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Lovie Smith Explains The Big Advantage Of The 4-3 Defense

Rod Marinelli's former head coach lays out why he is so committed to the 4-3, and sheds some light on why Dallas may have made the switch from the 3-4.

Rushmen, your mission, should you decide to accept it . . .
Rushmen, your mission, should you decide to accept it . . .
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Lovie Smith built his NFL reputation and became a head coach because of the defenses he led. Rod Marinelli was Smith's defensive coordinator in Chicago and was so loyal to him that when Smith was fired as the head coach of the Bears, Marinelli quit, landing with the Dallas Cowboys last season to help Monte Kiffin (who also has long standing ties to Smith). Now that Marinelli is the coordinator for Dallas, he is expected to run basically the same defense he did for Smith.

So when Lovie Smith explains why he is so committed to the 4-3 and the advantage he thinks it has, from a coaching viewpoint, you can probably apply that directly to what Marinelli is trying to do this season. It may also extrapolate to why the Cowboys made the switch from the 3-4 to the 4-3 in 2013.

Joey Ickes pointed out a video of Smith doing just that. To paraphrase what Smith says, it all comes down to simplicity. The down linemen (Marinelli's Rushmen) learn one thing - rush the quarterback. They are focused on going forward into the offensive backfield, and will react to the run on the way if needed. But the first job they have at the snap of the ball is to fire off, or fulfill their role in a stunt with the same objectives to penetrate, contain, and tackle.

The primary edge rushers in a 4-3 are the defensive ends. In a 3-4, the primary edge rushers are the outside linebackers. But those linebackers also have a responsibility to drop into coverage depending on the defensive call. And that is the advantage Smith sees in the 4-3: You do not have to teach your linemen to drop and defend the pass. All your time in practice is spent teaching them to attack and defeat the pass protectors.

Previous articles here have talked about the advantages of keeping the assignments simple, but Smith brings up the fact that it makes the time in practice much more effective. That was, for me, a new idea. With the rules in the CBA, the time available for teams to actually practice is limited. Instead of having to split what time is available between teaching your best pass rushers two inherently contradictory skills (drive forward towards the quarterback while forcefully knocking, pummeling, or shoving the blocker out of the way versus dropping back in coverage with limited contact allowed), you can focus on one thing, which the player will do all the time, so that it becomes his first, second and third instinct when the play begins. As Joey's Twitter buddy Keith Mullins put it, a Swiss Army knife is handy to have, but is rarely the best tool for the job, and you can open a can of beer with a shovel, but that doesn't mean it is the most effective way to do so.

This was made even more evident in 2012, when the Cowboys experienced injury problems on defense. While there are differing views on whether or not the problem was aggravated by the complexity of Rob Ryan's scheme, there is little question that the players often seemed out of place or confused about their responsibilities. Rabblerousr posited that this played a major part in the decision to part ways with Ryan when the team found that players being signed to the roster were not able to quickly absorb things to the point of being effective on the field. I think he is onto something (although I suspect there were also other issues involved with letting Ryan go).

Of course, even the simplest system is hard to implement when you are basically signing players in the locker room during the National Anthem and putting them on the field immediately. Dallas was in that situation with the Rushmen from the beginning of the 2013 season as the injury bug stayed around the defense and found itself on a treadmill trying to come up with effective players. It is clear that the team is going to do everything in its power to avoid that this season, with almost as many DL on the 90-man roster as they ran through all of last year. Barring another rash of training camp injuries focused on the same group, the Cowboys will have better prepared Rushmen this season. Hopefully, they will also be more talented as a group than the one Dallas wound up with in 2013, where the drop off from the handful of good players to the mass of warm bodies they had to use was vast.

This is one of the major contentions that is cited by those (like me) who think there is a real possibility for major improvement defensively for the Cowboys, despite the losses of DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher, and Sean Lee. It is another place where the plan the team has is correct, but due to circumstances, mostly involving personnel issues, the execution did not go so well. Now the team has more and healthier players, and no one like Jay Ratliff squatting on a roster spot for much of the season with no intent of playing . . . um, well, let me say the defense has no one like that to worry about this year.

Although my opinion means absolutely nothing compared to that of Lovie Smith, I have to say I fully agree with his point. I was never really a fan of the 3-4. Obviously, of course, the decision by the Cowboys to move to the 4-3 was undoubtedly motivated by more than the nostalgia for the days of the Doomsday Defense that play into my preferences. I think it was the right thing to do to make the team more competitive and more able to survive the rigors of the NFL season. Do you agree?

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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