Jason Garrett is in many ways a model of consistency. The core of his coaching philosophy is to be very clear about what you expect and how to achieve your goals, and to make sure everything you do supports reaching those goals. One thing that he has stressed in his statements since the beginning of his tenure as head coach is position flexibility. Given the restrictions of the salary cap and the 53-man roster, a player is much more valuable if he can line up at more than one position on the field and still be an asset.
While this is important on both sides of the line of scrimmage, this season is seeing a lot of emphasis on applying it on the defense. Rod Marinelli is just as invested in this approach as his head coach. Last year, the clearest example of how valuable this could be was Anthony Hitchens. The fourth-round selection wound up starting in all three linebacker spots, and acquitted himself very well no matter which he was playing. He was basically all of the depth the Cowboys had at linebacker, and his importance in keeping things afloat in the 2014 campaign is hard to overstate.
This offseason, position flex looked to have played a large role in building the draft board. First-round pick Byron Jones played both cornerback and safety in college. Fourth-round pick Damien Wilson has been getting work at all three linebacker positions just like Hitchens did last year. And it wasn't just in the draft, either. Corey White has also seen work at both corner and safety. Other linebackers are given snaps at different spots. And many of the defensive linemen are shuffled inside and out to try and maximize the talents in the pass rush. In my previous post, one of the things I highlighted was the package the Cowboys showed during the OTAs and minicamp with Tyrone Crawford and Greg Hardy in the tackle positions while DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory rushed from the ends. This is the Dallas variant of the NASCAR package used by the Seattle Seahawks, which puts four defensive ends on the line at once. Although Crawford is now a 3-tech tackle in Dallas, he has end experience. During Hardy's suspension, however long it winds up once the NFL gets around to moving forward on the appeal, Jeremy Mincey would likely be taking his role.
The ability to plug players in at different places and still get defensive production has multiple benefits. It makes it harder to figure out coverages pre-snap. It makes it easier to surmount the inevitable injuries. And it lets you get more of your best athletes on the field.
This is also part of the difference between the Rob Ryan defenses and what Marinelli is now doing. Ryan built his scheme on complexity and multiple formations. Marinelli uses a much simpler approach where players focus on execution and assignment rather than making adjustments and moving around to confuse the offense. Ryan's inability to make his system work was a large part of why he lost his job in Dallas. Now Marinelli is getting the talent to take the defense to the next level. And that talent is increasingly able to play in different positions, which still stresses the offense without complicating the defensive scheme. The players still have to learn the different positions, of course, but under Marinelli, the assignments are not nearly as complex. They line up and execute, instead of reading and reacting to the extent Ryan's approach required.
While the pass rush is a very exciting use of flexibility, the way Byron Jones and Corey White may be able to switch between the cornerback and safety roles may actually have the biggest impact on the team. Last year, OCC wrote a piece talking about the use of the nickel, dime, and "heavy" variations of those packages. With players able to fill a "hybrid" role, those distinctions are a bit blurred. The idea seems appears to be getting the benefits of both at once. A corner who can hit like a safety or a safety who can provide tight coverage like a corner means that the defense is ready for just about anything the other team throws at them, and with fewer substitutions required. Again, this is the Seattle influence showing up. Jones in particular looks to have the combination of athleticism and size that could make him a force wherever Marinelli chooses to deploy him. And he and White can also walk up and play as linebackers. This could be important when facing Chip Kelly's Eagles and his up-tempo offense, as well as hurry up offenses in general. Less need to make substitutions nullifies some of the advantages of speeding up the offense. You can't do that with just any players. Having the flexible athletes on the team makes it possible. Add in players like Sean Lee who can hurt you as much in pass coverage as in stuffing the run, and complex offensive schemes become much less intimidating.
This is the second year for Marinelli's defense, which should mean that a lot of the growing pains are behind them. With the infusion of talent the front office has provided him, it should take a big step forward this season. We still have to see what things look like on the field, but so far the pieces certainly look to be falling into place.