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Mike Nolan talks defensive scheme, secondary coverages, turnovers, and what kind of defensive back he likes

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The Cowboys new defensive coordinator speaks.

NFL: Pro Bowl-NFC Practice Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys defense will be going through some changes in 2020. Obviously there will be personnel changes as players move on in free agency and the team adds players through that same process and in the draft. More than just personnel changes will occur this year, though, as the team has a new head coach and a new defensive coordinator.

Mike Nolan is the man to lead the defense in this new era of Cowboys football, and considering the inconsistent play of the defense recently, he has challenges to overcome. Nolan has a long history in the NFL as a coach and his father was also a coach, so experience and knowledge are in abundance. Now, he has to transfer that to a defense that needs to hold up its end of the bargain in games.

Nolan recently held an interview with the local media to discuss what the future might look like and how he will attack the issues facing the Cowboys defense. The whole interview is embedded below, but we’ll take a look at a few pieces of it that stood out.

When Nolan was first hired, the first question that came up concerned whether the Cowboys would become a 3-4 team. Given Nolan’s history, it was a fair question. Our own David Howman has broken down on several occasions the hybrid approach Nolan has taken in the past. When asked about it in yesterday’s session, Nolan had only one intent with his defensive scheme - get the best 11 guys on the field.

“3-4 or 4-3 is really just a personnel decision to get your best 11 on the field. Outside of that, it’s just spacing between the 11 players that you have. All the 4-3 teams, and the 3-4 teams, play a lot of the same fronts. I’ve always believed it’s about getting your best 11 on the field, and from there if that entails calling yourself a 3-4 or a 4-3, you want to get your best 11 out there. After that, like I said, its just spacing. You know you can line up in 3-4 personnel like some teams do and it looks just like a 4-3 and people talk about them as a 3-4 but they really are the opposite. Like I said, getting your best 11 on the field is the key and the spacing from there can be either one.”

As for what kind of secondary coverage he will run behind that defensive front:

“The back end is critical to winning football games. I believe you have to have a mix. If you peg yourself in one hole and just do one thing, that’s easy for the best quarterbacks to dissect and take advantage of. So I do believe you have to have a good mix between man and zone, there are different types of mans (coverages) and different types of zones. You don’t want to create so much volume that you don’t have an identity, but that is the process of getting to know your players, to know what you play more and what you play less of. When you play the best quarterbacks you need to give that quarterback looks and you need to do different things, so you have to have some sort of variety to be successful.”

Given how Kris Richard was noted for wanting tall, rangy defensive backs, Nolan was asked what he wanted in a defensive back.

“It’s going to become cliché but the best player is what you want. What you do with them, the experience you acquire coaching in the NFL and even in college, needs to allow you the opportunity to utilize those skills. Guys are all different, obviously you’d love to have a lockdown guy, you know a Jalen Ramsey, but that’s not going to happen and you have to be realistic about what you do have and you have to utilize your players. Look, the bigger, stronger, faster typically stays more healthy and stays on the field longer, so in a perfect world that’s what you’d have, but I’ve also coached some little guys who stayed on the field a long time, too. They come in all packages and it just a matter of us utilizing them the best we can.”

One other big topic for the Cowboys defense has been turnovers, or rather the lack thereof. Nolan addressed that question.

“As most things do, it does start with the player. Typically there are players that have a knack for getting the ball and some that don’t, but at the same time a coach’s job is to work on that. It’s the number one thing in winning football games, getting the ball for your offense, and as a defense that’s what we’ll strive to do all the time. Outside of that it is getting your opponent to third down so you can get off the field. Like I said, some players have a knack for it (turnovers) but the ones that don’t I think you can improve their skill and that comes through practice and making ball awareness and things like that.”

Nolan also told another story related to turnovers that might have some impact on the current defensive backs. In relation to the answer above about what he likes in his defensive backs, another reported asked him after the question if he would prefer “ballhawks.” Nolan answered in the affirmative stating that is the number one thing you would like in a defensive back. He then told the story of when he was talking to Troy Aikman around 15 years ago and Aikman told him he wasn’t worried about a defensive back that could knock the ball down. The former Cowboys quarterback said he threw incompletions all the time so that didn’t bother him, what he did worry about were guys who could intercept the ball and potentially score with it, in this particular conversation he was referring to Deion Sanders. That stuck with Nolan that the best quarterbacks aren’t worried about throwing at defensive backs who just knock the ball down, but guys who can catch it and go the other way, that’s a difference maker.

As observers of the Cowboys, we all know that the current crop of defensive backs are much better at knocking balls down than actually intercepting them. That could be something to keep in mind, especially with the free agency of Byron Jones and Anthony Brown coming up. Could this idea influence the amount of money they want to commit to someone like Jones, who is a fantastic cover guy, but doesn’t really produce turnovers?