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Breaking down the front seven of new Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s defense

What will Dan Quinn bring up front?

Atlanta Falcons v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

When Dan Quinn was announced as the new Cowboys defensive coordinator, everyone pretty much assumed it would mark a return to the more straightforward 4-3 defense after Mike Nolan’s implementation of a hybrid that included several 3-4 concepts in the scheme in 2020. While that’s largely true, it’s not a completely accurate portrait of Quinn’s scheme.

As both a defensive coordinator and a head coach, Quinn’s teams have employed a 4-3 base defense. However, Quinn has significant experience in both styles. He was the defensive line coach for the Dolphins for two years in a traditional 3-4 scheme before spending two more years with the Jets in a hybrid 3-4 scheme. On top of that, Seattle’s defense was unique when it first came to prominence because it mixed some 3-4 concepts into the 4-3 scheme.

As such, getting a feel for Quinn’s defense requires a deep dive into the philosophy and strategy of how it works. This article will focus primarily on the front seven of that scheme - which is something Quinn himself has specialized in as a defensive line coach - before focusing on the secondary in a second article. While Quinn has devised several variants of the Legion of Boom defense, this is an overview of the general scheme, even if it might not be applied word-for-word in Dallas. This is to get an idea of the philosophical roots of it.

3-4 defensive linemen in a 4-3 defense

One of the most unique aspects of this defense is the way it utilizes 3-4 defensive linemen to run a 4-3 defense. That doesn’t make sense at face value, but it works very effectively. Pete Carroll and Gus Bradley, the two primary innovators of the Legion of Boom defense in Seattle, were both disciples of Monte Kiffin. Carroll’s first NFL job, as the defensive backs coach for the 1984 Bills, first paired him with Kiffin, yet to become the renowned defensive mind he turned out to be. Bradley, on the other hand, began his NFL career with the Buccaneers when Kiffin was already a highly-respected defensive coordinator.

Ergo, both coaches cut their teeth in the Tampa 2 defense that Cowboys fans are all too familiar with. But at Seattle, they sought to create a modernized version of the legendary defense. Offenses had learned how to easily exploit the Tampa 2 both on the ground and through the air, so Carroll and Bradley tried to solve those problems while still keeping the core tenets of the scheme. As a result, they implemented 3-4 concepts into their defensive line, something Carroll had witnessed in his time as a position coach with the 49ers in the 90’s:

“We mixed the concepts of one-gap football and two-gap football in a very unique way in San Francisco,” Carroll said. “And we played great defense. To me, that was the ultimate package, and we’ve been able to get back to it now. It’s taken us three years, really, to get to the point where we can incorporate the ideas. So, we’re doing all of the things that we liked there. I thought it was the most comprehensive package of defense that I’ve been around. I was not able to do that at SC. I was the defensive coordinator and putting the whole thing together at SC, but our guys just couldn’t handle it. It was just too much stuff, and it was too much for the coaches.

So we did variations of stuff. It worked out great, but in college, we weren’t capable of doing all of that. Guys couldn’t learn and couldn’t teach it the way we needed to. But it made sense to Gus and all of our coaches — the background and the principles of things — and then we’ve melded it together and ended up with a pretty diverse package of defense.”

Quinn, of course, was a major part of that in Carroll’s first year with the Seahawks, as he was coaching the defensive line. Having himself coached in two variants of a 3-4 in his four years before Seattle, Quinn was able to effectively mold the one-gap and two-gap principles during the creation of this new scheme. Due to that unique approach, Seattle needed to acquire some big defensive linemen capable of carrying out those two-gap responsibilities. Thus, they acquired linemen that would traditionally play in a 3-4 defense.

Throughout his tenure with both Seattle and Atlanta, Quinn made frequent use of three main fronts: the 4-3 under, the 4-3 over, and the bear front. Let’s take a look at these three fronts.

This is the 4-3 under, and it was the base look that Quinn himself used the most. As you can see, this front has a lot of looks that are also common to the 3-4, although the player alignments are different. There’s a 1-technique defensive tackle and a 4-technique defensive end, both of whom are usually two-gapping, while the 3-technique and LEO (more on that in a bit) are out wide for a one-gap penetration style attack. Additionally, the SAM linebacker is on the line of scrimmage as if he were an edge rusher. This gives the defense the opportunity to rush all five or drop one or both of the LEO or SAM back into coverage.

The Cowboys used quite a few variants of this front under Mike Nolan this past year, but with their version of the LEO usually in a two-point stance as well. The idea is to load the box and make the quarterback question how many defenders will be coming at him. It’s the same general principle with Quinn, but with more down-linemen in a three-point stance.

This is the 4-3 over front that Quinn likes to use as an alternative to the under. It offers another loaded box look, a staple of this scheme, but the 3-technique and LEO are on opposite sides of the field. Additionally, the linebackers are all stacked up, meaning none of them are up on the line of scrimmage. The three bigger linemen - the 6-technique, 3-technique, and 1-technique - are all aligned to the strong side.

Quinn and others frequently use this front more often against the run, as it functions as a sort of trap play. With the defense overloaded to the strong side, where a run would usually go, it forces the running back to adjust and go into the wide open space between the 1-technique and the LEO. But of course, the stacked linebackers are there to protect against that. When executed properly, this front is a demon against the run.

Finally, here’s the bear front, one of the more exotic looks you’ll see from Quinn. While Seattle really only used this as a sort of change-up front, Quinn implemented it a bit more frequently in Atlanta, and for good reason. It’s similar to the under front but with a true nose tackle in the 0-technique alignment being flanked by two 3-technique penetration guys. On the edges, you’ve got your two best edge rushers (marked here as SAM and LEO) in a two-point stance, although Quinn was always willing to let his guys put a hand in the dirt if they preferred it.

Quinn, like many of his fellow coaches from this Seattle defense, doesn’t blitz very often; he prefers to create pressure with just the front four, allowing the linebackers to get more involved in coverage. But he did tend to pair some of his more creative blitz packages with this front due to the natural chaos that the look creates. But the key to all three of these fronts is the LEO.

The LEO position

The LEO is never hard to identify in this defense; it always sticks out like a sore thumb. The LEO is usually lined up very far out wide, as we saw in the images above. While the other three defensive linemen in this scheme alternate between one-gap penetration, one-gap read-and-react, and pure two-gapping, the LEO’s job on (nearly) every play is to create havoc in the backfield. Thus, the overly wide alignment, designed to give the defender an easier path to the quarterback and/or running back.

Looking at the Cowboys’ roster, it’s not completely clear who Quinn will choose to be his LEO - odds are he’ll have a few - but my guess would be that Randy Gregory takes a ton of snaps at the position. Gregory proved in 2020 that he’s still an athletic freak that can be dominant when he gets going, and giving him a wide alignment like this could only accelerate his return to form. DeMarcus Lawrence figures to get some looks too, but his ability as an elite run defender - Lawrence finished fourth among EDGEs in run stop win rate this year - makes him a legitimate option on the other side of the line, alternating between 4-, 5-, and 6-technique alignments.

But the wide alignment isn’t the only thing that makes the LEO so special in Quinn’s defense. It’s also the three other linemen being really, really good at what they do. As such, you need to have bigger defensive tackles that can effectively two-gap and take up space. So while Quinn is a return to a more straightforward 4-3, it’s a far cry from the undersized gap-shooters that Rod Marinelli ran not too long ago.

In a way, this favors the Cowboys. They already tried to beef up their interior this year, although Dontari Poe was a huge whiff and Gerald McCoy tore his quad. Antwaun Woods proved he can be an effective two-gap presence, albeit not an every-down guy, and Neville Gallimore grew into the role very well as the season progressed. Expect the Cowboys to continue their search for bigger defensive tackles with Quinn in tow.

Letting the linebackers flow free and fast

When Quinn was in Seattle, he benefitted from a talented linebacker corps that was tailor-made for the scheme. Bobby Wagner, KJ Wright, and Malcolm Smith perfectly fit what he wanted to do at that level, which is play fast and loose. When Quinn got to Atlanta, he quickly overhauled the linebacker corps with the likes of Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, and Duke Riley. All three players weighed between 220 and 230 pounds and ran a sub-4.58 40-yard dash. The objective was clear: lean linebackers that play fast and physical.

And for a brief moment, it was working. Injuries took a toll on all three, and each of them struggled in their own way to regain the form they once had. That should sound familiar, as the Cowboys own linebacker corps has had its fair share of injuries. And this position will be the most interesting one to watch with Quinn coming to town.

The starting duo of Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith have struggled mightily the last two years. Vander Esch has missed significant times in each of those seasons, and his 255 pound frame and 4.65 40-yard dash don’t fit Quinn’s type either. Smith has the speed, with a blazing 4.41 40-time, but is also a bit bigger at 248 pounds. Contractually speaking, Vander Esch is entering the final year of his rookie contract with Dallas needing to decide on whether to exercise his fifth-year option or not, while Smith is a popular target for an outright release this offseason.

Schematically, Quinn likes to use his two main linebackers, the MIKE and WILL, as his main readers of the field. The MIKE is the quarterback of the defense and usually takes on more coverage responsibilities, while the WILL tends to be the beneficiary of that massive gap between the LEO and the rest of the defensive line. The SAM linebacker, which comes off the field in nickel, is often used as a traditional 3-4 outside linebacker would be. That is to say the SAM in Quinn’s scheme has to be able to play the run, rush the passer, and drop into coverage with above-average results. This past year, Nolan used Dorance Armstrong in a similar role, although rookie Bradlee Anae seems an obvious fit for that kind of role as well.

Either way, Quinn has the most figuring out to do at the linebacker level with this Cowboys defense, but the goals are clear: continue to beef up in the trenches and get much faster at linebacker. Naturally, Quinn’s fronts are philosophically connected to his coverage decisions, and the seamless tether between them is what has made his defense work in past stops. We’ll be looking at that part in the follow-up piece to this one, so stay tuned.