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Film room: What could Mike Nolan’s Cowboys defense look like?

Nolan’s 2012 Falcons defense could offer some clues about his Cowboys defense.

Miami Dolphins Joe Cavaretta/Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

When Mike McCarthy hired Mike Nolan to be his defensive coordinator in Dallas, many started to wonder if this would bring about a schematic shift to a 3-4 defense. In McCarthy’s introductory press conference, he declined to comment on whether such a switch would occur.

Nolan has traditionally used a variation of the 3-4 in most of his stops as defensive coordinator, but as mentioned in this breakdown of his scheme, Nolan did run a sort of multiple 4-3 scheme in Atlanta. With that in mind, I decided to go back and sort through film of Nolan’s Falcons defense from 2012, his first year on the job, and try to glean anything from that.

Below are three different plays that should help give a good idea of what fans could expect from Nolan as he inherits a roster built for a more traditional 4-3 scheme, as he did in Atlanta.

This was the Chiefs’ first offensive play of the game. Here, the Chiefs come out with two tight ends and two receivers with running back Peyton Hillis in a single-back formation. Tight end Steve Maneri lines up out wide in the slot while the other tight end, Tony Moeaki, is on the play side in a three point stance. Prior to the snap, Maneri motions across the line and into the backfield as a fullback. Kansas City snaps the ball and hands off to Hillis on a simple outside zone to the right.

Prior to the motion, Atlanta lines up in a traditional 4-3 nickel look. On the play side, three of their defensive linemen are mirroring the offense; left defensive end Kroy Biermann is lined in a six technique overtop the tight end while defensive tackle Perria Jerry is a three technique between the right guard and right tackle and Jonathan Babineaux is a one technique lined up in the back side A gap. John Abraham, the Falcons’ top edge rusher, is out wide in a nine technique; notably, he first aligns in a two point stance but after the motion he puts his hands in the ground.

Sitting in a nickel look, Atlanta has their two linebackers in the box playing off the ball, while Dunta Robinson (who Nolan used as a sort of Swiss army knife) is lined up in the slot over top of Maneri. Both of the outside corners are lined up about seven yards off the line of scrimmage with strong safety William Moore sitting in the box, seemingly lined up over Moeaki. Free safety Thomas DeCoud in back deep playing the middle of the field. After the motion, Robinson comes into the box and ends up between the two linebackers while Moore runs up to the line of scrimmage to match the strong, overloaded look Kansas City is now in (see the second image above).

This now gives Atlanta a solid matchup, as they have eight men in the box at the point of the snap to match the eight guys Kansas City has, excluding the quarterback. At the snap, the free safety and outside corners drop back a bit in what appears to be Cover 3; as soon as the ball is handed off to Hillis, they all start coming downhill to defend.

The Chiefs offensive line slants to the right and the Falcons mirror them, with Babineaux shooting the back side A gap and Jerry taking the right guard straight on. Biermann, who is slow out of his stance, shoots the C gap while Abraham seals off the back side. The two linebackers flow to the play side to take on blockers getting into the second level while Moore goes up against Maneri. Moore easily gets around the tight end and hits Hillis. Shortly after, Biermann (who has been two-gapping against the right tackle) gets off the block and wraps up Hillis as well. At the same time, the play-side linebacker comes off his block behind Moore for an additional tackler.

This was a fairly simple run play for Kansas City but the Falcons were able to beat it with a mixture of one-gap and two-gap techniques on the defensive line, downhill play from their linebackers, and flowing to the ball. This next play comes from the Falcons Thanksgiving matchup with the Saints in a year where Drew Brees ended up leading the league in yards and touchdowns. But in this game, Nolan’s unit kept him scoreless and picked him off five times. Here’s one of those picks.

This play came on the Saints’ first offensive drive down 7-0, and a 38-yard bomb from Brees two plays earlier had set them up in Falcons territory. On second and seven, New Orleans comes out with this look. Technically in 21 personnel, the Saints brought an extra offensive lineman (#69) and lined him up as an offset tight end on the right side of the line. Running back Mark Ingram is back deep with fullback Jed Collins to his left. Receivers Marques Colston and Lance Moore are both out wide. The extra lineman makes it look like a run play, but the reality is the Saints have a play-action double post drawn up.

Playing the run, Atlanta comes out with five different defenders on the line of scrimmage in what looks to the naked eye like a 3-4 alignment. This is because they have three linemen in a three-point stance and two defenders on each end in a two-point stance. John Abraham is on the outside of the left tackle and Stephen Nicholas is outside of the “tight end” on the right side of the line. Linebackers Akeem Dent and Sean Weatherspoon are in the box, making this look like a traditional 3-4 setup.

However, once the ball is snapped Abraham drops back into a shallow zone coverage and Nicholas comes off the edge as a pass rusher. The three down linemen slant to the offensive line’s left, which frees up Nicholas for a one-on-one matchup with the extra lineman on the edge, a position he’s unaccustomed to. Even though it looks like a 3-4 pre-snap, it functions exactly like a 4-3 front. The only real difference is that it confuses the offensive line, and if not for a chip block from the running back, Nicholas would’ve been in Brees’ face in a hurry.

Coverage-wise, Atlanta disguises their look by showing Cover 2 pre-snap. The two safeties, Thomas DeCoud and William Moore, are deep in the middle of the field while the outside corners are roughly seven yards off the line of scrimmage. This makes it seem like Atlanta is indeed playing the run look that New Orleans has given them. But on the snap, Abraham drops out into the flat while Weatherspoon and Dent drop to their shallow middle zones and Moore covers the opposite side flat. Both corners carry their receivers down the field in deep thirds and DeCoud mans the middle third of the field. It results in four defenders standing on the 30-yard line and three defensive backs against the two receivers going deep:

With both receivers breaking inward on their post routes and a deep Cover 3 being executed, it’s not an ideal situation for Brees. Yet for some reason, he thinks he has a window to get it to Colston and launches it downfield. DeCoud reads it and breaks on the ball, making a leaping interception in the endzone. The pre-snap coverage disguise and defensive front trickery helps confuse Brees and he ends up making an unforced error that the Falcons easily picked off.

Lots of takeaways have often been a constant of Nolan’s defenses, and that was the case in Atlanta. On the next play, the defense forces a fumble on a run from the Lions. The running back, Mikel Leshoure, hadn’t fumbled the ball in eight straight games but the defense broke that streak with good fundamentals. Here’s the pre-snap look.

Detroit comes out in 20 personnel with a fullback directly in front of Leshoure and three wideouts. Stafford snaps the ball and fakes a quick out to the right before handing it to Leshoure up the middle. Despite the three receiver look, Atlanta still puts seven men in the box, though it’s a bit disguised. With three down linemen, defensive end Kroy Biermann is standing up with Akeem Dent and Sean Weatherspoon in the box.

But as you can see in the first image, Stephen Nicholas is matched up with the receiver in the slot, seemingly taking him out of the box. But on the snap, he barrels down in a blitz and one of the two deep safeties slides up into a shallow zone to take his place. Once again, this appears to be a Cover 3 shell that starts out looking like Cover 2, but it all goes by the wayside once the ball is handed off.

The entire offensive line pulls to the right and the down linemen mirror them. Nicholas, coming in on a blitz, nearly drops Leshoure in the backfield but the fullback slides out at the last second to successfully chip block him. Dent and Weatherspoon initially start to come downhill for the run, but they hesitate when they see the line pulling to the right. As they read the changing gaps, they each make their move. Weatherspoon gets stood up by a lineman but Dent manages to meet Leshoure in the gap. A quick cut from Leshoure sidesteps Dent, but he stays on his tail. The change in direction of the run gives Weatherspoon leverage against his linemen, and the two linebackers manage to sandwich Leshoure for what would normally be a gain of just two yards.

But here’s the critical part: Biermann, who lined up in a two-point stance, fakes a pass rush before backpedaling to a sort of tracker role. The fake rush gets the right tackle to drop back too much and essentially takes him out of the play. As Biermann sits back and reads the play, he’s freed up of any blockers until the left guard gets to him late in the play. At this point, Leshoure has already changed direction, so the left guard unknowingly takes the wrong angle in trying to block Biermann. Leshoure is now being sandwiched by the two linebackers practically right in front of Biermann, who dives for the running back. He gets the crown of his helmet on the ball, which pops it out. A trailing defensive tackle is in perfect position to scoop up the ball, and Atlanta gets the ball back for their offense.

The common theme in all three of these plays is trickery upfront with the way the defense lines up in the box, linebackers running downhill in run defense, and disguised coverages leading to big plays. This would seem to benefit some of the stars currently on the Cowboys roster, and while the team might still need to add a couple of players to fit specific roles, it seems like Nolan could realistically employ a similar style of defense in Dallas this year.

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