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Dallas Cowboys coaching spotlight: Defensive backs coach Kris Richard

One of the architects of the Legion of Boom is looking to bring the same style of aggression to the Cowboys.

Seattle Seahawks 2011 Headshots Photo by NFL via Getty Images

After the 2017 season ended, Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett decided to make some wholesale changes to the structure of the Dallas Cowboys to avoid another disappointment, if 9-7 can really be called a disappointment. While offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli both remained with the team, much of the staff around them has changed. This series is meant to profile each coach, including the ones who stayed, and analyze how their presence will contribute to the 2018 Dallas Cowboys. Today, we are looking at one of the architects of the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom and new defensive passing game coordinator, Kris Richard. Be sure to check out our other profiles below:

Throughout this massive coaching shuffle, two names have emerged as the best additions to the staff this year: Sanjay Lal, who’s been covered ad nauseum, and Kris Richard. At just 38-years-old, Richard (pronounced ree-shard) has certainly had a fast rise. He played cornerback at USC under Pete Carroll before being drafted in the third round to the Seattle Seahawks, eight years before Carroll would go to Seattle.

Richard played for the Seahawks and Mike Holmgren for three years before he made a brief stop in Miami. Though he was released shortly into the 2005 season, the time spent with the Dolphins was apparently very important to his future. Not only did he get to play under Nick Saban while there, but the defensive line coach at the time was Dan Quinn, who Richard would later reunite with in Seattle. Additionally, Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan were coaching the offense at this time.

After the Dolphins cut him, though, Richard had brief stints with the 49ers and Raiders; interestingly enough, during his lone year with Oakland, the Raiders employed an offensive quality control coach by the name of Sanjay Lal. Familiarity with the Cowboys’ staff seems to abound for Richard.

And that familiarity helped Richard when he decided to retire after the 2007 season. He became a graduate assistant with USC, reuniting with Carroll, for two years before he joined Carroll to the Seahawks. For the second time in his life, Richard graduated from USC to the Seahawks. In 2010, he was an assistant defensive backs coach; in 2011, he was the cornerbacks coach; in 2012, he became the defensive backs coach. It was at this point when the Seahawks defense, and the team as a whole, took off.

After two consecutive 7-9 seasons, Seattle went 11-5 behind the Legion of Boom defense, which Richard was instrumental in constructing, and the rookie wonder Russell Wilson paired a potent offense with the stingy defense. The defense’s calling card? Big, physical corners who were flanked by two of the league’s best safeties, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.

In 2015, after Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn both parlayed their successes as defensive coordinator into head coaching gigs, Richard was promoted to defensive coordinator. His job was primarily to keep the status quo for a dominant defense, but age and whispers of locker room tensions were starting to become issues. Still, Seattle’s defense in 2015 was second in the league, and the next year they were fifth in the league. In 2017, though, the unit regressed to 11th in the league, which is still very impressive, but far below what Seattle had become accustomed to. It’s partly why the Seahawks decided to part ways with Richard this offseason.

Luckily for Dallas, that meant Richard was free to join the staff. After losing linebackers coach/pass game coordinator Matt Eberflus, who became the Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator, the Cowboys were looking for someone to fill the defensive passing game coordinator role. Back when Eberflus was first given the title of defensive passing game coordinator, Jason Garrett explained what that meant:

“Over the last four or five years, you see some teams doing that and really just kind of allows you to focus on that area,” head coach Jason Garrett said at his Scouting Combine press conference in Indianapolis. “Teams do it different ways. We thought having Matt being the guy who oversees that back end, in regards to the passing game, we thought that would be a good way for our defense to go. It’s been good here over the last couple of weeks.”

In some ways, the title can be viewed as an assistant defensive coordinator. They may not call the plays, but their role in crafting the defensive game plan is more involved than a mere position coach. For Eberflus, who was already highly thought of around the league, he thrived in the role and earned himself a coordinator job. Enter Richard, who’s already had experience as a coordinator. The rumor is that Richard is set to become the defensive coordinator whenever Rod Marinelli retires. It makes a lot of sense, and it’s part of the reason Richard chose to join the Cowboys. His release from the Seahawks raised some eyebrows, and even after that he interviewed for the Colts head coaching vacancy. If Richard wanted to, he could have been a defensive coordinator elsewhere without having to wait a year. The fact that he chose Dallas should have fans excited about the future.

Perhaps the most exciting part about Richard, though, is what he brings to this defense as far as X’s and O’s. In the profile on Marinelli, I mentioned how he, Tony Dungy, and Monte Kiffin helped pioneer the Tampa 2 defense, and how Carroll, Bradley, and Quinn based their defensive scheme on the Tampa 2. Naturally, there is a lot of crossover between the two schemes, which makes Richard a perfect fit here.

For Marinelli, his defensive line prioritizes speed and athleticism in rushing the passer over size and strength. It’s part of the reason the Cowboys seemingly refuse to spend high draft picks on bigger tackles who fit the 1-technique profile. Richard Ash (320 lbs) and Brian Price (318 lbs) are the two biggest tackles on the defense currently. The approach in Seattle was different on the defensive line; the middle was anchored by big bodies such as Red Bryant (323 lbs), Brandon Mebane (324 lbs), and Alan Branch (350 lbs), with the bigger bodied edge player Michael Bennett (274 lbs) at the left defensive end position. On the right was the LEO, an edge rusher who lined up very wide to get better pass rushing angles and isolate the offensive tackle from the rest of the line. Chris Clemons usually filled that role for Seattle. The mindset was that the big bodies on the strong side of the line would either stop the running back at the line of scrimmage or force him to run to the weak side, where WILL linebacker Bruce Irvin could take care of him.

In Marinelli’s scheme, the object of the run defense is still to push it to the weak side, and having Sean Lee as the WILL usually works out for Dallas. It seems likely that Richard’s presence won’t change the defensive line approach much, especially while defensive line guru Marinelli is still around, but Richard might explore the idea of using a wide set LEO. If he returns and can be a consistent player, Randy Gregory could thrive in the role.

Richard’s major impact, though, is in the secondary. One of the biggest deviations from the Tampa 2 defense that Seattle made was in their approach to the defensive backs. Richard, and the Seahawks, for that matter, prioritize size and strength in their cornerbacks. Marinelli’s scheme in his earlier days heavily featured zone coverage with Cover 2 concepts, and preferred rangy corners who could make up ground in zone while reading the quarterback. In the Buccaneers’ 2002 Super Bowl season, not a single one of their corners was six feet or taller, but it worked.

In Seattle, though, the bigger, the better. While Marinelli and Kiffin use athletes who can zip to the ball and make a break on it, Richard and company preferred physicality off the line, jamming receivers out of their routes to disrupt pass plays. Naturally, guys like Richard Sherman (6’3”, 195 lbs), Byron Maxwell (6’1”, 207 lbs), Brandon Browner (6’4”, 221 lbs) and Jeremy Lane (6’0”, 195 lbs) all excelled in this scheme. Looking at Dallas, Chidobe Awuzie (6’0”, 202 lbs) and Byron Jones (6’0”, 205 lbs) seem like natural fits. Jourdan Lewis, whose natural talent made him a starter by the end of his rookie year despite measuring at 5’10”, was expected by many to fill the slot corner on nickel packages. Yet, Richard’s preference for bigger backs has cast doubt on that, though he feels Lewis is a rare exception:

“Well every now and then there’s an exception to the rule,” Richard said with a huge smile. “So you’re grateful to have and take those exceptions. (Lewis) is an exception. There aren’t many guys who battle in the fashion that he does. That’s what makes him special. He’s tenacious. He has good enough length. He is quick. He anticipates. He’s smart. He’s relentless. Those are the exceptions.”

However, OTA’s and minicamp have mostly seen Anthony Brown (5’11”, 196 lbs) taking first team reps at the slot corner position. Many fans want Lewis to be the nickel back, and rightfully so, but if Brown outplays him and earns the spot, that can only mean good things for Dallas. Personally, I think that preseason games is where Lewis will earn back the spot, as his game film is always so much more incredible than practice film.

Speaking of exceptions to the height rule, Richard’s most notable previous exception was Earl Thomas, at 5’10” and 202 lbs. The Cowboys and Seahawks are pretty similar in what they do with their safeties, and Dallas wants a free safety who can patrol the center of the field and make plays on the ball. In Seattle, Thomas was perfect for this given his talent and speed, and his short stature was overlooked due to it. While there’s plenty of talk still about Thomas going to the Cowboys later this offseason, for now the starting free safety seems to be Xavier Woods. He showed lots of promise in his rookie season, and his ability to play safety and cornerback made him valuable. He ended up playing at strong safety more frequently than at free safety due to injuries, and while he struggled with tackling, his pass coverage and zip to the ball has made him the frontrunner for free safety. At 5’11” and 202 lbs, his frame is similar to Thomas’. If he’s even half as good as Thomas, Dallas will have a steal on their hands.

Dallas Cowboys v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

The strong safety spot, for Richard and Marinelli, is more of a tackling and big-hitting safety. In Seattle, “Bam Bam” Kam Chancellor manned the role beautifully. Standing at 6’3” and 232 lbs, Chancellor is enormous and punishing, hence his nickname. When Seattle would line up with a single-high safety, Chancellor was the one in the box. He would come up and make big tackles if necessary, and punish receivers that ran shorter routes. Chancellor doesn’t get used too much in pass coverage, so he doesn’t rack up as many interceptions - he has 12 in his 8 years - but his presence alone alters the quarterback’s decision making.

For Dallas, Jeff Heath seems to be the starting strong safety - at least for now. Heath has had his fair share of critics over the years, and his pass coverage skills may not be the best, but his strength in the run defense and making open field tackles can’t be discounted. Don’t forget his hustle to Derek Carr in the Oakland game this year. While many are not sold on Heath as the long-term starter, he can be sufficient in the role at 6’1” and 202 lbs. However, third-year player Kavon Frazier (6’0”, 220 lbs) and UDFA Kam Kelly (6’2”, 204 lbs) could compete with Heath for reps. Kelly also has the ability to play free safety, outside corner, and slot corner, and his ball-hawking skills at San Diego State make him a likely candidate to earn a spot on the 53-man roster.

With all of this talent in the secondary, Richard and his approach to the style of play can maximize the young talent. More than that, his experience in teaching Cover 1 and Cover 3 concepts should aid the defense in these pass coverage concepts. Marinelli’s adaptation from Cover 2 to Cover 1 has largely been effective, but having a coach who has specialized in this kind of scheme for the past eight years is welcomed.

There are a lot of ways in which the defensive scheme that Richard brings to Dallas can fit, complement, and even enhance Marinelli’s scheme. For now, Richard is hoping to bring the magic that turned the Legion of Boom into one of the best defenses in NFL history. Marinelli knows what it’s like to create a historical defensive unit, so the two of these guys working in tandem on the Dallas defense in 2018 should be a huge stepping stone to greatness, along with a passing of the torch from one legendary defensive mind to a budding coaching star.

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