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Cowboys' Offseason Moves: What They Tell Us About Dallas' Defensive Strategy

Ladies and gentlemen: your keys to the Cowboys' 2012 season.
Ladies and gentlemen: your keys to the Cowboys' 2012 season.

On Saturday, Archie posted an article on Jerome Henderson, in which he outlined the various changes in attitude and coaching style the Cowboys' new defensive backs coach will bring to the position. Like Archie, I believe the Henderson hire is one of Dallas' key offseason moves - and not merely because the secondary has been pitiful for much of the last two seasons, and could therefore use a coaching upgrade, but because he specializes in a certain defensive style and philosophy.

As Chia noted in his post, Henderson's coaching stops include stints with the Jets and Browns, where he has tutored the likes of Darelle Revis, T.J. Ward and Joe Haden. What matters here is less the success of these players than the scheme in which Henderson tutored them. Unlike Dave Campo, who was not only uncomfortable coaching his charges in an in-your-face press-man coverage style but loathe to leave his men out on the proverbial island that the scheme demands, Henderson has a history of coaching in press-man schemes. And I believe that this will be the key to the Cowboys' 2012 season.

Related: Upgrading The Cowboys Secondary: Jerome Henderson

Allow me to explain: In Tim Layden’s book, Blood, Sweat and Chalk, a general history of football’s schematic innovations, there is a chapter dedicated to what Layden terms "The Ryan Family Defense." He examines several defenses that have been run by Buddy Ryan and his defensive-minded offspring, all of which are predicated on two central tenets: stop the run and put the quarterback on his backside. The latter is key: the Ryan boys have long been successful at devising ways for their defenders to get to opposing signal-callers.

How will Rob Ryan get to the quarterback in 2012? All will be revealed after the jump...

With pressure on the quarterback as a primary goal, both Rex and Rob Ryan have adapted the traditional zone blitz and enhanced it, largely by dramatically altering the placement of players on the field. When he was in Baltimore, Rex's willingness to move players anywhere on the field allowed him to conceive an almost limitless number of blitz packages. Layden writes:

It became common to see the Ravens line up with only one player in a three-point stance and five or six other linemen and linebackers strolling around the tackle box, waiting for the offense to call an audible before deciding where to attack from, or whether to attack at all.

When he was in Cleveland and the Brown's opponents were in obvious passing situations, Ryan unleashed a variety of different fronts ranging from a standard 3-4 to one particularly potent version of this scheme, known as the "Amoeba," with no down linemen. Indeed, his players frequently declined to set up according to positional expectations: at the snap, defensive linemen stood up or linebackers put their hands on the ground. To further confuse offenses, Ryan had his players engage in a series of pre-snap movements before setting up in their correct alignment just before the ball was snapped. Our own Chandus penned a terrific FanPost looking at Rob’s defense in Cleveland, with a focus on back-to-back upset victories over the Saints and Patriots. Its good stuff; if you're interested in seeing a preview of the Cowboys 2012 defensive schemes, give it a read.

One thing you'll immediately notice from Chandus' review is that Ryan's "Ameoba" defense doesn't demand that pass rushers regularly win one-on-one battles in order to get to the quarterback. Rob Ryan is not alone in this; in recent years, Rex's Jets teams have generated pressure without an elite pass rusher. This isn't to say that Rex's team doesn't boast an elite unit, however; where the Jets have dominated matchups is in the secondary, specifically with their cornerbacks (led by the aforementioned Revis) playing press-man, knocking receivers off their routes and disrupting the opposing quarterback's timing. In Dallas last year, the defensive coaches quickly realized that they didn't have the corners to play this scheme. Although the threesome of Newman, Jenkins and Scandrick certainly has some talent, none possess the size to out-muscle wideouts at the line of scrimmage a la Revis and Co.

In 2012, I expect this to change. As Chia noted in his post, Rex Ryan runs a lot of "Cover One" (corners locked up in man coverage with one deep safety) and "Cover zero" (the same, but with no deep safety help) in New York because his premier cover cornerbacks allow him to. Now, with two big, physical corners in Dallas, we should see Rob adopt a similar scheme. As a result, I think the longer-haired Ryan can open up several chapters in the playbook that collected dust last season, largely because Dallas simply didn't have the personnel to run them. After an active offseason, they are much closer to having the guys for Ryan's system. Consider the haul for a moment:

  • A diverse defensive lineman who can play either inside or outside (Tyrone Crawford)
  • A pass rushing OLB, who is adept at dropping into coverage (Kyle Wilber)
  • A fast, agile ILB to team with Sean Lee (Dan Connor)
  • A safety who can both blitz and cover well (Brodney Pool)
  • A ballhawking safety (17 ints) who is also a playmaker around the line of scrimmage (Matt Johnson)

What the Ryan family's defensive schemes require to be optimally successful are groups of players with diverse talents. Buddy's Bears has a linebacking corps who could all stuff the run, chase and cover, and blitz effectively. Adalius Thomas, who played for Rex when he was the Ravens’ defensive coordinator, say of Baltimore’s league-leading 2006 D, asks us to "Look at the collection of athletes we had in Baltimore. There were a bunch of versatile guys out there…" To my mind, this is exactly the kind of versatile personnel that Dallas has earmarked for the scheme and then acquired to run it.

Such diversity leads to confusion for the QB: when every one of eleven defensive players is a capable blitzer, the brothers Ryan can disguise the actual source of pressure by making it seem as if any - or all - of nine defenders might actually bring the heat. But the key to all of this is to find big, athletic corners who can disrupt and run, giving any one of the other nine that extra split second they need to get to the quarterback. And I think that's what the Cowboys are counting on; in a recent interview, Jerry Jones (who essentially parrots the material he overhears in coaching meetings) noted, in his inimitable fashion, about the new secondary:

...we know that we're solid. We've got better and more personnel back there than we had last year. That should let us pin our ears back a little more in our pressure, our rushing.

What he didn't say is that there will likely be a lot of different guys pinning back their ears. In 2010, the Browns' sacks were distributed pretty evenly across their defensive personnel, especially their linebackers and safeties. Part of this is because they didn't have a DeMarcus Ware - who is going to get his, regardless of scheme. Beyond Ware, however, if the Cowboys' defense is working properly, I can envision five or six guys with 3-4 sacks. If in fact that proves to be the case, I'd expect to see a lot of opposing quarterbacks come to the line wondering from where the pressure is going to come.

And that can't be anything but good...

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