The Cowboys entered the 2020 season with a lot of question marks in their secondary and ended the year with about as many question marks. Rookie cornerback Trevon Diggs and second-year safety Donovan Wilson stood out, but there wasn’t much else of note for the Cowboys’ defensive passing game. It’s part of the reason why newly hired defensive coordinator Dan Quinn brought in Joe Whitt Jr. to be his defensive passing game coordinator, a role he held for Quinn’s Falcons just last year.
Between Quinn and Whitt, the Cowboys will be switching back to a more simple form of coverage than the complex schemes Mike Nolan ran in 2020. While we’ll likely never know for sure, it seems as if Nolan was trying to implement concepts like pattern matching and advanced coverage disguises that, in combination with the protracted offseason, were just impossible to learn for the Cowboys defensive backs. That won’t be the case in 2021.
Earlier in the week, we looked at the defensive fronts that Quinn most frequently uses, which he brought from his days as the Seahawks defensive coordinator. Since Quinn is a defensive line coach by trade, the secondary hasn’t really been a specialty for him. Thus, his defenses have always had a passing game coordinator of some sort. In Seattle, it was longtime Pete Carroll confidante Rocky Seto, while Atlanta rode with Jerome Henderson until this last year when Whitt arrived.
That’s not to say Quinn doesn’t know a thing about passing defense, but he does prefer to have guys with more direct experience coordinating the back end of his defenses; in other words, he’s smart enough to know what he doesn’t know. Richard Sherman recounted Quinn’s own halftime adjustments to the coverage scheme in the 2014 NFC Championship game, coincidentally against Mike McCarthy’s Packers, that led to a big comeback win:
“We were losing 16-0 at halftime — it wasn’t because we played bad, it was because our offense has turned the ball over a ton — and we were running Cover 3, but we were also running fire zones to try and disrupt Aaron [Rodgers], and [Rodgers] was spotting them before we could ever get anywhere,” Sherman said. “So [Quinn] came to us at halftime and said, ‘We can’t run another snap of zone. We’re going to man them up the rest of the game. We’ve got to. That’s the only way we’re going to win this game.’
“They had [six] points after halftime. We came back, took it to OT, had the big pass play, and we got out of the game. It’s one of those things where that wasn’t necessarily the strength of what we did, but [Quinn] needed that out of us. And we gave it to him.”
Not only does this speak to Quinn’s football IQ - in that same article, Sherman went on to call Quinn “one of the best defensive minds in the game,” - but his willingness to deviate from the normal gameplan. Cowboys fans obviously know a bit about the Seattle defense that Quinn has roots in, since Kris Richard ran the same scheme just two years ago. But while Richard was very rigid in sticking to basic Cover 3 concepts with big corners, Quinn has changed things up when necessary.
For starters, he didn’t make size a prerequisite for playing in the secondary. His Falcons defenses at their peak featured only one regular starter between corner and safety that was over six feet. His secondary this past season, which included two of Quinn’s drafted cornerbacks and another free agent signing, featured just one guy over six feet as well.
More than that, Quinn deviated from the Cover 3 scheme more often than not. Sherman himself noted this too:
“If a guy is a straight-line rusher, let him straight-line rush,” Sherman said. “[Quinn’s] not going to run any type of games with him. If a corner is a man-coverage guy, he’s going to put him in position to play man. If you have two safeties and one of them is a better box safety and the other one is a better hole safety, he’s rarely going to put the hole safety in the box, or vice versa. But he will interchange it some as not to be predictable.
“A lot of times, it’s just knowing the guy’s strengths and just playing toward them. He won’t put guys out of positions and ask them to do something crazy. Now from time to time, you’ve got to put guys where they’re uncomfortable just to make the defense work. But for the most part, he’s going to put guys in the best possible position.”
Of course, Cover 3 is the go-to coverage in this scheme, so it bears some analysis. The Cover 3 is pretty straightforward, as it features three defenders back deep and four underneath. The usual motivation for going with Cover 3 is to take away big plays and rely on your secondary to be able to make the tackle on shorter completions. Here’s a good diagram of the usual Cover 3:
This diagram features a Cover 3 out of a base defense, but in nickel and dime packages the slot cornerbacks will typically cover to the shallow areas alongside the linebackers and strong safety. Conceptually, the Cover 3 dares the quarterback to launch the ball deep with the assumption being that one of their three deep defensive backs can track the ball and get underneath it in time for the ball to come down. In Seattle, when Quinn had the likes of Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Brandon Browner back there, it worked to perfection.
Of course, the key is to have guys who can make plays on the ball. That bodes well for Trevon Diggs, who flashed his playmaking abilities in his rookie year. But Dallas will have to get more talent on this back end to accompany Diggs. Donovan Wilson showed some skills there as well, but his thumper style of defense fits better as the strong safety in this kind of coverage.
Whereas the under is the base front for Quinn, Cover 3 is the base coverage as well. In his first four seasons as the Falcons head coach, the defense ran some form of Cover 3 on over a third of their plays. That changed in the last two years as Raheem Morris, who cut his teeth in the Tampa 2 that Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli ran, took over the defense. Morris implemented a higher frequency of split safety looks, with Cover 2 man, Cover 2 zone, and quarters coverage. Still, the Falcons ran Cover 3 on 30% the last two years, showing that while Quinn sought to switch things up a bit more he was still operating out of Cover 3 as the base coverage.
Still, this won’t be anything like what Dallas was running from 2018-2019 when Kris Richard called the plays. Richard took the premise of Cover 3 being the base defense a bit too literally, and in 2019 he called Cover 3 on a whopping 54% of the time, generally switching things up to Cover 1 press man on third downs. Worse than that, Richard was infamously against any sort of disguises for his coverages, something former preseason safety George Iloka highlighted after being cut:
Former Cowboys S George Iloka on DC Kris Richard’s system:— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) May 9, 2020
I tried to disguise that we’re playing cover 3. Richard made me stop. I’m like “oh you want them to know we’re in cover 3?” pic.twitter.com/IfYZhAwuvs
The interesting bit from that Iloka interview is how he mentions George Edwards, his former defensive coordinator in Minnesota and current senior defensive assistant in Dallas. Iloka says that Edwards used a lot of two-high safety shells but that they disguised all of their coverages. While nothing has been announced, it seems that Edwards is very much in the mix to remain with the Cowboys under Quinn; after all, the two worked together for two seasons in Miami under Nick Saban. With Quinn’s shift towards incorporating more looks like that in the last two years, Edwards could continue to help with that.
So, too, will Whitt as the new defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator. Whitt, who was also interviewed for the defensive coordinator job, serves as a nice bridge between Quinn and Mike McCarthy. Whitt served in the same capacity with the Falcons last year but also spent 11 seasons in Green Bay under McCarthy.
Whitt also brings a wide variety of knowledge when it comes to coverage schemes. His first NFL job was with the Falcons in 2007, when Mike Zimmer was the defensive coordinator. He then moved to the Packers, where he spent the majority of his time under Dom Capers, who ran a hybrid 3-4 with varied coverages. Whitt was promoted to the passing game coordinator in 2018 when Mike Pettine replaced Capers. Pettine had just spent the prior year as a consultant with the Seahawks, and implemented some of those concepts into his Packers defense. Whitt then became the Browns passing game coordinator under defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, whose scheme is very much built on running every kind of coverage in the book, before going to Atlanta this past season.
So if Quinn is looking to continue to diversify his secondary, Whitt is exactly the guy to be running the back end. And if Whitt’s presence, along with Edwards’, continues the trend towards some more variation between single-high and split-safety looks that we saw in Atlanta, it might be the best outcome possible. That general topic was touched on earlier this season in an exceptional profile in The Athletic of Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley’s scheme, which finished first in yards allowed, points allowed, and weighted DVOA:
At the time, Fangio’s defense was a different beast compared to the rest of the league. Pete Carroll’s success in Seattle had made systems with a single-high safety all the rage in the NFL. But as Staley surveyed the landscape, he had his doubts about the staying power of a system that limited the coverage menu a defense could play (namely Cover 3 and Cover 1). “So much of the NFL was trending to Seattle and that scheme,” Staley said. “I knew that it wouldn’t last. I knew Vic was so different, and there wasn’t really anybody like Vic. It’s because of the depth that we play with. And it’s not like Tampa Bay 2, which is way different because there’s too much air in the coverage. We just play with more depth. When you start with that premise, you can really open your thinking to play the way you need to play to stop people.”
Some of the benefits of lining up with two-deep safeties are self-evident. With more bodies deep in the defensive backfield, the Rams are able to insulate themselves from explosive plays in the passing game. According to Next Gen Stats, Rams opponents are just 10-for-44 with five interceptions on deep passes this season (22.7 percent completions, which is the second lowest mark in the entire league). Staley’s unit has allowed just four touchdown passes of 10+ air yards (four less than any other defense) and a passer rating of just 29.2 on deep throws (first in the league). The way that Staley allocates his resources makes it difficult for any defense to push the ball down the field, but playing out of two-high looks also gives the Rams an element of unpredictability that gets lost with single-high defenses.
When I asked Staley why he thought he could get away with playing this style of defense in the NFL, his answer was somehow obvious yet shocking, considering the typical discourse around defense. “I know that the quickest way to lose is to give up explosions in the passing game,” Staley said. “It takes a lot of 4- and 5-yard runs to add up to a 50-yard pass. If you truly believe that explosions are how you lose in the NFL, you really need to start there in your philosophical structure and how you construct your defense.” On its face, that point makes a lot of sense, but for anyone who’s listened to mainstay NFL coordinators talk about defense, it’s still jarring.
While it’s highly unlikely that Quinn would suddenly shift to a split-safety base, it’s evident that he sees the value of it. Whitt and Edwards clearly do as well. Cover 3 will be the go-to for Quinn, no doubt, but a strategic triumvirate of Quinn, Whitt, and Edwards will provide an adequate mix of differing minds to keep this Cowboys secondary from being as simple and predictable for opposing quarterbacks as it was the last time they tried to run this type of defense.