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Cowboys Defensive Coaching Change: How Will The Players Fit Into A 4-3?

The Dallas Cowboys have been in a 3-4 base defense since 2005. There is some legitimate consternation regarding the capabilities of individual players to make this switch. It's not as crazy as it looks, however, and it looks more and more like the Cowboys are in good shape to make this move. We go from 4/4 quality linebackers and 2/3 quality linemen to 2/3 quality linebackers and 4/4 quality linemen (no net loss). Let's take a closer look at the transition, and how much, if any, the players' roles will change.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Tom recently gave good cause to discontinue the hand-wringing over the significance of the Monte Kiffin hire - at least from the whodunit standpoint. He leaves us free, however, to fret over whether or not our current players will fit successfully into a Tampa 2 scheme.

I'm not so worried. Call it optimism, if you like, but I don't think players can do anything but improve when leaving a scheme as confusing as Rob Ryan's in favor of one of the cornerstones of strategic simplicity in the Tampa 2.

That theory is simple. If someone performs well in a very distracting environment, they should perform at least as well (and likely better) in an environment with those distractions removed, so long as their responsibilities remain relatively unchanged.

That last qualifier is essentially the key. There is rightly concern regarding the prospect of teaching the entire defense 11 new positions. I argue, however, that for many their jobs will change negligibly. Some players won't change positions at all.

First, a presumptive starting lineup, base alignment, and scheme:


The arrows represent pass rushing, the x's correspond to the middles of zone coverages. The circles represent rough approximations of those zones.

There are three potential running lanes through this alignment. The weakside A gap, between Hatcher and Ratliff, should be watched by Carter. The strongside B gap, between Ratliff and Spencer, should be watched by Lee. The strongside outside is Albright's territory.

When you compare this to the Cowboys' 3-4 alignment, you can see that most of the players are in the same places. In fact, the biggest difference seems to be replacing Kenyon Coleman with Alex Albright; more accurately, Coleman would take Spencer's spot, Spencer Albright's, and Albright would take Coleman's spot on the sideline. Despite having 'fewer linebackers,' this alignment seems much more favorable in coverage than the Cowboys' old 3-4.

Now, we can run through each individual player's responsibilities and compare them to how they used to be utilized.

Player 4-3 Position 3-4 Position Commentary
Jay Ratliff 1-tech DT 1-tech NT Ratliff won't see anything new in this scheme. The penetration of the other linemen may help Rat to generate pressure, but I don't see this as a position change at all. All of the talk about switching to a 4-3 allowing Ratliff to move to his 'natural' position as a 1-tech defensive tackle is pure nonsense, since he's been playing 1-technique for most of his career.
Jason Hatcher 3-tech DT 3-tech DE Hatcher is another player who won't be seeing much change. He will remain in the 3-technique where he had considerable success last season. Our two marquee linemen will remain in their spots, effectively converting a position of weakness to a position of strength, assuming Ratliff remains healthy and effective.
Anthony Spencer 7-tech DE SOLB Spencer will be seeing something somewhat different. He already played this position frequently in the Nickel defense (which is, in all honesty, likely more important than the base defense) last season. I don't want to hear anything about Spencer being a bad fit here. He's bigger than Ware, and has even seen time at Defensive Tackle. Just because he's versatile enough to play every position in the front 7 doesn't mean he's somehow handicapped when he goes back to his original position, Defensive End. If we can keep him, he will be worthwhile. I wouldn't want anyone else on this roster holding down the strongside.
DeMarcus Ware 9-tech DE WOLB DeMarcus Ware will be rushing from essentially the same spot that he has been thus far in his HOF-bound career. Whether or not he puts his hand down should be negligible. If he's uncomfortable doing it for whatever reason, he can just as easily play the position standing up. Age is more of a concern than the position change.
Sean Lee MLB SILB Sean Lee will finally have the chance to show everyone he's a do-it-all middle linebacker, and will be given the whole field to work with. He'll have to use his instincts to decide whether to drop deep into coverage, crash to the run, or pick up a short crossing pattern. I'm anxious to see just how good those instincts are.
Bruce Carter WLB WILB Bruce Carter will get the weak side. Despite what my graphic shows, the weakside is more likely to have a slot receiver than the strong side, and Carter may be asked to pick up this receiver on occasion. He has the speed to do it. Beyond that, he has a two-way choice in the run game, inside or outside (and Ware should cover the outside on his own), and speed to burn once he makes that choice. If we end up introducing deception into this scheme, Carter's a candidate to take the deep middle while Lee blitzes or picks up some other responsibility. It feels like a luxury to have Carter here.
Alex Albright SLB LB (various) Alex Albright is a unique candidate for SLB, but he gets my nod here because he has much more game experience than Kyle Wilber. As a former Defensive End, he's got incredible size for a linebacker, and his range has proven better than expected (though not nearly on par with Carter). I like the prospect of having him waiting to put a hit on Robert Griffin outside the pocket, or jam tight ends trying to release up the field. He'll punish anyone working his side in the short passing game, and really emphasizes the "Strong" in "Strongside Linebacker."
Barry Church RS SS In all honesty, the "Free" and "Strong" safety concept is all but dead in today's NFL, and Rob Ryan didn't appear to use it. Nonetheless, we think of Church as a "Strong Safety," so I'm marking him now as the "Right Safety." I like him playing behind Claiborne. The reasoning is that Claiborne can cover deep, but he isn't as strong as Carr in tackling. Claiborne's speed and Church's tackling should make a good combination on the right side. Since the right side is usually also the weak side, Church's power will be a nice insurance policy behind the smaller (relative to our strongside players) Ware and Carter.
Gerald Sensabaugh LS FS Just as I said with Church, Sensabaugh should be a synergistic player behind Carr. Carr doesn't have quite the deep speed that Claiborne does, so he deserves the benefit of the faster of our two safeties. Believe it or not, Sensabaugh is a 4.4-speed player, and plays the ball well when he doesn't have to turn around and run after it. In this scheme, he should be comfortably sitting back in his deep half zone, sprinting straight ahead at balls thrown against Carr and Albright. His biggest weakness was turning and running with receivers, so eliminating that from his game should be a great boost.
Morris Claiborne RCB RCB Claiborne, our young, and hopefully future star, corner has very good agility and speed running with receivers. His tackling isn't perfect, but he's still willing. With Church behind him, Claiborne shouldn't be so worried about making sure tackles and can instead devote his attention to going after the ball. His press technique won't go unutilized, as the Tampa 2 actually encourages corners to have inside, underneath position on receivers due to the inherent Safety help over the top. Pressing receivers at the line leaves the corner in inside, underneath coverage.
Brandon Carr LCB LCB Carr, our big money free agent signing, should be able to breathe a sigh of relief once he has Sensabaugh behind him. His lack of deep speed was exploited last season as he was forced to play in front of Danny McCray. The inability to trust the man behind him made Carr less reliable in the press, since he couldn't afford to allow a man behind him. With a steady, reliable and athletic safety behind him in Sensabaugh, Carr should be able to loosen up and play the way he did in the preseason/early regular season.

I can't say that everything will go as smooth as I hope, and I believe retaining Spencer is a big part of that 'smoothness.' The ability of Spencer to consistently play that exact position very well throughout his career has been a highlight of this Cowboys' defense for quite some time.

He's successfully played the DE/OLB hybrid role in Nickel situations, and should have no problem assuming those responsibilities in the base scheme. If you let him walk, you're putting a question mark in his place. The SLB is already a question mark, so we would be inviting teams to run Power O's off right tackle all game.

If we keep Spencer, though, our defense looks solid to start. We have a couple of unspectacular players in Albright and Church, but if they're kept on opposite sides of the field they shouldn't combine into any major liability. The potential for improvement is there, but the need for improvement won't be nearly as pressing. For those of us looking for Offensive Line improvements, that may be just what the doctor ordered.

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