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Cowboys scouting report: Breaking down the Cardinals defensive scheme

A familiar face for the Cowboys will square off against Dak Prescott this week.

New York Giants v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

As the Cowboys prepare to face the Cardinals on the road this week, and as Mike McCarthy looks to keep his offense humming, the team runs into a familiar face in a new place. Now the head coach of the Cardinals, Jonathan Gannon has had plenty of clashes with Dallas as the defensive coordinator for the Eagles the last two years.

So, too, has Gannon’s defensive coordinator. Nick Rallis, the youngest coordinator in the NFL at 30 years old, actually calls the plays. However, it’s a close partnership between Gannon and Rallis, who have coached together for the last two seasons. Rallis coached the linebackers in Philadelphia while Gannon coordinated the defense, and they both come from the Vikings under head coach and defensive mastermind Mike Zimmer.

Gannon first crossed paths with Zimmer, one of his most influential mentors, in 2007. Gannon was a quality control coach for the Falcons when Zimmer was the coordinator. Years later, when Zimmer became the head coach in Minnesota, he brought in Gannon as an assistant defensive backs coach. Gannon later joined the Colts as the full-time defensive backs coach before jumping to Philadelphia.

When Gannon left Minnesota, Rallis joined the team as a quality control coach before rising to assistant linebackers coach. Once Gannon took over in Philadelphia, he was seeking out assistants who came from the same philosophy and background as he did, and Rallis fit perfectly as a fellow Zimmer disciple.

From a scheme standpoint, that translates to a lot of split safety shells on the back end of the defense, which was Gannon’s specialty. Zimmer has been known for his heavy use of press man coverage with two safeties overtop mixed in with quarters zone coverage. The idea is to keep things in front of the defense and not allow explosive plays downfield, very similar to the Vic Fangio style of defense that has become so popular across the league. Coincidentally, Fangio joined the Eagles as a consultant to Gannon for the Super Bowl, which they of course lost.

Gannon stayed true to the core philosophies of Zimmer’s defense, which included rarely blitzing and instead just rushing four defensive linemen. Gannon was able to create pressure in Philadelphia with a very talented and very deep defensive line rotation, never blitzing on more than 22% of dropbacks.

In Philadelphia, Gannon and Rallis inherited a traditional 4-3 roster and therefore ran very traditional defensive fronts, though they did incorporate some hybrid looks last year with the addition of Haason Reddick. In Arizona, the two have a roster that was running a more traditional 3-4 scheme and have adjusted accordingly with the fronts they use. Still, though, they’ve remained blitz-averse, sending an extra rusher on just 19% of dropbacks through two games. It hasn’t worked as well, as the Cardinals are in the bottom half of the league in both pressures and sacks.

In a lot of ways, the Cardinals’ defensive scheme resembles the Jets defense that Dallas bested a week ago, but without the renowned playmakers that New York has. Nearly half of their defensive starters are new to the team this year, which has made it hard to play cohesive defense. Structurally, though, it still features a lot of two-deep safety looks with a healthy dose of zone coverage aimed at taking away the deep shots.

McCarthy and Dak Prescott sliced up the Jets defense a week ago with a gameplan built around plays geared towards beating the predictable schemes the Jets threw at them. While it would be lazy to suggest they can simply copy and paste that gameplan to this week, the similarities are hard to ignore.

There’s also the familiarity factor with Gannon and Rallis. Prescott faced Gannon three times in the last two years, and he completed 78.4% of his passes and averaged 293 passing yards while throwing 11 touchdowns to just one interception. Prescott carved up this scheme when Gannon and Rallis were working with All Pro’s and Pro Bowlers. Now, he’ll face them in the wake of the Cardinals putting their lone defensive player to earn such honors, safety Budda Baker, on the injured reserve.

Arizona’s defense has performed admirably through the first two games, ranking right around the middle of the pack in most categories, but it’s come against Sam Howell (making just his second career start) and Daniel Jones. They’ll now face a red hot offense led by a quarterback with a history of success against this scheme. All of this bodes very well for the Cowboys, and makes it easy to see why they’re favored to win by so much.

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