Characterizing The Personality Of The Dallas Cowboys' Defense

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We know that the Cowboys have switched to a 4-3 alignment, and we know that the new scheme is called the 'Tampa 2.' Beyond these two terms, however, how should we describe the Cowboys' defense? A new nomenclature aims to solve this problem.

Far away, in the realm of Denver Broncos fandom, Ted Bartlett of ItsAllOverFatMan.com experienced a bit of a breakthrough. He formulated what he calls the 'Defensive Scheme Type Indicator,' in order to express in a more coherent manner the type of defense that a particular team or coach utilizes.

Why the new naming system? Ted raises a valid complaint about the traditional use of the dichotomy between 3-4 and 4-3 defenses as the primary descriptor of a defense.

[T]he base personnel grouping (3-4 or 4-3) [is] not only not determinative of the character of a defense, it's actually only barely relevant to the discussion.

[W]hen people watch football, they watch the ball. Their view of the game is from the perspective of the offense, so it's easier to tell what they're doing[,] in real time, than it is to tell what a defense is doing.

I have to agree with Bartlett's complaint, here. Schemes are too often known only by their primary alignment (3-4 or 4-3), and this negligence leads to a popular ignorance of things that actually matter.

You see, a statement such as 'sure, he did well against those 4-3 defenses, but a 3-4 will give him some trouble' is of little consequence. The actual scheme being utilized can cause several 3-4 and 4-3 defenses to look very similar for reasons mostly unrelated to the particular front they're identified with.

And so we have Ted Bartlett's new naming convention, identifying what he believes to be the four key dichotomies that differentiate defenses.

The dichotomies, and their respective potential designations, are as follows (please read the original article for an explanation of each of the possibilities):
Front Play - (S)tack or (P)enetrate
Run Game Orientation - (D)ownhill or (F)low
Coverage Orientation - (M)an to Man or (Z)one
Pressure Orientation - (B)litzing or (C)overage

The article also includes a complete distribution of all NFL teams amongst the 16 categories that this naming system allows for.

So, where does Bartlett place the Cowboys?

The Cowboys reside - along with the Panthers, Giants, Rams, Buccaneers, and Titans - in the PDZC group (which is the most populous, having six teams). In other words, Bartlett considers the Cowboys to be a Penetrating, Downhill, Zone Coverage team on defense.

I disagree with Bartlett on one aspect, here. The Cowboys, in my opinion, will not be a 'Downhill' run-defending team, but rather a 'Flowing' team. I'll explain that in a moment.

This change places the Cowboys in the company of the Atlanta Falcons, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Houston Texans and Minnesota Vikings (which then becomes the most populous group). It seems appropriate that, after inheriting Chicago's defensive coordinator, Dallas would run a very similar scheme to Chicago's, thus this reassignment shows early promise.

Bartlett also added a disclaimer to his original assessment of the Cowboys:

I'm going to be watching...Dallas closely, because...I could see the Cowboys going to more of a flowing run defense.

So now, with the Cowboys as a PFZC team, let's talk about what that means.

Penetrating indicates that the Cowboys do not plan to use defensive linemen as large meat-shields to swallow up running lanes. Instead, the Cowboys will be attacking the spaces between offensive linemen. Rather than pushing linemen back into the pocket, our rushmen will be inside the pocket. Instead of crowding the quarterback, we will be hitting him.

Downhill (the Cowboys' original designation) describes a defense that assigns linebackers specific gaps to fill, quickly, on running plays. In stacking fronts, this is used to give a play the appearance of 'gap integrity' (every gap assigned to a defender). This is the scheme you want to use if you like seeing Sean Lee and Bruce Carter ramming their heads into offensive guards on running plays.

Flowing (the designation I have chosen for the Cowboys) defenses allow the linebackers to read the play using their instincts and determine their optimal path to the ball. This is designed for quicker linebackers that can 'fly around the field,' particularly those with excellent instincts and diagnostic skills. This is the option that has Sean Lee and Bruce Carter ramming their heads into running backs (and read-option quarterbacks).

Zone teams, as the name implies, utilize zone defense with a frequency similar to or greater than man coverage. I will address one thing here, however: the notion that the Cowboys' corners might be underutilized, or their talents 'wasted,' in a zone scheme. Zone coverage, as far as our corners are concerned, does not prevent them from covering an opponent's best receiving threats down the field. On vertical routes, it allows the corner to stay underneath the route and play the ball, due to the guarantee of safety help over the top. On crossing routes, it allows the corner to release his man into the linebackers' zones to pick up crossers from the other side of the field, prevent checkdown or outlet passes, or prevent the sneakier quarterbacks from escaping the pocket. A zone defense frees our corners up to be the playmakers they're billed to be, while a man coverage scheme relegates all but the absolute best to do what amounts to low-reward grunt work on the perimeter of the defense.

Coverage teams, despite what some may think, are not the 'passive' teams (in contrast to 'blitzing' teams). Instead, they are the teams that attack primarily by utilizing four rushers. This is true of 4-3 teams that send their linemen with little linebacker help, as well as of 3-4 teams that typically send only one linebacker along with their three down-linemen. With effective pass-rushers along the front four, this 'coverage' style of play should present plenty of pressure, while also making quarterbacks pay for floating the ball into our secondary (a result of having linebackers in the area).

Now you may be reading this and thinking that, like a horoscope or a fortune cookie this might just be a bunch of generic nonsense that could be used to praise any number of teams in the league. For that reason, let's provide some context by comparing the scheme to previous Cowboys' defenses.

The Cowboys under Rob Ryan were a Stacking Downhill Zone Coverage team. Despite his billing as a blitzing king, Ryan was more well-known by Cowboys fans for his frequent 3-man rushes. Note that 'Stacking' teams don't always 2-gap, but rather often have one or more players 2-gap on each play. This adequately describes our defensive ends for the past few years while allowing for Jay Ratliff's frequent penetrating style. Penetrating teams virtually never assign a man to two gaps.

The Wade Phillips-era Cowboys were more of a Stacking Downhill Man Blitzing team. This combination meant safety help was a rare commodity, interceptions were infrequent at best, and play-action was a dangerous adversary, as were bunched receivers and crossing routes.

Finally, the Bill Parcells Cowboys were a Stacking Downhill Man Coverage scheme. The focus was gap integrity and, while the linebackers would play shallow zones, the receivers were covered in man-to-man by cornerbacks. This was a fairly conservative defense compared to the rest.

The changes, then, chronologically, from Parcells to Kiffin, have been as follows: From coverage to blitzing, then from man blitzing to zone coverage, and then from stacking downhill to penetrating flowing. Applying this new nomenclature to changes in defenses over time makes for an interesting narrative.

So the next time you're talking to friends, family or coworkers about the Cowboys' defense, you can eschew the clichéd description of '4-3' or 'Tampa 2' that describes a good portion of the teams in the league today, and instead explain that they are a Penetrating Flowing Zone Coverage team, enlightening them all.

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