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No Fancy Formations For Cowboys Secondary In 2015?

Cowboys observers have talked themselves into a frenzy about the endless possibilities of how the defensive backs could line up in 2015, but odds are it's going to be base, nickel, and little else once more this year.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys are a fundamentally conservative team from a scheme and playcalling point of view. They don't use a lot of fancy formations, there's little to no trickeration, and despite rushing for the second-most yards in 2014, they only rank 28th in play-action percentage.

The offense basically uses two key weapons, a power inside running game, and a vertical passing game with a deep strike ability which creates mid-range passing opportunities for the TE, WR, or RB.

On defense, after the aberration of the Rob Ryan tenure, it's all about simplicity, speed, and effort. The simpler the scheme, the faster the players can play. Rod Marinelli wants simple reads and simple keys for his players that allow them to play fast with a maximum of effort. Dan Quinn, who ran a very similar scheme when he was the defensive coordinator in Seattle, explains the concept:

I think one of the things we talk about is freeing ourselves up mentally so we can play fast. So some times when you have a ton of calls or checks at the line of scrimmage, you’re more concerned about that then when you’re playing your fastest at the line of scrimmage.

So we just try to free the guys up mentally so they can play fast and physical—that’s the style that we love so all the things are kind of geared towards that.

Perhaps it is this no-frills approach on both offense and defense that has Cowboys fans yearning for more exotic looks.

  • Remember how excited we were about Rob Ryan's Amoeba defense? Turned out it really was just a bunch of players standing around.
  • Remember looking forward to heavy nickel and heavy dime formations? Never happened
  • Remember that elusive LB/safety hybrid that was supposed to stepchange the offense? Still waiting.
  • Or how about this year's latest catchphrase, the OTTO linebacker?

Odds are none of that fancy stuff makes it to Dallas. According to the NFL game stats, the Cowboys played 978 defensive snaps last year. Of those snaps, they played 664 snaps (68%) in a nickel formation with five defensive backs, 263 snaps (27%) in their base package with four defensive backs, and 'just' 43 snaps (4%) in a dime formation (6 DBs).

In total, that's 95% of all defensive snaps in either a base or nickel defense for the Cowboys. And the Cowboys didn't fool around with those two basic lineups, either. The basic nickel defense has three corners and two safeties. Care to take a guess how many of the Cowboys' 644 nickel snaps in 2014 did not feature three corners and two safeties?

The answer: Zero.

They could have lined up in a nickel package with two corners and three safeties (the "heavy nickel"), or with four corners and one safety, or with five corners and no safety. They didn't. Not once. And that's no anomaly for Marinelli-coached defenses. Here's an overview of Marinelli's last three teams and how they split their snaps in the secondary.

Rod Marinelli defenses
CHI 2012 DAL 2013 DAL 2014
Base (4 DBs)
487 (48%)
379 (36%)
263 (27%)
Nickel (5 DBs) 534 (52%)
671 (61%)
664 (68%)
Dime (6 DBs)
- - 33 (3%)
43 (4%)
Others (3 DBs or less)
- - 13 (1%)
8 (1%)

All of of this brings us back to Marinelli's idea of simplicity.

The classic Cover 2 scheme is a two-deep, five-under defense with a four-man rush. The Tampa 2 essentially turns into a three-deep, four-under defense in which the Mike (or middle linebacker) covers any inside vertical seam to create a three-deep look against the pass.

Common to both schemes is that the base idea is very simple. Drop seven guys into coverage and have your four defensive linemen pressure the passer. This gives the defense seven players who'll swarm to the football, make the tackle, and give the ball back to the offense. But the entire defense starts up front, which is why the Cowboys invested so heavily on the defensive line with two second-round picks in DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, and two potentially very expensive free agents in Henry Melton, who would have cost $9 million if the Cowboys had kept him, and Greg Hardy, who could cost $13.1 million this year if he plays 16 games and earns all his incentives.

We know that the Cowboys like to rotate their players a lot. Last year, the Cowboys fielded 458 different lineup combinations on defense, ranking them 31st in the league. And that's no fluke, the Cowboys ranked 31st in 2011, 32nd in 2012 and 30th in 2013.

But what the Cowboys don't do is go into exotic formations, shifts, and pre-snap checks like many other NFL teams do. Heck, Marinelli doesn't even like to blitz his linebackers or defensive backs much. There really isn't much mystery to the Cowboys defense. It's like they are saying, "You know how we're lining up, but we're not going to change it. Go ahead and try to beat us."

The 2015 Cowboys aren't going to surprise anybody with a lot of exotic formations. Chances are it's going to be base, nickel, and little else this year once again. Nevertheless, the 2015 defense may be harder to beat than any Cowboys defense we've seen in a while.

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