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Scouting the Cowboys ILB Prospects -- Think 46

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I'm writing a piece on Wade Phillips' extense use of the 46 defense down the stretch and it occurs to me the needs of this scheme might be dictating some of the Cowboys' draft and free agent plans.

There were many reasons to shift to more 46 plays last year. From a linebackers' perspective, it allowed Dallas to get Kevin Burnett on the field more in place in Zach Thomas.  Burnett played behind three defensive linemen and was thus able to play on 1st and 2nd downs despite being 227 lbs. 

If you're looking at the key elements of a successful 46, you need a good rushing nose tackle, a top rushing weakside end, two good man-to-man cover guys, a good blitzing strongside linebacker, an all-purpose strong safety, and an all-purpose middle linebacker, who can stuff the run and who also has the wheels to drop into the deep middle on passing downs.

In many respects, a 46 MLB resembles a quality Tampa-2 middle backer.  Mike Singletary excelled in this scheme because he could drop as well as he could plug running lanes.

Look at Dallas last year and you see a lot of key pieces in place.  Jay Ratliff is as good an inside rusher as you'll find in the current game.  Demarcus Ware fits the prototype weakside end.  Bradie James found his niche blitzing off the strongside, as Wilbur Marshall did in the '80s.  Dallas has corners who can play man.

The weaknesses, as we've discussed at length, come at SS and MLB.  The Cowboys lack a safety thumper who can cover.  At middle linebacker, they also have more half-a-loaf stories.  Burnett replaced Thomas because he can cover extremely well, but he's not an ideal long-term solution on running downs.  He's even riskier in the base 3-4, which Dallas still runs most of the time.

When you assess the ILBs Dallas has interviewed -- guys like Darry Beckwith, who list at around 230-235 lbs., but who run in the 4.6 range -- think of them in the pivot of a 46 in addition to playing over guards in a 34.  Otherwise, some of these lighter guys, the Beckwiths and the Zach Folletts, don't make sense.