Let's get straight to the point: What's the key to the new Cowboys' defense?
Some may argue that the key is a dominant, penetrating three-technique defensive tackle to disrupt every offensive play.
Another might say that the key is a top-flight safety to keep the lid on the offense and prevent, or punish, big plays.
Still others might argue that elite, ball-hawking corners or speedy, unblockable defensive ends are the necessities to run this defense with success.
I'd never say that any of those players wouldn't help this defense (or any defense, for that matter), but I will say that they are not the most important players on the field. No, the real keys to this defense's Week 1 success were those three linebackers, too often overlooked as luxury items in this four-three front.
Now allow me back up and explain myself.
When you look at what a defense is trying to do as a unit, you can often break the defense apart into three distinct groups: the defensive line, the linebackers, and the secondary. For sake of simplicity, let's also say that we have only two possible settings for each of these units: aggressive and conservative.
An aggressive defensive line is rushing the quarterback down-after-down. A conservative defensive line strives to own the line of scrimmage and contain the offensive backfield. Ours is aggressive.
An aggressive linebacking corps is mixing blitzes with man coverages and short zones as they attack the offensive backfield (they're playing in the box). A conservative linebacking corps drops back into deep zones and flows to the run only once it's been diagnosed. Ours is conservative.
An aggressive secondary plays with its corners in press-man coverage and its safeties in the box, with the goal of disrupting and disarming the offense. A conservative secondary plays deeper than the offense and aims to keep the ball in front of them to prevent big plays. Ours is conservative.
Now let's look at the three main goals of any defense: rush the passer, contain the receivers, and stop the run (often in that order). Our defensive line is rushing the passer. Our secondary and our linebackers are containing the receivers, and the running game is stopped by those same three linebackers.
If rushing the passer is the top priority, then shouldn't the defensive line be the most important place to stockpile talent?
No. Not in this scheme, anyway. If you look around the league at an assortment of random teams you might note that it sometimes seems difficult to generate a pass rush with only four rushers. Why is that, do you think? Often, it's a result of the defensive linemen having gap responsibilities in the running game, which inevitably slows their pass rush.
The Cowboys' scheme allows the defensive line to rush unencumbered by nuisances such as gap control and containment, to the detriment of the rush defense. The talent of the defensive linemen is not of utmost importance, because the scheme is designed to limit their responsibilities.
If rushing the passer is taken care of by the scheme, then surely covering the receivers will require top-flight talent, no?
Again, the answer is no. This is a scheme in which the secondary players are supposed to keep the offensive players in front of them. Better to allow them space underneath (where the linebackers are waiting) than to let them get deep.
Once more, the players in the secondary in this scheme are not being asked to do as much as, for example, the secondary in Wade Phillips' man-coverage scheme. The scheme is yet again protecting the players by giving them limited responsibilities. Elite talent here, as with the defensive line, is a matter of diminishing returns.
Wait, so the key is...stopping the run?
That's right. More specifically, the key is the ability of the linebackers, who are very deeply committed to assisting in pass coverage, to diagnose and destroy running plays quickly and efficiently.
Consider a Cowboys team with, for example, the Giants corps of linebackers. These are players with essentially average skills: average speed, average play diagnosis, average agility, etc. Imagine those three linebackers dropping back into their relatively deep zones and then reacting to the run. Sometimes they get there and limit the play to four yards. Sometimes they whiff on the tackle and give up ten. Sometimes they don't recognize the play until it's behind them. Allowing opponents consistent success on the ground is almost as bad as hoisting a white flag.
No, I'm not suggesting that a team that gives up 35 yards on 5 carries in an entire game is a bad defensive team. Sure, the yards-per-carry are ridiculous, but the fact that there were only five rushing attempts indicates that the defense did something to discourage the other team from running (scoring points, stripping the ball, or adjusting the defense to cut down on rushing lanes, for example).
A team that allows an offense to run the ball with sustained success (no negative plays, occasional big gains), however, simply won't be able to get off the field. And if our team with its Giants linebackers decides to keep the linebackers closer to the line to prevent the run, then suddenly that once-protected secondary has its belly exposed, and slants, crossing routes, and posts are easy completions for big yardage. The defense is destroyed.
Enough of that nightmare, though; let's talk about the players we actually have: Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, and Justin Durant. All three are very fast for linebackers, with Bruce Carter possessing a set of wheels that would be the envy of many defensive backs. Lee's ability to diagnose plays has already become legendary, much like DeMarcus Ware's first step. Durant, as a consistent three-digit-tackles player, offers another helping of above-average linebacker to round out the bunch.
Whenever the New York Giants elected to run the football Sunday night, it seemed that all of the Dallas linebackers were there to make the stop. And they weren't just getting there eventually - they were often able to diagnose and recover from deep zones fast enough to stuff the plays entirely. As a result, the Giants were unable to lean on their rushing attack as the game wore on.
In fact, the Cowboys gave up only two long runs - one of 16 yards and another of 13 - with one coming from each of the Giants' backs. Excluding those long gains, David Wilson ran six times for six yards and Da'Rel Scott ran four times for seven yards. In other words, the Giants' rushing attack was almost entirely shut down. Even though the Giants' rushing attack is terrible, what inspires confidence in me, from this performance, is how quickly the linebackers were able to make contact with the ballcarrier. Defensive linemen were even, at times, able to stuff the run, despite not being responsible for defending it.
When you look back on Sunday night's game and think about what really cost the Cowboys, defensively, the first culprit that comes to mind is the secondary. Surrendering huge passing plays tends to cause that.
But when I focus on those mistakes, I don't come away thinking that this team needs more talent in the secondary. Shaving a tenth of each member's 40-yard dash time wouldn't prevent those plays from happening. In all cases, it was a matter of the players failing to execute the scheme - the same scheme designed to protect them. Practice and coaching should allow the secondary to clean up those errors.
The defensive line, despite missing half of its starters and a large contingent of its depth, played well and provided pressure exactly as it was intended to. Would an extra all-world talent have helped? Certainly. But I don't think, for example, Anthony Spencer suiting up for this game would have as positive an impact as the negative of Bruce Carter being replaced by Dan Connor. The talent we have at linebacker is more significant than the talent we're missing along the defensive line.
What do you think, BTB? Do I have it all wrong? Let me know in the comments section!
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