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Cowboys Defense Under Rob Ryan: The Pieces To The (D-Line) Puzzle

When a defense attacks...
When a defense attacks...

Having reviewed the basics of gap assignments, it's time to consider the greatest variables to any coach's plan - his personnel and the opposing team. It is simple to say the nose tackle is assigned both A gaps, but the intentions of the offense will actually dictate how (difficult) the nose tackle and defensive cohorts will complete their assignments. The opposing offense will have their own plans for attacking the line of scrimmage and defense, so a 2-gap assignment can suddenly become a three man job. Actually, that is how I have come to define the distinction between a 2-gap nose tackle and 2-gap defensive tackle/end. If they face a double team (common for nose tackles) can they routinely power through and hold both their gaps? A defensive coordinator will scheme and shift and plan a dozen things by the time the ball is snapped, but will never truly know how effective the defense will prove until they see how it is attacked by the offense and if the defenders succeed in their duties - the moment the games of X's and O's become motion-picture mayhem, when every coach and most every player and fan holds their collective breath.

The reason to be excited about Rob Ryan's style of football is because of how creative he can be within a single formation, how active the defense may be pre-snap, not to mention all the things he tries to do after the snap. Shifting and blitzing and scheming, oh my!

It sounds a simple task: identify a coach's intentions and deduce the personnel that best fit their schemes - much simpler than it sounds when the coach is like Rob Ryan. He will try a little of everything. Ryan will attack the line of scrimmage in various ways with varying defensive fronts, and he'll also use blitzing backs from the secondary to rule the line of scrimmage and pressure the quarterback. Ryan will not only attempt to read and stop the offensive game plan, he will also try to drive the offense crazy by disguising and feigning his own plans of attack. And Ryan will need appropriate pieces for his defensive puzzle.

They say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. In the case of the Ryan coaching family, this means a creative use of an active and shifting defensive front. It is actually the same tree of knowledge Tom Landry tasted when he developed a defense that led to the modern definition of a linebacker. It is what drove Buddy Ryan to create the 4-6, and what has led to creative 3-4 defensive schemes like those favored by the Ryan twins. So it seems safe to assume that Rob Ryan's Cowboys defense will likely share some of the same principles Rex Ryan has discussed:

Rex offered a detailed breakdown of his philosophy in a 2005 coaching clinic, where he began at the beginning, stating the objective for any quality defense is to deny the opponent points, while scoring some yourself, creating turnovers and creating superior field position for your offense. 

With regard to how this is done, Rex's presentation listed several objectives:

  • creating a simple, yet multiple scheme, that is easy to learn but difficult for opponents to decipher
  • creating confusion through pre-snap movement and disguising of intent
  • pressuring offenses, and dictating rather than reacting to the offense
  • creating mis-matches
  • defending the offense's best players when necessary, and;
  • defending formations the offense prefers

Author's note: I believe the first bullet-point is a little "simpler" for Rex's defenses than for what Rob Ryan has shown.

To even attempt to complete this formidable list for an aggressive (and dominating) defense you must have smart, physical, and versatile players. It is one reason why some of Rob Ryan's defenses in the past have not been statistically phenomenal, but why Ryan has so much respect in coaching circles. When designing a multi-schemed defense that does not just try to stop an opponent from scoring, but actually attacks the offense with seemingly reckless abandon...every player must execute their assignments otherwise a complex plan and the risks of an aggressive defense can become a liability.


Jay Ratliff - Mr. Versatile (Everything)

Not much needs to be said here. Ryan is drooling at the prospect of Ratliff along his defensive line. He has the power to hold up as a 2-gap nose tackle and the burst and speed off the line to play as a 1-gap defensive end. The only weakness that can even be debated is his ability to anchor as a 2-gap nose during an entire season, but it is not something I expect Ryan would even want to try. We will likely see Ratliff play at every possible spot along the line.

Igor Olshansky - Defensive End (2-gap)

Igor appears to have become a one trick bear. He was once one of the strongest guys at his position and as a rookie at 6'5" 315lbs had 41 bench reps, but still ran under a five second 40-yard dash and had solid agility measurements in the 3-cone and short shuttle drills. But for all his ability, he never became a dominant 1-gap pass rusher during his career and now preparing for his 8th NFL season could become a limiting factor for a Ryan defensive line...but Igor could also earn back some respect from fans if Ryan is forced to rely on him.

Josh Brent - Nose Tackle (2-gap)

At first glance, Brent-Price is the classic 3-4 nose tackle. Built like a brick, he is "short" and stocky packing 320+lbs in a strong core with a low center of gravity. He did a good job as a rookie holding up against the run and double teams. While his pro day results only suggest at some latent athleticism and agility, Brent continues to develop and showed more burst and power to push the pocket than expected and could eventually provide Ryan more than just a classic 2-gapper at nose.

Sean Lissemore - Defensive End (potential for both)

Sean's pro day results should make everyone take notice. You do not often find his mix of strength, burst, and agility. Right now he seems more like a 1-gapper, but if he puts it all together and learns Ryan's schemes quickly enough, Lissemore could become a versatile force on the defensive line.

The Unknowns:

Clifton Geathers - The flip side of Lissemore, this strong 2-gapper has shown the ability to fire off the line and possibly become a well rounded d-lineman. Irony will reunite Ryan and Geathers, who was drafted by the Browns in 2010, but hopped around to Miami, Seattle, and now Dallas, though clearly all these teams have seen potential they hoped to develop. Good draft profile at CBSsports

Alex Daniels - An interesting case, Daniels played fullback and running back (even linebacker) his first two years in college, but then transferred and finished his college career playing two years as a defensive end. He has powerful lower body strength and recorded great vertical and broad jumps at his pro day. He is also strong and agile so it is understandable that someone tried to make him into a backer and then defensive end. A strange build at 6'2' 265lbs, but if he has talent to match his athleticism then Ryan could find some interesting ways to utilize him as a hybrid LB/DE.


Ryan will have far too many plans and schemes to cover in one post. As shown in some great fanposts and stories on BTB during the offseason, Ryan will use everything from 2-5 to 4-2 defensive fronts and then still mix and match the personnel to fit the situation and anticipated offensive strategy. But this alone can tell us Ryan will need both 2-gap and 1-gap defensive linemen before the kickoff of the 2012 season. While Brent and Ratliff would make a formidable 2-man d-line that can cover several gaps for a 2-5 formation, there would be no backup in case of injury. Ryan would also need more 1-gap rushers to get creative with his 4-2 formations, especially for plays designed to harass a passing game.

Yet, Ryan will use a few d-line rotations and enough plays from his base 3-4 front to allow us to study just this set to get an idea of what pieces are still missing or may be found lacking.

Please forgive the Cleveland Browns picture from Raf's same piece at CowboysNation that had Ryan's philosophy shown above, but just imagine them as the ‘Boys in blue as we discuss the personnel to match.


This is the "hold your breath" moment mentioned above. Rob Ryan evaluates the offensive formation. One back set with the tight end making it strongside left (remember, as the defense sees it) with a three wide receiver set, two in opposite slots and the third (not pictured) covered by the right side corner. Now, Rob Ryan has studied tape and knows his enemy so he also has certain guesses as to how the offense will attack...but will want to plan for more than just one particular occurrence. Obviously the linebackers and secondary must be considered to design the d-line assignments, but we can study possible plans of attack for the Big Nasties once the bigger picture is set.

In this case, the "Cowboys" are in a base 3-4 and Ryan has brought the strong safety (a real option in free agent Abram Elam) to the line and is even pressing the box with the free safety who appears to have man coverage on the receiver in the slot. At first glance, one would worry about a pass play taking advantage of no safety deep and three receivers on the field. Of course, Ryan may have already sniffed out the Buccaneers' plans and is actually playing the run though the Bucs are showing pass. Knowing Ryan's creativity, he is likely preparing to play the run while also having designed a robber-coverage scheme and is actually tempting the Bucs to throw. If Ryan trusts his corners and free safety in man coverage against the receivers, he is set up to rush the passer and pick off a hot route with his linebackers, or stuff the run even though the Bucs tried to spread out the defense.

Possible Assignments:

The Strong Safety Blitz - With DeMarcus Ware (right outside backer) blitzing the edge off the B-Right gap and Elam blitzing off the C-Left gap, Sean Lee and Bradie James (middle linebackers) have middle-zone coverage with eyes on the running back as a runner and receiver, it leaves the tight end and five gaps to cover with three linemen and Anthony Spencer (left outside backer). Spencer is assigned the C-L gap with strict orders to take the tight end with him as he pressures the pocket - don't let TE out on a route and be in position to stop the run - but if the TE does go out on a route then Spencer covers him in the flat or passes him off to James and picks up the assignment to cover the RB out of the backfield, or blitz if the back is already engaged.

That leaves A and B gaps on both sides with four linemen blocking - the left tackle trying to keep up with Ware and likely forcing the back to stay in to block if it is a pass play. Lissemore (right defensive end) is assigned 1-gap duties on B-R and will be blocked by the left guard. That leaves the center and right guard to double team Ratliff as nose tackle, but with his athleticism Ryan can do some interesting things. If he bursts through the A-R gap, it will make it difficult for the right guard to help and possibly force the left guard into making a mistake against Lissemore. Meanwhile, Igor (left defensive end) has 2-gap assignment with both left side A & B, but with the guard helping against Ratliff he is neither double teamed nor really forced to cover two gaps, just one large AB gap. But therein lies the issue. Ryan has created a great matchup point on the line but Igor may not be able to take advantage. Without the ability to fire off the line and "blitz" up the AB gap, the advantage goes to waste and could even backfire. If it is a run play and Igor does not win his match up against the right tackle, there is now a huge running lane.

The Outside Backer Stunt - Ware, Lee, and James have the same assignments, but this time Elam is not blitzing. Instead, he has man coverage on the TE and will blitz only if the TE stays in to block...and Ryan can force that to happen. If Lissemore could 2-gap well enough and be trusted to own the left guard and the A-R and B-R gaps, then Ryan can overload the left side with Ware actually isolated on the right. Ratliff is again tasked with splitting the center-guard double team, but this time through the A-L gap. This suddenly forces the right tackle to block both Igor and Spencer...forcing the TE to stay in to block, but even that may not be enough. If Igor was strong enough to crash the C-L gap and take the right tackle and tight end with him, Spencer can run a stunt behind Igor and blitz the B-L gap untouched. Whether a run or pass play, this defense could create havoc with the a good d-line.

The Delayed Blitz - Another trick up Ryan's sleeve is the use of a split second delay to allow a blitzing backer or back an open lane once the offensive linemen become engaged. Imagine Ware and Ratliff are lined up on the right side with Brent at nose and Igor as left end. The fearsome twosome should force the offense to motion the TE to their side and if it is a pass play then the RB would likely be needed to stay in and help as well. With Ware blitzing off the edge and Ratliff tearing through B-L gap, the tight end and left tackle would be forced to deal with Ware while the guard and back would try to stop Ratliff (effectively nullifying the C gap). That leaves Brent to handle 2-gap duty on the A gaps and Igor to work the B-L gap, with only the center and right guard to block them since the right tackle is trying to fight off Spencer blitzing off the edge. If that wasn't bad enough, with the TE and RB required to stay in and block (once all the linemen are accounted for) Lee then has a free run at the QB with a delayed blitz up the gut, with Bradie and Elam playing robbers under the receivers...if Ryan doesn't decide to call an all out blitz.

The Options:

As you can see, Ryan can create havoc for an offense in a variety of ways just out of a base 3-4 defense with a safety on the line. One can only imagine the cornucopia of pressure he can create with the various formations to attack an offense. These will certainly take some time to present themselves in 2011 as the team catches up on their studies and with Ryan likely slow to open up all the pages in his playbook to his new team, but expect to see a much more active and complex Cowboys defense under Ryan. A defense that is sure to be more aggressive and difficult to diagnose than that of the previous false-prophet of 3-4 creativity.

It is clear the Cowboys need to sign some defensive linemen, but I do not think we need to overspend. First, our salary cap will be stretched (even with all the releases and reworked contracts) once we sign the rookie draft class and re-sign Doug Free at LT and bring in at least one starting safety. So even if the best free agents somehow make it past the 72-hour period to hit the open market, it is doubtful the Cowboys could make a big name signing like Haloti Ngata, Cullen Jenkins, or Aubrayo Franklin. But the good news is that the next best options can be affordable signings from in-house defensive ends.

Stephen Bowen - While Bowen has already been recognized by Ryan and played well when given the chance in 2010, he is not a well known or proven commodity. If promised the chance to start and stay with America's team, Bowen should be re-signed to a friendly contract before hitting free agency. Bowen would immediately become the best 1-gap defensive end on the team and has the potential to blossom into a versatile weapon.

Marcus Spears - Something is often forgotten about Spears but is easily found on wikipedia.

In 2004, (as a senior) Spears put together a career year, earning First-team All-America honors from the Walter Camp FoundationAmerican Football Coaches Association, and AP, and second-team All-America honors from Sports Illustrated, first-team All-SEC honors and was a semifinalist for the Bednarik Award and Lombardi Award. He finished the year tying his career-high in tackles (49) while setting career-highs for tackles for losses (17) and sacks (nine, a figure that ranks fourth in the LSU single-season records). He also recorded 21 quarterback pressures to help the Tigers finish the year third in the country in total defense.

True, this was a long time ago and against college competition, not to mention when Spears was playing as a 4-3 defensive end instead of being resigned to a 2-gap Wade Phillips assignment and being replaced on 3rd downs. But one doesn't accumulate 17 tackles for a loss, 9 sacks, and 21 QB pressures if they don't have the ability to 1-gap. While he may not be deemed worthy of his 1st round pick, he should certainly be recognized for his success in the duties to which he was relegated. Spears is the most solid run-stuffer on the Cowboys defense, but that does not mean he can't provide pressure in Ryan's defense. In fact, Spears could even be used as a 2-gap nose tackle if needed, and still provide (to some extent) the uncommon 1-gap pressure from the nose the Cowboys have grown accustomed to with Ratliff. His age and the chance to play for Ryan could also lead Spears to accept a reasonable contract from the Cowboys and not wait 72 hours to test the market.

While many wished for a completely revamped defensive line, one that can help improve the Cowboys pass rush, everyone should be prepared for an improved d-line even with these familiar names. With Bowen, Ratliff, and Spears as the starting rotation and Brent, Lissemore, Igor, and Geathers as rotational players, Ryan should have everything he needs (and more than he has had in the past) to spearhead his attack on the line of scrimmage and create a defensive line that can effectively execute the puzzle he will use to confuse and overwhelm offenses.

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