When the Cowboys hired Dan Quinn to be their new defensive coordinator, it was essentially a return to the defensive philosophy the team had run in the final two years under the old coaching staff. That’s because Quinn is a branch off of the Seahawks Legion of Boom tree, as was the Cowboys’ defensive play-caller from 2018 to 2019, Kris Richard.
While an in-depth look at the scheme that Quinn runs reveals several nuances, the meat and potatoes of it is very straightforward. It’s a four down-linemen front with little blitzing and a lot of press coverage out of both Cover 1 and Cover 3 shells.
However, Quinn has recently said that he took the time off during the 2020 season, after he was fired five games into the season as the Falcons head coach, to watch film and tweak his long-held scheme, not unlike what Mike McCarthy did before coming to Dallas. Here’s what Quinn had to say:
“That included defensive cutups from 2013 to 2020, and that brought me into some of the system changes that I wanted to implement on the next lap around,” he said. “I didn’t want to do just another rinse and repeat. And, so, that was a big piece on what I wanted to do.”
“Certainly a combination of things that, the foundation that has been here, as well as some new things that I wanted to bring into it and how we play and the style that would do that,” Quinn said.
This comes after Quinn raised some eyebrows in his post-draft press conference when he mentioned that the Cowboys defense will look like a 3-4 in base formations. Quinn also followed it up by saying that most of their snaps will be out of a nickel front, which would involve four down-linemen, but the 3-4 base comment brought with it some concerns that Quinn would not in fact be deviating from the scheme Mike Nolan tried, and ultimately failed, to install last year.
But this is more likely than not just an overreaction, as is commonplace around this time of the year. Describing the base look as a 3-4 is par for the course for the scheme Quinn learned in Seattle. Back when Quinn was first hired and we broke down the features of his front seven, that similarity was prevalent:
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.
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.
As explained back then, Quinn most frequently uses the under and over fronts when in base formations. Both are very common formations, but Quinn as a playcaller has trended more towards the under front, which can be seen below.
Hat tip Field Gulls for the graphics.
In this view from Quinn’s days in Seattle, there are three interior defensive linemen with a LEO in a three-point stance and the SAM linebacker on the edge in a two-point stance. However, in Atlanta Quinn frequently used this formation with edge rusher Vic Beasley at the LEO also in a two-point stance, which is what made it look like a 3-4 with what appeared to be two outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage.
So Quinn’s comment about his base front looking like more of a 3-4 shouldn’t come as much of a shock. If anything, it could just mean that Quinn intends to make more use of the under front than before, which would certainly be understandable after the Cowboys took Micah Parsons, who could seamlessly fit as the SAM in this front coming off the edge.
If indeed there is a big change in Quinn’s scheme, though, it’s more likely to come on the backend. Quinn, like his fellow former coworkers in Seattle, has been fond of press coverage out of Cover 1 and press-bail coverage out of Cover 3. Either way, Quinn’s scheme seeks to close off the middle of the field with a single-high safety, which will mainly be Damontae Kazee here in Dallas.
However, as was discovered during our breakdown of Quinn’s coverage schemes, he has been experimenting more and more with a split-safety look that leaves the middle of the field open. Over his final two years in Atlanta, Quinn brought in former Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton to pick his brain on the in’s and out’s of the split-safety scheme benefits. As a result, he incorporated more and more of those looks into his defenses; defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, a disciple of the legendary Tampa 2 defense, and passing game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. also helped with that evolution.
Quinn is now in Dallas, as well as Whitt in the same capacity. He’s also reuniting with senior defensive assistant George Edwards - the two worked together on Nick Saban’s Dolphins in the early 2000’s - whose own experience in Mike Zimmer’s split-safety scheme brings a similar influence. Naturally, Quinn will still use the single-high coverage as his base, but we do know that he’s expressed an interest in mixing it up already.
Whether Quinn leans more into that in 2021 remains to be seen, and there are other areas, such as increasing the rate at which this defense blitzes, where Quinn could buck some of his already-established trends. But it seems highly likely that Quinn’s Cowboys defense will look strikingly similar to what he’s run before in Atlanta and Seattle, albeit with a few minor cosmetic changes here and there. Given that Quinn’s time in those two previous stops involved three trips to the Super Bowl, that should be welcome news for Cowboys fans.