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Dallas Cowboys coaching spotlight: Defensive tackles coach Leon Lett

He won three Super Bowls with the Cowboys as a player. Now he’s trying to win one as a coach.

Leon Lett

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 a Cowboys star who has since become the defensive tackles coach, Leon Lett. Be sure to check out our other profiles below:

While defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli also still holds the title of defensive line coach, he has some assistance in coaching up the boys in the trenches in the form of a former Cowboys star. That is none other than Leon Lett, a three-time Super Bowl winner who anchored the middle of the second iteration of the Doomsday Defense from 1991 to 2000. In his 121 games wearing the star, Lett had 22.5 sacks and 128 quarterback pressures, two pass deflections, eight forced fumbles, and seven fumble recoveries.

However, the two-time Pro Bowler is perhaps best known for two plays in which he made some huge mistakes. The first mistake was in Super Bowl XXVII against the Buffalo Bills. Jim Jeffcoat stripped the ball and Lett picked it up and started sprinting to the endzone with impressive speed. As he approached the goal line, Lett held the football out to mimic Michael Irvin’s celebration, but Bills receiver Don Beebe chased him down and knocked the ball loose. See the play below:

The gaffe proved to be mostly innocuous, as the Cowboys were up 52-17 at the time and cruised to a Super Bowl win. However, Lett would make a similar error the next season that ended up costing the Cowboys a win in their snowy Thanksgiving classic against the Miami Dolphins. See the embarrassment here:

It’s unfortunate that such a good player is genrally remembered for two mistakes, but it has served as a learning experience that Lett carried over to his coaching career. In 2009, Lett took his first coaching gig as a volunteer assistant with UNLV while completing his degree. In 2010, Lett became a paid coach when he took the role of defensive tackles coach with the University of Louisiana-Monroe.

In 2011, Lett returned to the Cowboys as an assistant defensive line coach, at the time working with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in the 3-4 base defense. Two years later, when Marinelli and Monte Kiffin oversaw the transition to a 4-3 base defense, Lett was retained as the defensive tackles coach. Having played in a 4-3 defense as a player, Lett admitted that he was happy for the switch:

“This is something that I’ve been looking forward to, so it’s going to be a great opportunity for me.”

”The first day that we hired Coach Marinelli and we said we’re going to a 4-3 style of defense, the other guys got excited. That’s what they want to do. They feel like they can play this style of defense. I think they’re looking forward to it. They have the willingness; we’ll get it done.”

During his time coaching in the 4-3 defense, Lett has helped with the breakout of Jason Hatcher in 2013 and Terrell McClain and David Irving in 2016, the continued development of Tyrone Crawford, and the fast rise of Maliek Collins in his rookie year. Much of this has rightfully been attributed to Marinelli, whose reputation as a defensive line guru is well-deserved, but Lett’s understanding of the scheme is valuable to the players.

His aforementioned infamy has also served as valuable experience. In addition to two boneheaded plays, Lett was also suspended three different times for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. He has since used that experience to connect with current Cowboys linemen who have gotten into similar trouble, most notably Randy Gregory:

“Sometimes, guys are so talented they don’t know how they make certain plays, they just do it,” Lett said. “So they don’t always have the most confidence. I’ve been where Randy is. He can’t take all that stuff on the field with him, he just needs to play. He might need to reach inside himself and pull out his inner Charles Haley and just get angry and take it out on the other team.”

Lett is nothing like Haley, though, in many ways. That’s not a knock on Lett: Haley is just one of the greatest to ever do it. Additionally, while Haley was outspoken to say the least, Lett is more reserved in his approach. His soft-spoken nature is why he turns to inspirational quotes to motivate the players, and one of his favorites is from Winston Churchill:

“I’ve got a saying on my board,” said Lett, who has been on the Cowboys’ coaching staff since 2011. “It’s this quote from Winston Churchill: ‘To build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years, to destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day.’

”We have to build over time, starting at the bottom,” he said. “The number one thing I try to start with is back-to-basic fundamentals. A lot of the guys are doing some of the stuff they did in college, and we need to break them from that. We’re more of an up-the-field pressure defense. You’ve got some guys that came from a 3-4 base defense where they read first, but we’re making the offense react to us. So that’s part of it.

”Let everything go where you came from. We’re not doing it like you did at Colorado. We’re not doing it like you did in Michigan. We’re doing it The Cowboy Way and it starts with fundamentals. It’s also about learning in the classroom and off-the-field. It’s about your mindset. For me, it’s the mindset of ‘Football 24/7’ ... even when I’m not around the game.”

His commitment to the game is hopefully rubbing off on the players, and the on-field results have been clear, too, as Dallas’ pass rush on the defensive line has steadily improved in the time Lett has been in Dallas. His experience in a 4-3 scheme also helped significantly in the transition in schemes in 2013. Going into the 2018 season, Dallas has some questions, and some potential, at the defensive tackle spot. Irving will return to the team after his suspension, but Crawford, Collins, Brian Price, Richard Ash, Datone Jones, and OTA standout Jihad Ward will make things difficult when it comes time to cut down the roster to 53 men.

Under the guidance of Marinelli and Lett, this defensive line is looking to continue its progress as a unit. Marinelli’s deep understanding of the schematic strategy and his teaching ability seems to combine well with Lett’s Super Bowl history and his own experiences as a player for America’s Team. Hopefully, it all manifests in another Super Bowl for Lett and the Cowboys.

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