We've gone over Monte Kiffin's scheme extensively here at BTB. Early in the offseason, I posted excerpts of large portions of Kiffin's Tampa Bay Buccaneers playbook (they can be found, along with Joey Ickes wonderfully informative Chalkboard series, under the library tab at the top of the site), and from that we've been able to ascertain many aspects of how Kiffin likes to run a defense.
Unfortunately, the NFL landscape is constantly shifting. 'Change or die' sums up the almost yearly task set on coaches, which leads to one of two conclusions. Either my information, derived from a decade-plus-old playbook, is accurate and current, in which case Kiffin's scheme is unlikely to work in the modern NFL, or (the more likely case) Kiffin has been adapting his defense over time, including his time at the college level, and will be introducing something with a number of differences from what we saw in his old playbook.
So no, I don't believe that my previous articles have revealed the design of every one of Kiffin's plays. The diagrams might not even represent any of the plays Kiffin uses now. The series was meant more as an investigation into Kiffin's style. With that in mind, it's useful to take a step back from that and take in other information about the Cowboys' new scheme. And what better source is there for that than the players themselves?
Information in the Jason Garrett era has been flowing from Valley Ranch in a very slow trickle, but a bit has been revealed about the scheme the players are now learning. The first things we heard regarding the changes involved players being told to study the Seattle Seahawks' defense. Of course, the implications of this are vague: perhaps he wants them to copy the Seahawks' defensive energy and effort, or perhaps he wants to implement a specific front that Seattle employs. Who knows? Let's sort through some other comments by players in order to build a better picture.
The comments here are taken from interviews published on and conducted by DallasCowboys.com. The transcriptions, along with any errors and omissions, are my own.
One large complaint about Rob Ryan's defense was the lack of turnovers generated. Seattle, on the other hand, was one of the better teams in the league at generating turnovers. DeMarcus Ware touches on that when describing the changes Kiffin's brought:
I think it's going to make us more aggressive. That's one thing that we needed. We always harp on turnovers; we weren't big on turnovers last year. This defense is really predicated on effort and making it simple, but having the guys really get after it, and use their athleticism to make big plays.
Note that we can't really compare Kiffin's defense now to what it was in the '90s. This season, we're comparing it to Rob Ryan. That's how the players are seeing it, as well. So while Ware states that turnovers are being emphasized more, he means more so than they were under Ryan, not more so than he expected from Kiffin.
Still, an emphasis on turnovers is indicative of what Seattle's been trying to accomplish, as well as what Chicago has already achieved.
The Seattle comparisons have inspired some to think that Kiffin may be backing off on a previous hallmark of his scheme: the rushmen rush, always. Seattle incorporates both even and off fronts, mixing one-gap and two-gap responsibilities along the line to manufacture specific outcomes that they believe will be advantageous, be it funneling run plays toward help or collapsing the pocket from the blindside.
Jason Hatcher might have something to say about that:
We're just attacking. We're just attacking up front. You know, attacking, hitting the gaps, linebackers reading off us. We're obligated to make plays this year. We're not sitting back, blocking blockers and then the linebackers run. We actually will make plays up front so I'm very excited about the opportunity that I get to play in this scheme...
If you can make plays and you're just not sitting back holding up a block, it's a good day.
It may not be a definitive declaration, but it seems so far that Hatcher hasn't been two-gapping, and he's quite happy about it. This, by the way, coming from someone expected to play the 1-technique (known by some as the 4-3's 'Nose Tackle') at 290-295 pounds. I don't think he'd choose that playing weight if he expected to be impersonating Kenyon Coleman this season.
I'll also note that I'm relieved to see a move to strict one-gap play. While two-gap schemes look good for fancy blitzes (it looks more sound against the run, on paper, when you can assign multiple gaps to one guy), they're lacking in both excitement and effectiveness. When you look at our line, you see a bunch of smaller, explosive athletes who can get off the ball, up the field, and around their blockers in a hurry. It's a waste of their talents to have them do otherwise.
In the same vein as what Ware was discussing, this seems more like a defense that will be emulating the Seahawks' playing style and mentality more than their specific fronts and play-calls.
Kiffin's style, however, is to be fundamentally sound. Barry Church can refresh our memories on what that means:
...It's definitely a gap responsible defense. So everybody has their gap, and there's no gray area as far as, "oh, there's guys in the hook area, so, maybe I should have 'em or maybe the corner should have 'em." Everybody has their responsibilities and knows what they have to do...
Is this what got Rob Ryan fired? Gray areas? Church seems to be speaking from experience, and at the same time explaining what amounted to a large amount of fingers pointed, shoulders shrugged, and heads shaken within the Cowboys' secondary in recent years.
My feelings on gray areas are themselves in somewhat of a gray area. Jason Garrett's offense uses them - they're called option routes. The design of the play is some shade of gray until the quarterback and receiver both make a read and shift things to (hopefully) identical renditions in black-and-white. The ambiguity is part of the effectiveness, but it also creates a sizeable hurdle for new players and slow learners. If we had eleven Sean Lee's to take the field, then I wouldn't mind a defense full of gray areas. It's an exercise in risk management that I'm simply not qualified to engage in, though it leaves open to debate whether or not the gray areas in Garrett's offense are going to be sharpened a bit under Bill Callahan's watch.
But when Kiffin told his players to watch Seattle's game tape in order to prepare for his defense, it appears his meaning was different than first thought. Decades of experience as a coach have likely impressed on Kiffin that athletes don't view defensive schemes (for the most part) from the ground up, philosophically. They're more likely to look at it relative to what they know, establish connections, and build ever-upward. It's much like comparing a baby acquiring its first language, as a whole, on its own, with an adult studying a new language, using lessons conducted in the native language and establishing connections between the two.
The majority of Dallas Cowboys defenders, right now, speak RobRyan-ese. It was built on top of the language each player spoke before joining the team. So when I go up to a RobRyan-ese speaker and want to introduce him to MonteKiffin-ese, and I say 'Seattle,' I'm not trying to establish a brand new start. Rather, I'm trying to introduce my own language by way of some form of common ground. Between Kiffin and Ryan, Seattle might just be that link. In that case, we don't have to think about how much more like Seattle we can be, but rather how far beyond Seattle (and thus beyond Ryan), this team can go on the way to where Kiffin wants them to be.