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Best Of The Best Cowboys Defensive Schemes

We continue our Best of the Best series leading up to our draft with the Cowboys defensive masterminds. For all the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the Cowboys offensive exploits, the core of this franchise has always been their remarkable, multifaceted defenses. The edict that a good defense beats a good offense might suffer some hits to its reputation in today's NFL, but it was time tested. The Doomsday Defense roamed the Sunday turf for almost two decades under Tom Landry. Jimmy Johnson's eight man defensive line rotation was legendary. The team has transitioned to the 3-4 defense in recent years, and although the team hasn't been championship caliber, the unit has turned in some stellar seasons. Without further ado, let's take a look at the men behind the nightmares of opposing offensive coordinators.

Tom Landry: Head Coach, 1960-1988

Ernie Stautner: Defensive Coordinator 1975-1988

Jimmy Johnson: Head Coach, 1989 - 1993

Dave Wannstedt. Defensive Coordinator, 1989 - 1992

Butch Davis: Defensive Coordinator, 1993-1994

Dave Campo: Defensive Coordinator, 1995 - 1999, Head Coach 2000 - 2002

Mike Zimmer, Defensive Coordinator, 2000 - 2006

Bill Parcells: Head Coach, 2003 - 2006

Wade Phillips: Head Coach, 2007 - 2010

Rob Ryan: Current

Follow the jump to see which systems will be available in our draft:

Those that made the cut:


The Doomsday Defense

(Landry and Stautner)

From Wikipedia:

Tom Landry invented the now-popular "4-3 Defense", while serving as Giants defensive coordinator... When Landry was hired by the Dallas Cowboys, he became concerned with then-Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi's "Run to Daylight" idea, where the running back went to an open space, rather than a specific assigned hole. Landry reasoned that the best counter was a defense that flowed to daylight and blotted it out. To do this, he refined the 4-3 defense by moving two of the four linemen off the line of scrimmage one yard and varied which linemen did this based on where the Cowboys thought the offense might run. This change was called "The Flex Defense," because it altered its alignment to counter what the offense might do. Thus, there were three such Flex Defenses — strong, weak, and "tackle" — where both defensive tackles were off the line of scrimmage. The idea with the flexed linemen was to improve pursuit angles to stop the Green Bay Sweep — a popular play of the 1960s. The Flex Defense was also innovative in that it was a kind of zone defense against the run. Each defender was responsible for a given gap area, and was told to stay in that area before they knew where the play was going.

Landry took the first few years of the franchise's infancy to evolve into the Flex Defense. His second year saw the addition of Bob Lilly, quite possibly the best player in the history of the franchise. By 1964, Landry commanded a top 5 defense. The unit wouldn't leave the top 10 for the next 15 consecutive years. Ernie Stautner took over the defensive play calling duties in 1973, something that Landry reportedly (and argued) wouldn't do for the offense. The defense remained top notch, although not elite, under Stautner until the team started to falter in the mid-80's.


Jimmy Johnson's 4-3 Over Defense

(Johnson & Wannstedt, Butch Davis)

Johnson took over as the franchise's second head coach in 1989 and brought Dave Wannstedt with him from the University of Miami. Following in the tradition of his 'The U' defenses, Johnson molded the Cowboys defense on speed and quickness. Instead of being a read and react defense, all four lineman were charged with penetrating through the trench and getting into the offensive backfield.

Notes on the 4-3 Over Defense: (from

In the Over front, Weak End will align in a 5-technique, that is outside shoulder of the Offensive Tackle. The Strong End will align in a 9-technique, outside shade of the Tight End. The weak Defensive Tackle (we call him the Nose) aligns in a Weak Shade, or shaded weak on the Center. The strong Defensive Tackle will align in a strong 3-technique, outside shade of the Guard. In our base defense, these defenders are gap-responsible. The 3-technique handles B-gap strong, while the Nose takes A-gap weak. The ends are responsible for C gap weak and D gap strong. We do NOT use the Ends for contain! They are spill players in our aggressive style of defense.

Note: I strongly recommend reading the article if you want more insight into the 4-3 Over


The Parcells 3-4

(Parcells and Zimmer)

Bill Parcells was the coaching coup that owner Jerry Jones had been searching for. Defensively, Parcells has carried his system with him everywhere since his Giants days. The Cowboys weren't able to get the proper personnel to run Parcells defense, however, and that forced Parcells to spend a year within Mike Zimmer's 4-3 defense. The combination of the two's philosophies was magic, leading the Cowboys to a second place ranking in points allowed and a first place in yardage. The following year though, Parcells 3-4 would make it's way into the Cowboys realm.

Notes on the Parcells 3-4 (from

The defensive line will line up in a pure 2-gap alignment here. The Nose tackle will line up in a 0-technique directly over the center and the defensive ends will line up directly over the offensive tackles in identical 5-techniques. The Middle Linebackers will be lining up directly across from the offensive guards and the OLB's will line up across from the TE and where the TE would be in a balanced 2-TE set. The CB's line up in the traditional spot across from the WR's and the FS is in the traditional spot 10 yards bck from the line of scrimmage across from the weak-side OT. The SS is lined up 8 yards back from the strongside OT.

The strongside DE is responsible for the B and C gaps on the strong side in the run game and controlling the OT in the passing game. The weakside DE is responsible for the B and C gaps on the weak side and controlling the OT on his side in the passing game. The Nose Tackle is responsible for controlling the center of the formation and both A gaps, while trying to draw double teams in both the run and the pass game.

The Weakside OLB is there to generate the most pass rush. In the run they are only responsible for outside the OT on their side, making their job simpler than the rest of the linebackers. The Inside Linebackers play almost identical roles in the run game both covering the A and B gaps on their sides. The SILB in the pass game however will be blitzing more than the WILB. The WILB is more of a traditional coverage MLB and will drop and cover the middle of the field. The SOLB is similar to the role of a 2-gap SOLB in the 4-3. They will be in charge of the TE most times in the passing game and in the running game has to cover the C-gap and outside of the TE on their side.

Although Parcells 3-4 defense wasn't top 10 caliber, the philosophy behind it so impressed Jerry Jones that he has aligned himself with the scheme for the foreseeable future.


The Wade Phillips Defense

(Wade Phillips)

As Jerry Jones looked for someone to continue in the 3-4 tradition (some would argue return to the days of a subservient head coach), Wade Phillips was brought on board. Up until the total team collapse of 2010, Phillips defenses were continuously top 10 in yardage allowed. In 2009, the team ranked second in points allowed. Although Phillips' defenses have always been considered amongst the league's best, the stats from stops prior to Dallas show mediocre results.  In retrospect, the knowledgeable Cowboys fan can look at the defense's failing to make critical stops as the reason this recent incarnation hasn't done more damage. Regardless, we needed a fourth scheme, so Phillips is in.

Notes on the Phillips 3-4 (from

The Bum Phillips basic 3-4 is a one gap 3-4 defense and relies on quickness more than other 3-4 defenses.

The Defensive line lines up in a natural one gap alignment. The Nose Tackle is in the strongside "A"-gap. The strongside DE is in a 6-tech on the strongside "C"-gap. The weakside DE is in a 5-tech role lined up across from the Tackle. The Middle Linebackers are shaded to the strong side a bit with the WILB or "Mike" lined up in the weakside "A"-gap and the SILB or "Ted" lined up in the strongside "B"-gap.

The 2010 catastrophe is burned firmly in the fans' minds, but the defense 'finally' getting it in 2009 was the foundation of the Super Bowl talk heading into last season. Phillips had a variety of schemes that he used for his personnel. Our resident scheme expert Chandus can explain it much better than I. Here is a Chandus post explaining the various packages the Cowboys employed under Phillips, and another here dealing with their nickel and dime variations.

Just because, well, we can, I decided to make the fourth defensive scheme something that the comments section here at BTB craved to see more of, the Cowboy Package.


(via Chandus 


NOTE: Ernie Zampese was the victor in the offensive scheme's poll. However, due to the fact that we already have to include two Coryell system disciples in Norv Turner and Jason Garrett, Zampese will not be represented in our draft. The fourth slot will go to Sean Payton, who was second. I know the comment section debated Payton's inclusion because of the short amount of time he actually called plays in Dallas. When I initially started the exercise, I had slotted Payton as the fourth but decided to go to the polls because of that reason. For the sake of diversity in the schemes each GM will draft around, Payton gets the nod as the fourth offensive scheme. His roster will be as follows, QB 1, RB 1, FB 1, WR 3, TE 2, T 2, G 2, C 1

Next up in the series: Best of the Best Dallas Cowboys Offensive Players In Team History

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