads would be wrong, or the team could not get the proper personnel on the field (leading often to too many or too few players), and the other team would burn the Cowboys.

Monte Kiffin takes a very different approach. He has much simpler assignments, and focuses on just hitting the other team hard. He doesn't focus on surprise. He just lines his players up and dares the other team to beat them.

Likewise, a polar opposite to Yamamoto was US Army General George Patton. He did not use complex or highly deceptive plans. He just trained his units hard and went straight at the enemy, relying on maneuver and momentum to smash them. In France, he achieved historic gains against the Wehrmacht.

This is not to say he was not innovative. As a young officer just after the First World War, he realized that the tank was going to be the dominant weapon on the battlefield in the next war, and (along with a fellow future General who did pretty well for himself named Dwight Eisenhower) took a tank apart and put it back together just so he understood everything about how it worked, and how it could be improved. During WWII, he made the daring decision to advance with one flank unprotected, something most generals would be scared to death to try, relying on another new weapon, close air support, to protect his onrushing armored columns.

And Patton also was extremely good at understanding his forces' strengths and limitations. He did not have the best tanks on the battlefield. The Germans and the Soviets both had superior armor during WWII. What Patton did have were a lot of tanks that were also faster than the ones they were up against. Patton used that speed and numerical advantage time and again to win the fight.

Kiffin has that same combination of innovative thinking and simple, straight at the other guy aggressiveness. He gives his defensive linemen (now known at Valley Ranch as rushmen) one job: Go after the quarterback. Instead of reading and reacting the way Ryan and other defensive coordinators have the linemen and pass rushers do, he has them act and then read, redirecting their attack if the play is a run instead of a pass. In a game where a split second can mean the difference between a pass getting out of the quarterback's hand cleanly or not, this small difference can really matter. And in Kiffin's scheme, you are not very likely to see either of the two best pass rushers, DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, dropping into coverage. They will concentrate on what they do best: Hitting the guy trying to throw the ball.

While the guys up front are going hard into the opponent's backfield, the read and react is left up to the linebackers and defensive backs. They have the task of picking up and covering the receivers long enough for the rushmen to close on the passer. Meanwhile, the hard rush limits the time the passer has to find a target and get the pass to them, so the two parts of the defense are mutually supportive. The linebackers also have the primary responsibility for stopping the run by filling the gaps and pursuing to the outside. If Kiffin can come up with some smart linebackers who can go from sideline to sideline and lay some wood . . .

Oh, did somebody just mention Sean Lee and Bruce Carter? Yeah, that's exactly what I mean. There are many who believe that Lee will be even better in the 4-3 than he was in the 3-4, and the same kinds of things are being said about Carter.

While Kiffin uses a more simple approach to defense, he still is able to use his linebackers and defensive backs to blitz and shift thing around. Simple in this case does not mean he does not have any surprises to throw at the other team. It just means that the basic structure is easier to grasp and execute, which makes the additional things that he throws at the other team more likely to succeed. It also should reduce errors on the field, with the players far more likely to be in the right place to make a play.

As you no doubt have realized, I am very excited about Kiffin and Marinelli being in Dallas. I will confess that I did have some high hopes that Ryan could make his system work a couple of seasons ago, but I also will admit that I was not automatically convinced about him. I did not know about him, I was a bit skeptical about the record of the teams he had coached with before he was hired by the Cowboys, and I have always preferred the 4-3 alignment (probably because of my great admiration for another coach named Landry). But when I heard that the Cowboys were hiring Kiffin, I immediately felt excitement about him bringing some evolution of the Tampa 2 to Dallas. And when Marinelli came on board, I was a bit giddy. One thing I am not worried about this year is the defensive scheme. It is going to be good, and I think it will be very successful. It is just a good, good strategy.

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