When Mike McCarthy hired Mike Nolan as his new defensive coordinator, questions quickly arose about the potential for Dallas to move to a 3-4 defense; Nolan had run that kind of defense in most of his previous stops as coordinator. In interviews, McCarthy and Nolan both talked about the desire to become multiple on defense and stressed getting good players over finding players that fit a certain scheme.
McCarthy confirmed the team would remain in a 4-3 base defense two days before the draft began, but he added that the team “may have the ability to have some variation there.” This was taken to mean that while Dallas could introduce some three-down-linemen packages, they will still primarily use four linemen on the line of scrimmage with their hands in the dirt.
Based on the defense that Nolan ran with the Falcons back in 2012, when he operated primarily out of a 4-3 base that featured some 3-4 concepts, this seems to be very similar to what Nolan is planning for the Cowboys. But while that (likely) answers some questions about what the defensive front will look like, questions remained concerning the secondary.
McCarthy and Nolan, as well as cornerbacks coach Al Harris and safeties coach Maurice Linguist, have talked about the desire for defensive backs who generate a lot of turnovers, but it didn’t give a big clue as to what types of coverages we might see.
The signing of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix offered somewhat of a clue into the coaching staff’s approach to the safety position, with the guess being that Dallas is looking to have two interchangeable safeties that can play with range in coverage. Clinton-Dix has thrived in more rangy free safety roles, as has Xavier Woods, so the move away from having a designated box safety was expected.
There was also a bit of a hint that Dallas was getting ready to play more tight press man coverage because of the hiring of Harris to work with corners. When he was a player, Harris was known as the king of bump and run coverage, frequently challenging receivers right at the line of scrimmage and being physical with them.
That theory has been more or less confirmed with the team’s draft decisions. In the second round, the Cowboys took Trevon Diggs, who was specifically praised for his skills as a press man corner at the line of scrimmage. Kyle Crabbs of The Draft Network said that “Diggs’ length makes him an ideal player to play press at the line of scrimmage and put him in positions to physically challenge receivers to stack the edge in run support.”
The tape lines up with that sentiment:
New Cowboys CB Trevon Diggs pic.twitter.com/zI07xwcqNR— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) April 25, 2020
But it wasn’t just Diggs, as the Cowboys added Reggie Robinson II in the fourth round. Like Diggs, Robinson is a big, long corner who caught a lot of interceptions in college. Joe Marino of The Draft Network said that “While he lacks technique, he’s super aggressive in press coverage to create jams and crowd releases. Feels route stems well and keeps himself in-phase as patterns elongate. Terrific athlete that has plenty of spring in his step. Tenacious run defender and he can defend the d-gap. Ball production has been excellent and his ball skills pop on tape.”
And the tape says... that checks out:
A potential day 3 guy that appears to be a great fit for the #49ers is Tulsa CB Reggie Robinson. He has both the size and speed the 49ers like in their corners along with being an athletic playmaker. Great option if he’s still available on Saturday.— 49ers Mode (@49ers_Mode) April 19, 2020
While Robinson might not be as much of a lock to start right away as Diggs, it sent a very clear message about what the Cowboys are looking to do on the back end of their defense. They’re going to run a lot of aggressive, press man coverage with two rangy safeties playing over the top.
This sounds a lot like the scheme that the Minnesota Vikings run under Mike Zimmer, where Cover 2 and quarters coverage reign supreme and cornerbacks have to be able to play press man coverage without getting burned. It should be no coincidence, then, that Zimmer’s defensive coordinator for the last six years, George Edwards, is on the staff as well as a senior defensive assistant.
As for who ends up as the starters in Week 1 of the regular season, that’s up in the air at this point. But the decisions the Cowboys made - and perhaps more importantly the ones they didn’t make - have given us a pretty clear picture as to what we can expect, schematically speaking, from this new-look defense.