One of the news bits that emerged from the annual Owners' Meeting was that the Cowboys seemed to have already moved Sean Lee to weakside linebacker. Although I'm sure most of you don't remember, this was a move that I was in favor of when Dallas first adopted the Kiffinelli 4-3, where the weakside ‘backer is protected so that he can quickly diagnose and run to the ballcarrier unabated.
In addition, the WLB plays a key role in underneath zones (unlike the MLB, who is often tasked with covering the deep middle when the defense is deployed in a two-deep safety look). As it turns out, one of Sean Lee's strengths is his ability to peel off of a receiver and undercut a route to grab an interception. That's what Derrick Brooks did for so many years in Tampa Bay, and is one of the reasons he's in the Hall of Fame.
In response to this news, reporters asked about middle linebacker: who would fill the hole vacated by Lee? Jerry Jones told them that the team still wants to sign Rolando McClain (and we might see this as soon as something more concrete takes place in his appeal of an 18-day jail sentence). In the meantime, they have Jasper Brinkley around as insurance. Indeed, he's the typical Cowboys free agent, a bridge player destined to be replaced as soon as the team can draft a more dynamic young talent. If the team doesn't sign McClain, we should look for them to draft Brinkley's replacement in April, and as early as round one.
This brings us to the strong side. At first glance, this is the most uncertain position of the three. A look at the depth chart suggests that there is no plan in place - or, if there is, that it's a rather disappointing one: Kyle Wilber battling Anthony Hitchens for the starting nod. In fact, the team does have a plan - or at least a thoughtful experiment - in place, and it involves two other linebackers currently on the roster: Keith Rivers and Dakoda Watson.
To explain where I'm coming from, I'll have to start in Jacksonville. Last year, the Jaguars unveiled a new position on the defensive side of the ball, the OTTO linebacker (I have no idea what "OTTO" stands for, nor does anybody else as far as I can tell). Simply put, the OTTO replaces the traditional SAM linebacker in a base 4-3. In essence, the Jags coaches (who, we must remember, came from Seattle) saw the OTTO as a hybrid position that combines the attributes of a traditional 4-3 SAM linebacker, a 3-4 OLB and a 4-3 DE.
At the time, Jacksonville defensive coordinator Bob Babich told Mark Long and Mike Dempsey of "Jaguars Today" that the OTTO:
"is kind of going to be on the edge, we'd like [him] to have some pass rush ability, in a pinch he could go down in a third-down situation to blitz him off the edge...He can be strong or weak [the MLB's positioning isn't affected] and most of the time he's going to be on the line of scrimmage, standing up."
Initially, the OTTO linebacker's assignments sound like those for a traditional SAM ‘backer: help in run support; provide pass rush assistance when needed; play in coverage. The key difference is that, because the OTTO candidate has some defensive end traits, he allows a defense to be more multiple in its looks without radically changing the personnel.
Jaguars linebackers coach Robert Saleh calls the OTTO, "a pretty cool position," largely because it allows a defensive staff to "line him up in a bunch of different places, and it's a unique position because of the things we'll ask him to do." To gain the clearest understanding of what those myriad things might be, its important to understand that the OTTO functions much like the JACK linebacker in the old Buddy Ryan 46 defense. For reference, here's a diagram of the most common 46 alignment:
As far as the defensive line is concerned, the 46 defense actually deploys in much the same way as the Tampa-2 "under" front: the D-line shifts to the weak side, leaving the weakside defensive end off-set from the offensive line, all but guaranteeing him a one-on-one match up on the offensive tackle as well as a smooth, unpolluted rushing lane. A key difference is that, in the 46, the strong side defensive end shifts further inside than he would in the typical 4-3 "under" alignment. In the 4-3, he lines up on the offensive tackle's outside shoulder; in the 46, he moves inside, deploying head up on the tackle or even on the strong side guard's outside shoulder.
Another key feature of Ryan's scheme was that both outside linebackers tended to play on the strong side of the formation. The JACK linebacker lined up on the line of scrimmage, on the tight end's outside shoulder on the line of scrimmage and, in a nasty bit of defensive business, the CHARLIE (formerly weakside) linebacker lined up on the tight end's inside shoulder. These two could play a huge assortment of combo games, either pinning their ears back and rushing the passer or dropping back in coverage.
As I noted above, the OTTO linebacker will be expected to function in much this way. How might this look? Although we don't have a lot of evidence from Jaguars game tape (they never seemed fully to realize the scheme they envisioned), we do have a fine example in Seattle, where Jags head coach Gus Bradley was the defensive coordinator from 2009-12 and linebacker coach Saleh a defensive assistant from 2011-13.
The Seahawks deploy the super-athletic Bruce Irvin as their version of a SAM linebacker, but deploy him in ways similar to the way Jaguars coaches imagined they would do with the OTTO. Indeed, last year, Bradley noted that, "Some of the things we'll ask the OTTO to do, I'm not sure they're asking Bruce to do." What might this be in actual practice?
With this question in mind, Ryan O'Halloran, writing for Jacksonville.com, closely charted Irvin's activity in the Seahawk's 2013 loss to the Colts. What he found shows the kind of versatility the Cowboys might expect from their OTTO. I'll quote a section of his article:
■ Irvin played 35 of 63 snaps (not including two Colts kneel-downs) and rushed the passer 15 times, dropped into coverage 11 times and played the run nine times.
■ Irvin lined up at the line of scrimmage on all but one snap.
"Our guy will be near the line of scrimmage, close to the tight end and have a good, physical presence," Posluszny said.
■ Irvin started plays on the weak (no tight end) and strong (tight end) sides of the formation.
"That's what our guy will do," Bradley said.
■ And Irvin played six snaps as a [stand-up defensive end (LEO)], sometimes inside of the defensive end.
Certainly, the OTTO's actual involvement will depend on the player as well as in-game situations (to be clear: the Cowboys would use the OTTO in certain packages, not as a key ingredient in their base defense). "Oh sure," you might be saying, "the Cowboys could run this is they had a Bruce Irvin on their roster."
Perhaps they do - or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Here's what is interesting: one of the Jaguars' first free agent acquisitions last year (he was inked on free agency's second day) was Dekoda Watson, a former Buccaneers seventh-rounder who was signed with the express intent of playing the OTTO. Jacksonville coaches and scouts found that he possessed the requisite athleticism to be all over the field, rush the passer, and drop back into coverage.
Sadly, Watson's tenure in Jacksonville began with him missing the offseason, organized team activities and training camp with a groin injury. He also missed the first two preseason games on the Physically Unable to Perform list. He did manage to play in nine of ten regular season games, with his lone start in London against the Cowboys. But by the time he gained his footing, J.T. Thomas had ensconced himself as the starter at the position Watson was signed to play, and he was released during the bye week, whereupon the Cowboys snatched him up.
In early March, when the Cowboys signed Keith Rivers to a one-year deal, many folks were left scratching their heads. But a perusal of Rivers' history shows a lot of OTTO traits. Allow me to share his scouting report coming out of college:
Rivers' ability to play a variety of positions proved invaluable earlier in his career. In addition to excelling at weak-side linebacker, he was often used as a defensive end in pass rushing situations during his first two seasons with the Trojans.
In the NFL, Rivers has shown further versatility, playing both strong- and weakside linebacker spots. As such, he should be able to fly to the ball as well as he sets the edge. See, OTTO!
I'll emphasize again that, for the Cowboys' coaching staff, this is a low-risk experiment. The team will try out the OTTO position in mini-camps and at Oxnard to see how they like it. If the response is positive, I'm led to believe, they will then invest more heavily. In the coming months, therefore, its best to keep your binoculars focused on the defender opposite Jason Witten.