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Breaking down new Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s scheme

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Just what kind of scheme will the Cowboys be running?

NFL: MAY 23 New Orleans Saints OTA Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

According to Ian Rapoport, the Cowboys have officially chosen current Saints linebackers coach Mike Nolan to be their defensive coordinator under Mike McCarthy. Nolan has history with McCarthy, he hired McCarthy as the offensive coordinator for the 49ers in 2005 when he was the head coach.

Nolan has been coaching since 1981 and brings with him 17 years of experience as a defensive coordinator, as well as four years as a head coach in San Francisco. Nolan most recently comes from New Orleans, where he’s coached since 2017 and helped oversee a defensive rejuvenation. While coaching linebackers there, Nolan helped give a boost to veteran Demario Davis and turn AJ Klein, who will be a free agent this year, into an every-down starter. He already has one fan in Bryan Broaddus:

The biggest question that surrounds Nolan is scheme. Traditionally, Nolan has been known to run a 3-4 defense, which would mark a reversal for a team that’s invested a lot of resources into fielding a fairly traditional 4-3 defense since 2013. With reports that the Cowboys might want to bring back defensive backs coach and defensive passing game coordinator Kris Richard, it’s up for debate how that relationship could work.

Regardless of those details, Nolan has a history of utilizing both types of defenses, as well as a varied hybrid front. And he’s found success with all three types as well. Nolan ran strict 3-4 defenses in his first two coordinator jobs with the Giants and Redskins, but operated more of a hybrid front in his lone season under the 2000 Jets, where Bill Parcells oversaw things as the general manager. In Baltimore he continued their 3-4 hybrid defensive success while helping newly drafted Terrell Suggs blossom into a fearsome edge rusher.

From there, Nolan followed in the footsteps of his father Dick Nolan (who, coincidentally, was Tom Landry’s defensive coordinator in Dallas) by being named the head coach of the 49ers. While there, Nolan helped amass some defensive talent - Isaac Sopoaga, Manny Lawson, Parys Haralson, Ray McDonald, Dashon Goldson, and Patrick Willis - that turned into a formidable unit under Jim Harbaugh, who succeeded Nolan.

After his ousting in San Francisco, Nolan was named the defensive coordinator in Denver under new head coach Josh McDaniels. Implementing a 3-4 hybrid similar to what he ran in Baltimore, Nolan helped improve a defense that ranked 31st in DVOA the previous season to seventh. Yet, McDaniels decided to move on from Nolan after the season.

At that point, Nolan joined Tony Sparano in Miami as his new defensive coordinator. Nolan helped at-the-time-unheralded Cameron Wake rack up 14 sacks as the defense’s premier edge rusher and make the first Pro Bowl of his career. Additionally, Nolan bumped the Dolphins defense up to ninth in DVOA that season, and while the unit dropped to 12th the next year, Nolan’s defense performed exceptionally well.

But Sparano’s firing meant Nolan was once again out of a job. He became the Falcons defensive coordinator, where he got his first taste of operating a more traditional 4-3 defense. That year, the Falcons finished 12th in DVOA, but Nolan began transitioning the team towards a 3-4 scheme he was more comfortable with, and it resulted in the defense regressing heavily.

So while that meant Nolan was once again out of a job, at which point he started working as a linebackers coach at a couple spots, he still carried with him a really impressive résumé that featured an ability to quickly turn defenses around, and he had a penchant for creating takeaways:

While Nolan has run several different schemes over his career, one thing is clear: he prefers big defensive linemen on the interior. While Michael Gehlken of Dallas Morning News noted that the Cowboys are expected to keep the 4-3 scheme in place, Nolan’s arrival could mean a shift in philosophy towards valuing size in the trenches. A common thread in all of Nolan’s defenses has been a huge two-gapping nose tackle, which would be a departure from Rod Marinelli’s preference for leaner, faster defensive tackles.

As mentioned, Nolan also has a good history of developing star edge rushers, whether it be Suggs or Wake or John Abraham. That should only mean good things for DeMarcus Lawrence, who Nolan will no doubt look to get a lot more preferable matchups after he spent most of 2019 being double-teamed. Aside from those two positions, Nolan tends to utilize a three-technique defensive tackle for interior penetration, which plays into the talent the Cowboys currently have.

In his linebackers, Nolan tends to ask guys to play with a downhill style of play, flowing to the ball and doing their best to make plays. When Nolan has run a 3-4 scheme, he’s asked his WILL linebacker to take on offensive linemen more often, but it’s uncertain how exactly he’d seek to use the talents of Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. It should be noted that Vander Esch, at 256 pounds, has the size and strength to fill such a role while Smith could be asked to alternate between a more traditional linebacker and more of a pass rushing threat.

Nolan, whose specialty has more to do with the front end, never really showed a strong preference for any one coverage, and tended to mix it up depending on his roster’s strengths. But that doesn’t mean he’ll ignore that part of the defense. He had this to say back when he was named the Falcons defensive coordinator:

“There are probably more good quarterbacks in the league than there has ever been,” Nolan said. “Outside of pass rush, the secondary is where the quarterback attacks you the most. It’s real important to have a good secondary.”

Of course, if Richard sticks around to coach the defensive backs under Nolan, it’s likely that the Cowboys would continue to primarily use Cover 1 and Cover 3. Now, this pairing might very well fare better than Richard and Marinelli did; Richard’s scheme he ran in Seattle featured bigger defensive linemen in a similar fashion to what Nolan prefers, so schematically they could complement each other well.

Regardless, Nolan is a coach with a long, rich history of success. He brings a wealth of knowledge and lots of energy, which he has used to get immediate results out of his defenses. It will be interesting to see if Nolan sticks with Richard or looks to bring in someone else.