News: BTB: Dallas Cowboys: The 4-3 Defense That Never Was

Discussion in 'Fan Zone' started by NewsBot, Oct 23, 2013.

  1. NewsBot

    NewsBot New Member

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    If you were paying attention back when the Dallas Cowboys hired Monte Kiffin, now 73, you might remember that there were a slew of age related jokes. They didn't stop when the team added Kiffin's long time assistant and sidekick Rod Marinelli, who is 64. Along with the humor, there were also some serious questions about whether the NFL game had passed them by. Could they make the 4-3 defense with Cover 2 work against the high-powered passing attacks and emerging read-option offenses? This was the famous Tampa 2 that it was assumed they were hired to implement.

    Our own Dave Halprin noticed that Kiffin and Marinelli did not run a true Tampa 2 against the Eagles.

    One of the things Dallas did in the Eagles game was basically abandon playing three linebackers and went with nickel personnel for almost the entire game. Sean Lee played on 80 defensive snaps or 100% of the total, and Bruce Carter played on 72 snaps, that's 90%. Next up was Ernie Sims who played on 8 snaps (10%) and many of those were late in the fourth quarter. Justin Durant played a total of three defensive snaps. The Cowboys made nickel personnel their base.

    Dave was exactly right in that. Most of the game, Kiffin put in three corners and used one of the safeties to come up to give him a seventh man in the box. This worked very well against the speedy LeSean McCoy.

    That got me to wondering. Did the Cowboys ever really use a 4-3 this season, or is this really a nickel (4-2) based defense?

    I went to the snap counts in the NFL's Game Statistics Information System and looked at how many snaps each of the Dallas linebackers took on defense.

    Player Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6 Week 7
    Sean Lee
    100% 100% 77% 100% 100% 97% 100%​
    Bruce Carter
    92% 100% 77% 67% 49% 94% 90%​
    Justin Durant
    30% 45% 46% 12% 0% 10% 4%​
    Ernie Sims
    12% 0% 0% 38% 58% 36% 10%​
    DeVonte Holloman
    0% 0% 23% 0% 1% 0% 0%​

    These are the only five linebackers who saw any snaps at all while playing defense so far this season. In the table, week 3 is a bit of an aberration. That was the St. Louis Rams game, and the Cowboys got far enough ahead to give the starters a bit of a break. DeVonte Holloman was the big beneficiary, getting on the field for almost a quarter of the snaps late in the game.

    Taking that into account, this becomes very clear from looking at these numbers: From the very first game, it is mathematically impossible in any of the seven games for the Cowboys to have played more downs in a 4-3 alignment than they did in the nickel. In every game, the most common package included two linebackers, not three. And the trend gets more pronounced as the season goes along. In weeks 1 and 2, the Cowboys had three linebackers on the field for over 40% of the snaps, but less than 50%. Against the Washington Redskins in week 6, the number gets close to 40%, but not quite. The other four games have three linebackers on the field for somewhere between 4% and 23% of the plays.

    Dave said you can forget the Tampa 2. Well, you can pretty much relegate the 4-3 to use in limited situations. This is now a scheme based firmly on the nickel, with the defense using four down linemen, two linebackers, three cornerbacks, and two safeties on a large majority of the plays.

    There are also some clear patterns to how the players are used. The linemen are rotated more than anyone else on the defense, with the trend being towards limiting the starters to about 70% or a little less of the snaps. This makes a lot of sense given the way Marinelli demands all out effort on every play. The frequent substitutions keeps fairly fresh legs out there.

    The back seven is another matter altogether. Sean Lee and Bruce Carter are clearly the primary linebackers, with the so-called "benching" of Carter left far in the past. You can see their numbers in the chart above. Among the cornerbacks, Brandon Carr has taken 496 snaps this season, Orlando Scandrick 486, and Morris Claiborne 412, with anyone else just an afterthought. And since J.J. Wilcox won the starting job, he has been paired up on the field with Barry Church for almost every play. Just in the past two weeks, Jeff Heath has started to get some of the snaps that used to go to Will Allen, but Wilcox and Church are the workhorses here.

    And that is the rub. There is no real depth here. Durant has been relegated more and more to the bench and Holloman is nursing injury, leaving Sims as the primary backup linebacker. Cameron Lawrence and Kyle Bosworth are strictly special teams players for now.

    The only backups in the secondary are B.W. Webb at corner and Danny McCray at safety. They are also special teams players, and we can all remember how it went when McCray was pressed into action at safety last season.

    Marinelli has been little short of a miracle worker with the players he is using on the line. I don't think we want to know what will happen if the team has to try to do the same in the back seven. We might find out in a hurry what players like Lawrence and Bosworth can bring to the table. I also notice that Jakar Hamilton and Micah Pellerin are still on the practice squad. We may not want to see any of those players having to line up defensively, but given the nature of the NFL, we have to be ready for the possibility.

    Meanwhile, as long as the starters are good to go, this is looking like a very good approach. It should make it clear that Kiffin is still flexible and adaptive, able to adjust his own scheme to fit new realities.

    The next game against the Detroit Lions is going to tell us a lot more about this defense, because Matthew Stafford is another quarterback who gets the ball out quickly, like Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning. It will show whether the man coverage Kiffin has been dialing up the past couple of games will help with that. Dallas and Detroit are amazingly close in many statistics, and it could be a dog fight with two 4-3 teams trying to take the next step. We will find out to some extent which way the arrow is pointing for the Cowboys. And how the nickel works in Motor City.


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  2. MichaelWinicki

    MichaelWinicki "You want some?" Staff Member

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    Interesting that the Cowboys' base defense is really a 4-2-5.

    AND it's with 3 corners and not 3 safeties

    3 corners starting on defense...

    Hmm. I wonder if corner is an important position. o_O
    CowboyStar88 likes this.
  3. dallasdave

    dallasdave Well-Known Member

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    If it works USE IT !:mad::mad::mad::mad::mad::mad::mad::mad:
  4. Future

    Future Intramural Legend

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    I wonder, if Heath can be a reliable safety, if we could bulk up that nickel a bit with Church coming into the box, Wilcox handling the slot receiver, and Heath playing over the top. IIRC, one of the things that stood out about Wilcox was his man coverage during Senior Bowl practices, so I think that he might be able to play more of a hybrid spot than just a traditional deep safety.

    Scandrick is usually a good enough tackler that you don't necessarily have to replace him, but three capable safeties might be able to give you a bit more flexibility.
  5. Romo2Ogletree

    Romo2Ogletree Active Member

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    Interesting, looks like we don't need that extra linebacker for run support. Sean Lee and that defensive line must be pretty darn good.
  6. Crown Royal

    Crown Royal Insulin Beware

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    Having corners that you trust to play single high safety (instead of cover two) in man coverage is incredible in this NFL. Think about that for a second. You can play nickel but with a safety still patrolling the box to protect the run (essentially you think you can stop the run with 6-7 front players). You don't feel too exposed in the passing game because you trust your matchups.

    If this trend continues, investing in coverage is starting to look like a HUGE payoff.
  7. 187beatdown

    187beatdown Lack of Big Plays

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    Nope, teams don't need corners. They need to have 8 starters on the defensive line. It's how the Giants have been winning so many games.
  8. TonyS

    TonyS Well-Known Member

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    So important that at least 2 of our starting corners are playing special teams. Seems weird that we would expose them to special teams, especially Mo, but the brain trust must think the risk is worth the reward. Seemed to work last week.
  9. LatinMind

    LatinMind iPhotoshop

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    this really isnt a secret. With the new rules every team is running a base nickle these days
  10. Deep_Freeze

    Deep_Freeze Well-Known Member

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    Well OScan is just better than any other safety we could put out there, so it makes sense to just get our best players on the field. The Saints are using alot of 3 safety looks, and it really is a nice option to be able to run, we just don't have the personnel to run it. There should be no question about our interest in Vaccaro, and continued interest in improving that position.

    With the league moving to so much passing, a base nickel is normal these days. 3 safeties are good cause you have the additional run support of a safety over a CB, but we are getting by with OScan out there so that is good for us.
  11. cowboysooner

    cowboysooner Well-Known Member

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    What is a bit wrong is that we are long on line backers and short corners and safeties. We really need to draft a cover safety in the next draft.
    Deep_Freeze likes this.
  12. Deep_Freeze

    Deep_Freeze Well-Known Member

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    We just lack a depth of talent beyond our 3rd CB or 2nd safety (cross your fingers we don't have an injury back there), and as you point out, this has to change in this passing league......immediately.
  13. ninja

    ninja Numbnuts

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    If our base is the 4-2-5 with 3 CBs (which I think it is) I am really worried about only having 4 CBs on the roster. Carr, Claiborne, Scandrick, and Webb are the only CBs unless I am missing someone. We used to have Greenwood until a week ago. I think it is too risky going light at the CB position. Is there even a CB on our PS? One injury and Webb is the starter and another injury and we can't even run our base. I would definitely be adding a CB, preferably bringing back Greenwood.
  14. MichaelWinicki

    MichaelWinicki "You want some?" Staff Member

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  15. visionary

    visionary Well-Known Member

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    didnt see it pay off so well against peyton and rivers
    lets see how it pays off against stafford and brees

    cant play nick foles and mat barkley every week
  16. Crown Royal

    Crown Royal Insulin Beware

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    We played the vast majority of the Detroit game in zone coverage if I remember correctly. Denver countered by running, play action and throwing out of the backfield. Mannings Yards per Completion was crap, but he was getting the ball out of his hands in about 2.3 seconds, which means they were throwing quick passes against soft zone.
  17. visionary

    visionary Well-Known Member

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    not quibling with why, just pointing out that we had the same weapons on defense for those games
    before saying that the change in defensive philosophy (man vs zone) has worked because we have great CBs lets let them play against real NFL QBs
    RGIII and nick foles arent exactly a good test
    if stafford and brees do poorly against our defense, then we have something
  18. BAT

    BAT Mr. Fixit

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    Cowboys likely call up Pellerin if any corner is injured. But I liked Greenwood too. Should have at least put him on PS.
  19. big dog cowboy

    big dog cowboy THE BIG DOG Staff Member

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    No. We should trade them all for Von Miller.

  20. kevm3

    kevm3 Well-Known Member

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    How was RG3 not a 'good test'? He just put up 45 his last game.

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