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BTB Mailbag: Will a smaller defensive line compromise the run defense and Sean Lee?

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Everyone wants to be faster, but at what cost?

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret what Sean Lee means to this defense. All one has to do is look at the Cowboys’ record with and without him. When healthy, Lee is one of the very best linebackers in the league, and his ability to read the offense, fly to the ball, and make the play so quick the offense hasn’t even been fully set up is astonishing.

Part of this success has to do with Lee’s ability to run through gaps that are opened up wide by the defensive line. But the defensive line has recently been looking to get smaller for the purpose of more speed when rushing the passer. Tyrone Crawford is most notable for this slim down after calling out Madden 19. But this brings us to a mailbag question from Landon in Charleston, South Carolina:

We always see Sean Lee flying around the field seemingly making every tackle in the run game. I always valued Tyrone Crawford at the right end for his ability to hold up the line and shut down the edge. With everyone ready to get smaller and faster (including Crawford himself) do you think that will have any effect on the key to our run defense - Lee’s ability to operate in space?

It’s a very good question. There’s a balance that has to be struck on the defensive line, as the players need to big enough to take on the blockers from a sheer physical standpoint, but not so big that they can’t use a combination of moves to get around them and to the quarterback. On one hand, Super Bowl defenses like the Seahawks and Eagles have had some big uglies on their line. Of all the consistent producers on Philly’s defensive line last year, the smallest was Derek Barnett at 259 lbs. By comparison, DeMarcus Lawrence is officially listed at 265 lbs, and on Thursday Randy Gregory weighed in at 242 lbs. Granted, Gregory will be bulking up now that he’s back with the team, but last time he was playing he weighed at a listed 255 lbs.

However, the scheme the Cowboys run on defense is tailor-made for this kind of personnel in the trenches. Detailed in the coaching profile of defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, the scheme calls for smaller defensive linemen who are athletic enough to shoot past the offensive line and into the backfield rather than reading and reacting. Looking at the 2012 Chicago Bears defense, which Marinelli led to the fifth best defense in the league. The biggest defensive lineman was Stephen Paea, playing the 1-technique spot that’s typically the biggest player, and Paea was listed at just 300 lbs.

It worked then, and it’ll work now. Having Lee there to stop the run makes things really easy, too. The design of Marinelli’s scheme in run defense is to clog up the strong side of the offensive line and force the running back to the weak side, where there are typically less blockers unless there’s a designed run to that side. The left tackle and left guard are much more used as pass blockers, especially with how pass happy the league has become, so the 1-technique tackle and right end tend to keep those linemen busy, allowing Lee to shoot through the gap and bring down the ballcarrier.

Those gaps might become slightly smaller as a result of the smaller defensive linemen, but Marinelli’s scheme already accounts for smaller size in the trenches. More over, Lee is just unreal at finding the hole regardless of how small it is. Check out this video below, which serves as a great film breakdown of the Cowboys-Chiefs game from last year. Most of it looks at the offense, but skip to the 14:35 mark to see a look at the defense that specifically highlights just how dominant Lee can be.

Even with Crawford slimming down, and smaller guys like Gregory looking to get more snaps, the holes will still be there and Lee will exploit them 95% of the time, at least. The Cowboys had the eighth best rushing defense last year, and Lee was a big reason why. The size of the defensive line isn’t what’s going to sink this run defense; Lee’s availability, or potential lack thereof, will be. Knocks on wood. If that happens, it’ll be up to Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, and the rest of these linebackers to step up.