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Dallas Cowboys: The 4-3 Defense That Never Was

Everyone talked about how the Cowboys hired Monte Kiffin so he could install his 4-3 Tampa 2 defense. However, that has not been what Dallas is running at all.

The heart of the Dallas defense
The heart of the Dallas defense
Jeffrey G. Pittenger-USA TODAY S

If you were paying attention back when the Dallas Cowboys hired Monte Kiffin, now 73, you might remember that there were a slew of age related jokes. They didn't stop when the team added Kiffin's long time assistant and sidekick Rod Marinelli, who is 64. Along with the humor, there were also some serious questions about whether the NFL game had passed them by. Could they make the 4-3 defense with Cover 2 work against the high-powered passing attacks and emerging read-option offenses? This was the famous Tampa 2 that it was assumed they were hired to implement.

Our own Dave Halprin noticed that Kiffin and Marinelli did not run a true Tampa 2 against the Eagles.

One of the things Dallas did in the Eagles game was basically abandon playing three linebackers and went with nickel personnel for almost the entire game. Sean Lee played on 80 defensive snaps or 100% of the total, and Bruce Carter played on 72 snaps, that's 90%. Next up was Ernie Sims who played on 8 snaps (10%) and many of those were late in the fourth quarter. Justin Durant played a total of three defensive snaps. The Cowboys made nickel personnel their base.

Dave was exactly right in that. Most of the game, Kiffin put in three corners and used one of the safeties to come up to give him a seventh man in the box. This worked very well against the speedy LeSean McCoy.

That got me to wondering. Did the Cowboys ever really use a 4-3 this season, or is this really a nickel (4-2) based defense?

I went to the snap counts in the NFL's Game Statistics Information System and looked at how many snaps each of the Dallas linebackers took on defense.

Week 1
Week 2
Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6 Week 7
Sean Lee
100% 100% 77% 100% 100% 97% 100%
Bruce Carter
92% 100% 77% 67% 49% 94% 90%
Justin Durant
30% 45% 46% 12% 0% 10% 4%
Ernie Sims
12% 0% 0% 38% 58% 36% 10%
DeVonte Holloman
0% 0% 23% 0% 1% 0% 0%

These are the only five linebackers who saw any snaps at all while playing defense so far this season. In the table, week 3 is a bit of an aberration. That was the St. Louis Rams game, and the Cowboys got far enough ahead to give the starters a bit of a break. DeVonte Holloman was the big beneficiary, getting on the field for almost a quarter of the snaps late in the game.

Taking that into account, this becomes very clear from looking at these numbers: From the very first game, it is mathematically impossible in any of the seven games for the Cowboys to have played more downs in a 4-3 alignment than they did in the nickel. In every game, the most common package included two linebackers, not three. And the trend gets more pronounced as the season goes along. In weeks 1 and 2, the Cowboys had three linebackers on the field for over 40% of the snaps, but less than 50%. Against the Washington Redskins in week 6, the number gets close to 40%, but not quite. The other four games have three linebackers on the field for somewhere between 4% and 23% of the plays.

Dave said you can forget the Tampa 2. Well, you can pretty much relegate the 4-3 to use in limited situations. This is now a scheme based firmly on the nickel, with the defense using four down linemen, two linebackers, three cornerbacks, and two safeties on a large majority of the plays.

There are also some clear patterns to how the players are used. The linemen are rotated more than anyone else on the defense, with the trend being towards limiting the starters to about 70% or a little less of the snaps. This makes a lot of sense given the way Marinelli demands all out effort on every play. The frequent substitutions keeps fairly fresh legs out there.

The back seven is another matter altogether. Sean Lee and Bruce Carter are clearly the primary linebackers, with the so-called "benching" of Carter left far in the past. You can see their numbers in the chart above. Among the cornerbacks, Brandon Carr has taken 496 snaps this season, Orlando Scandrick 486, and Morris Claiborne 412, with anyone else just an afterthought. And since J.J. Wilcox won the starting job, he has been paired up on the field with Barry Church for almost every play. Just in the past two weeks, Jeff Heath has started to get some of the snaps that used to go to Will Allen, but Wilcox and Church are the workhorses here.

And that is the rub. There is no real depth here. Durant has been relegated more and more to the bench and Holloman is nursing injury, leaving Sims as the primary backup linebacker. Cameron Lawrence and Kyle Bosworth are strictly special teams players for now.

The only backups in the secondary are B.W. Webb at corner and Danny McCray at safety. They are also special teams players, and we can all remember how it went when McCray was pressed into action at safety last season.

Marinelli has been little short of a miracle worker with the players he is using on the line. I don't think we want to know what will happen if the team has to try to do the same in the back seven. We might find out in a hurry what players like Lawrence and Bosworth can bring to the table. I also notice that Jakar Hamilton and Micah Pellerin are still on the practice squad. We may not want to see any of those players having to line up defensively, but given the nature of the NFL, we have to be ready for the possibility.

Meanwhile, as long as the starters are good to go, this is looking like a very good approach. It should make it clear that Kiffin is still flexible and adaptive, able to adjust his own scheme to fit new realities.

The next game against the Detroit Lions is going to tell us a lot more about this defense, because Matthew Stafford is another quarterback who gets the ball out quickly, like Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning. It will show whether the man coverage Kiffin has been dialing up the past couple of games will help with that. Dallas and Detroit are amazingly close in many statistics, and it could be a dog fight with two 4-3 teams trying to take the next step. We will find out to some extent which way the arrow is pointing for the Cowboys. And how the nickel works in Motor City.


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