Don’t let the defensive yardage totals fool you: the Cowboys defense is bad. In looking at DVOA, a more accurate way of measuring defensive success, the Cowboys rank 20th in defensive DVOA, 16th in run defense DVOA, and 24th in pass defense DVOA. They also have the fifth-weakest schedule according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA-based rankings.
While some of that is simply due to poor performances from players - Leighton Vander Esch led all linebackers in missed tackles before his injury, and Chidobe Awuzie has been easy to pick on in coverage - a lot of it stems from coaching and, more importantly, the scheme.
Dallas runs a bland defensive scheme that consists of two main components: a small defensive line focused on upfield penetration, and a secondary that almost exclusively plays either Cover 1 or Cover 3 shells. It was this basic scheme that Jets quarterback Sam Darnold pointed to as his reason for success against the team earlier in the year. And yet, neither Rod Marinelli or Kris Richard have made much of an effort to change things up, and they could both be unemployed soon because of that.
If Dallas does end up looking for a new defensive coordinator this offseason, there’s a lot of options they could look at. One potential option is current Raiders coordinator Paul Guenther, whose job is reportedly in jeopardy; though it should be noted that head coach Jon Gruden “loves” Guenther.
But while Guenther may be on the chopping block, don’t let that fool you into thinking he’s not a good coach. Keep in mind that Guenther’s first year on the job saw defensive studs Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin, their top two sack leaders from the year before, jettisoned away. And this year, Guenther has lost two starting linebackers, both starting safeties, his top cornerback, and other contributors to injuries or suspensions.
Prior to his Raider days, Guenther was the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati for four seasons, succeeding his mentor Mike Zimmer. And Guenther’s first two years running the show were wild successes, consistently ranking in the top ten in pass defense DVOA and top 15 in total DVOA. Things fell off as the talent evaporated in Cincinnati, a trend that’s come full circle with the dreadful Bengals of 2019, but Guenther’s scheme, which is almost identical to Zimmer’s, would be exactly what the Cowboys need.
For starters, Guenther employs an exhaustive list of different formations for his defense, a stark departure from the current brain-trust. From this piece by Tyler Green of our Oakland counterpart Silver and Black Pride, Guenther’s defense involves a whole lot of variety:
14 different D-line fronts
14 stunts and twists
20 blitzes out of a four-down front
26 blitzes out of double-A-gap fronts
19 blitzes out of “odd” fronts, which have either three or five men across the D-line, with one aligned directly over the center
There are also options for facing unusual offensive looks like four-receiver sets and wildcat. Plus there are 10-12 red zone packages and 18 end-of-game packages.
The sheer extent of different concepts allows Guenther a wide range of ways to confuse an offense, but there’s more beyond that. In this incredibly in-depth look at his defenes from The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen, you can see all of the unique ways that Guenther creates instant pressure on the quarterback without even blitzing. A lot of this involves double A gap fronts with fake blitzes and defensive ends dropping back into shallow coverage, and defensive backs getting involved in the pass rush.
Much like the Zimmer-led Vikings did against Dallas this year, Guenther makes it nearly impossible for quarterbacks to read a defense before the snap. Instead he forces them to make quick reads on the fly, which can be nearly impossible depending on the mix of pressure and coverage Guenther draws up.
Speaking of coverage, Guenther tends to prefer lots of man coverage with two deep safeties, but as is customary for him it’s a bit more complicated than that. Nguyen explains this coverage tendency:
Essentially, both safeties will be asked to play the same position. They both will align deep but based on the formation or their reads can come into the box for run support, drop into deep zones, or play some man-to-man coverage at times.
Another difference between Guenther’s scheme and that of his predecessors is that his coverages require pattern matching techniques rather than spot drops. Spot drops are when defenders drop to their zones based on landmarks with their eyes on the quarterback. The problem with spot drops is that defenders aren’t looking where receivers are and could just end up dropping to a zone with no one there to cover.
With pattern-matching techniques, defenders look for receivers and are trained to “match” the pattern depending on what sort of routes come in and out of their zones.
Pattern-matching techniques have been heavily utilized by the Patriots and Saints in recent years, as well as Nick Saban at Alabama; of course, all three of those teams have been wildly successful, especially in pass defense. And the heavy use of man coverage would play to the strengths of the Cowboys’ corners, especially the sticky Byron Jones and physical Jourdan Lewis.
At the same time, the two-deep safety look would help out the Dallas safeties (assuming they don’t upgrade the position) by not asking one safety to roam the middle of the field and asking another to essentially function as an extra linebacker in the box. This approach would take pressure off of them and allow for their strengths to be maximized more than they currently are.
Of course, a lot of this rides on Guenther even being available in the offseason, but even if he is retained in Oakland, the Cowboys could look to find a coordinator that embraces some of the same elements that Guenther does. Adding diversity to the defensive looks could go a long way towards improving this unit next year.