New coaches always bring new core values and Cowboys passing game coordinator, Kris Richard, has brought plenty of his own to his new digs in Dallas. Cowboys defensive coordinator, Rod Marinelli, has long appreciated what the Seahawks defense was able to do with their secondary. Now, Marinelli, who calls the hiring of Kris Richard the best acquisition of the offseason, will get the opportunity to have his young defensive backs learn from one of the best teachers in the NFL.
Much like fans were excited about Marinelli’s hiring many moons ago and his often magical abilities to teach defensive linemen, Richard’s hiring brings the same excitement to a extremely young room. Of the 15 defensive backs on the roster, 10 of them have three NFL seasons or less under their belt.
Richard has to look at this Cowboys depth chart as a glob of clay ready to be molded in his vision. The team didn’t draft a single defensive back in this year’s class nor did they go after any known commodities in free agency. Richard must have felt confident that the Cowboys made the necessary investment when they drafted four in 2017.
Though they may be really inexperienced, these OTA’s have shown that Richard expects them to be ready to play his “style” of defense. It’s a style that these guys have seen dominate the NFL’s best receivers over the years. Like any of the best secondaries over the past several seasons, there is a known physicality, but also an underlying discipline, that makes them great. The former architect of the “Legion of Boom” had great success because he taught his guys how to win with technique. It’s something that he’s been working diligently on but there’s one particular technique that’s been stressed at all points of these practices. It’s properly referred to as a “read-step”, “kick-step”, or “step-kick” as Kate Hairopoulos describes here:
The step-kick is used in press coverage. The defenders line up across from receivers at the line of scrimmage. Essentially, they take a small step, usually with the outside foot toward the sideline, when the ball is snapped. But then they wait for the receiver, whatever jukes and jives he’s performing at the line, to make a vertical move into their strike zone.
The object is quite simple, it’s used as a way to disrupt the receiver before he even begins his route. It also engages the receiver in a way that makes him work from the jump which when done properly can bust the play before it begins. As Richard’s “Legion of Boom” became a well-known unit that commanded respect, that step-kick set the tone for their defense. Cowboys cornerback, Jourdan Lewis spoke to the media about how important the step-kick is to success in this scheme:
“It’s the cornerstone of our defense,” said second-year cornerback Jourdan Lewis. “That’s all we do, really. When you get to it, when you perfect something, it just makes the game so much easier when you have that technique to fall on and you just master it every single day.”
Richard talked earlier in the offseason about wanting to create the most problems for the opponent at the line of scrimmage. It’s a reason why he values length and strength in his players of choice because they need to match up with NFL receivers. A lot of NFL defenses use the “step-kick” but it was perfected in Seattle. Lewis, 5’10, 198 lbs, has been called an exception to the length rule by Richard himself due to his versatile skill set. Lewis believes that the step-kick will fit the two presumed starters at outside cornerback:
“Guys that have lateral quickness like Chido or Byron, it’s easy to be accustomed to because they have the skill set,” he said. “It’s just taking one step to the sideline. And you wait until the receiver gets vertical, which eliminates all the lateral movement for you, wasted energy on a guy who’s going back and forth instead of vertical.”
Another Cowboys defensive back that is a huge fan of this technique is third-year cornerback Anthony Brown. He had some struggles last season but hopes to battle it out with Lewis for the nickel cornerback position. Brown admitted that the step-kick just wasn’t something that was valued nearly as much by the former secondary coach Joe Baker:
“That’s a huge change,” said cornerback Anthony Brown. “Last year we didn’t have a set technique, it was pretty much do as you please, whatever makes you comfortable. ....That’s helping us be patient and it’s really helping our feet. ...
”Whenever we press man and we come up to the line, our first thought in our head is to get that kick-step.”
The step-kick is likened to calling bluffs in poker, it allows the defender to turn his hips and stay on top of his man because he knows the intended direction of the receiver. Why is it so important to stay on top of the receiver? Well, as Byron Jones explains it...so you don’t get beat:
“When he gets in your strike zone, that’s when you start your kick-step,” said cornerback Byron Jones. “It’s not just a sidestep, it’s a 45-degree back, get that hip open. Ultimately, we want to stay on top, we want to own the fade [pass], we don’t want to get beat deep. We want to put ourselves in an advantageous position to be over the top of the receiver.”
Though we’ve seen Richard’s secondaries of the past play with a lot of bravado, it’s not because he has some convoluted defense that’s hard to figure out. Truly, Richard teaches technique above all else and when players have sound technique, they play with confidence. The step-kick technique is simple but it is also one of the most successful ways to frustrate an offense and get them out of rhythm. When opponents get frustrated, they start making mistakes. It’s that simple-but-patient approach that has made Richard one of the greatest secondary coaches of recent memory and it’s why the Cowboys secondary is in the right guy’s hands going forward.