When the Cowboys made the decision to move on from Jason Garrett, one of the things that was most clear was that their defense needed big changes. Under Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard, the defense had become far too predictable and thus too easy to exploit. It was a given that their defensive linemen were always going to shoot the gap and their defensive backs were always going to play Cover 3, so opposing offenses built their run games around trap blocks and their pass games around Cover 3 beaters.
But it wasn’t just that the defensive scheme was predictable. The larger issue was that the front and back ends were rarely in sync. Marinelli’s Tampa 2 roots relied on penetrating defensive linemen with linebackers in the shallow middle of the field to contend with the run; Richard’s Legion of Boom defense featured bigger bodies in the trenches that required less linebackers in the box and allowed them to cover the shallow zones on the edges in Cover 3.
So when they tried to marry the two schemes together, it didn’t work out too well. Marinelli, a defensive line specialist, continued to employ his one-gap penetration style of attack while Richard, who was the play-caller both of his years in Dallas, spread his linebackers out in Cover 3 on over half of all defensive plays.
It didn’t work, and Mike Nolan was brought in to change things up and be a singular voice in the defensive room instead of two contrasting philosophies. Of course, the issue there was that Nolan tried to radically change the scheme in an offseason that made it incredibly hard to implement such a change. It led to a lot of miscues, miscommunications, and players ultimately doing more thinking on the field than just letting their talent take over.
Bob Sturm of The Athletic recently wrote an incredible piece breaking down Jaylon Smith’s play from 2020 with input from four anonymous coaches, which you can read in full here. Much of the piece serves as a major indictment of the oft-criticized linebacker, it was astounding to see how many times these anonymous coaches noted how the front and back ends seemed to be doing completely different things. Here are some of the highlights:
By now, I am starting to think this isn’t Smith; this is just stupid defense. By his reaction, his key read is guard and he has backside A, but they are sending a little guy through backside A. Then look at the front side on the right of the screen! Who has what gap? There are two in one again. Smith just takes blocks —he needs to have flow reads and run — not this stuff they have him doing that is unsound. It seems like the back end and the front are not tied together at all, like the secondary guys and the front guys are not on the same page, and they are just calling stuff and hoping it works. And that doesn’t work.
Lol! No. 25-Woods and 26-Lewis are not in force position to begin with —they can be cracked — unsound as hell. The play is just basic split zone; yes, there is a boot fake off of it, but they have the numbers to cover that out the backdoor without him. Again, it looks like a huge disconnect between what he is being told on the front and gaps, and what he is being told on the coverage end.
I would say the LBs are both misaligned. Structurally, this makes very little sense. They are either being set up for failure by coaching, the coaching doesn’t understand how to mesh the safeties and LBs fits together or the players can’t recognize where they should align. This screams of a systematic issue that coaches aren’t teaching or the players can’t implement what they are being taught. As a result, both LVE and Jaylon jump into someone else’s gap because they are aligned over the wrong gap. Of course, they step up — they are NFL LBs; if they see an open window, the reflex is to close it. So the RB winds all the way to the backside B gap, where there is no safety and Jaylon should have been.
LVE has A/C gap, Smith has A/B gap — just dumb. Now, IF Smith has A and 37-Wilson has B, then this is all on 37. But, again, back end and front end don’t match!
In other words, the problem on far too many plays last year - as was the case the year before - was a seeming lack of cohesion between the front and back end of the defense. That was likely a big part of the decision to let Nolan go this year and bring in Dan Quinn.
While Quinn comes from the same school of thought as Richard did, he won’t be competing with a clashing style upfront like Richard did. In fact, Quinn is a defensive line specialist just like Marinelli was, and values his defensive line operating the way it did in Seattle. And unlike Richard, Quinn doesn’t rely on Cover 3 as much, and even brought in Joe Whitt Jr. to coordinate the back end of his defense.
While Whitt has been around a wide variety of different defensive schemes, his most recent stop was as the passing game coordinator for Quinn’s Falcons just last year. While Atlanta’s defense wasn’t great, Whitt’s familiarity with Quinn’s preferences and style of defense should serve as a huge foundation for the two as they go about fixing this Dallas defense.
Obviously the coaching staff isn’t going to fix everything, as the Cowboys need to add a lot of talent on defense this offseason, but a cohesive relationship between Quinn and Whitt should lead to a cohesive relationship between the front and back ends of this defense, which would help eliminate many of the holes that have existed the past few years. And in that respect, the experience that Quinn and Whitt have together - however brief it may have been - could be the it factor for a defense that needs to take a big step forward in 2021.