The 4-3 defensive alignment is the most commonly used scheme in the National Football League. However, the Dallas Cowboys don't necessarily live by the strict definitions of that scheme. We know that the base defense calls for four down linemen and three linebackers. Yet, if we take a look at how the Cowboys have built their unit , they deploy somewhat of a hybrid-type similar to the Seattle Seahawks.
When Dallas switched schemes three offseasons ago, then defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin expressed his admiration for what Pete Carroll was doing in Seattle. He even went as far as to liken that to what he was prepared to do with the Cowboys. We all know how the narrative ended - unsuccessfully, in part due to injuries but also the fact that sometimes old dogs don't learn new tricks. Kiffin was still using a lot of the old Tampa-2 terminology that he innovated with his Buccaneers squads, yet today's NFL was changing from what Kiffin was accustomed to.
Today's NFL defenses spend a majority of time in nickel formations where extra defensive backs are needed. With the NFL making it's full transition into a passing league; it requires more man-to-man coverage on the outside. There are too many ways to get the ball into the air these days and the logical way to fight it is by having extra corners and safeties. That's what makes having a guy like Rod Marinelli running the defense so important.
Over his tenure in this league he's found multiple ways to adjust to what is happening and has changed his ideas and philosophies to fit. There are certain items that will always remain true which is the importance of having a pass rushing under tackle and a instinctive run-and-hit weakside linebacker. But in other ways, Marinelli can be pretty flexible as to what he wants.
Both Nick Eatman of the Mothership and myself have discussed the desire for a bigger nose tackle to take on the double-teams and stop the run. It wasn't until reading the works of a fellow BTB writer that I was convinced that Marinelli doesn't value that position as much. In his mind, all down linemen need to have similar traits but the one that matters most is penetration. So, whereas some may view the Cowboys defensive tackle position as thin, others could make the exact opposite argument. Though currently Tyrone Crawford plays the under tackle with Nick Hayden and Terrell McClain as the primary nose tackles; Jeremy Mincey, Greg Hardy and even DeMarcus Lawrence have been rumored to kick inside, too. It's all predicated on getting to the quarterback, that is the primary objective above all else. That's what makes this whole defense the most interesting to watch throughout camp.
From what I've been able to gather, Marinelli prefers a healthy rotation on the defensive line allowing for freshness but requires the ability to rush the quarterback from any position. His secondaries differ from the typical zone coverage and he's had to adjust to having press-man players there. The only corner who seems to fit both styles is Orlando Scandrick. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are certainly press corners, and we don't know yet what Byron Jones or Corey White will bring. When it comes to the safeties, both J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church seem to fit the same strong safety role, which requires them to cover tight ends and protect in run support. Which is why a lot of folks think that eventually Byron Jones will end up playing the single-high free safety this season. He's certainly got that skill set.
His linebackers need to be both quick and instinctual. The most menacing linebacker is Rolando McClain, who will roam the middle taking on linemen and plugging running lanes. Sean Lee will be the integral weakside linebacker which helps control the flow of the opposing offense. If he's sneaking through blocks like he should, Dallas could have a pretty good run-defense. The strongside linebacker is another story as I have yet to see someone who actually fits the role, yet as said earlier Marinelli tailors his scheme around his players. If Marinelli thinks a run-and-hit linebacker is okay for the strongside then Anthony Hitchens should do just fine.
Marinelli has had a ton of success as a coordinator and for me it's because his ability to simplify. He may not always have the right players for his defense but he's been able to adjust his scheme to his players. The hope is with a significantly upgraded pass rush, that his coverage on the back end will be able to succeed. For Marinelli, it's all about those rushmen, after that things become markedly easier if the line can do their job. So even if his defense doesn't fit every requirement of the 4-3 alignment, he knows that he can get the best out of just about anybody. There is a reason that in year two practically the same defense as year one exceeded expectations. With a few offseason upgrades, it will be amazing to see where he can take it this year.