Here is one of many emails that I have received regarding these topics:
I enjoy and appreciate your film breakdowns. I was wondering if you've considered doing a series breaking down some of Rob Ryan's defensive schemes used at Oakland and Cleveland? With nothing else going on right now, I'm sure there would be a ton of interest in seeing some of what the Cowboys might be doing.
I would say you should start with the two pieces I have already written about Rob Ryan's tactics in Cleveland. The first one was back in February when I tried to figure out what they did against the New England Patriots and how they attempt to create confusion and cause chaos all up and down the defensive line of scrimmage. Inside that study, there is also a look at how much most 3-4 defenses bring blitzers from the defensive secondary (about 10 times a game or more) and how rarely the Cowboys bring blitzers from the secondary in the Wade Phillips years (about 3 times a game).
You can read that entry from Feb 19 right here.
The second piece you should try to read is from April when I tried to examine the very unlikely win in New Orleans by Rob Ryan and his Cleveland Browns. This one is a real amazing textbook look at causing confusion again to the defending Super Bowl champions. I felt that Ryan started the game with a reckless abandon and swagger that you never see. Usually, a big underdog goes into New Orleans and they just try the old "bend but don't break" strategy and they end up being slowly and methodically picked apart. Ryan went in to New Orleans and he threw the kitchen sink at Sean Payton and Drew Brees and the results were phenomenal.
You can read that entry from this Cowboys Blog from April 10 right here.
I highly recommend that you check those out to see what Rob Ryan is all about.
Then, in preparation to talk about him a bit more today, I went back and looked at a few more games from the Browns season last year - Atlanta and Baltimore, and then looked back at the Patriots and Saints games again. Think of the quality of opponent and quality of quarterbacks they are facing there. Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees. Those QBs are all quality and have the ability to pick things apart when they get a feel for what you are doing.
Here are a few more observations from what I have seen:
* I think the lockout is really hurting the Cowboys defense. There is a real possibility that there will be no mini camps, no study sessions, and possibly, an abbreviated training camp. If this happens, certain teams will not be affected much (those teams that are not changing schemes or coaches and teams that will not have much personnel change) and certain teams will be affected quite dramatically. I think the Cowboys offense will be totally fine as they have minimal changes to deal with and if everyone is not comfortable with Jason Garrett's strategies and tactics by now, it isn't ever going to happen. But, this defense in Cleveland was very, very complex. I was impressed with all of the chaos and running around in the seconds before every snap. There seems to be great amounts of adjustments and communication going on between many members of the defense at all times. They are looking for keys from the offense and then showing one thing with 5 seconds to go before the anticipated snap and then totally shifting their look so that the QB is not getting much of a presnap read. Again, as I have said a number of times, Rob Ryan had almost no household names on his defense so he had to use some levels of deceptions and trickery to cover up things. He used ambushes to attack.
What this all means is simple: The Cowboys need to be learning all of this. This is a very complex scheme where everyone is going to be asked to do many different things. This will not work unless everyone is confident in what they are doing and sure of their assignments. There are easy schemes to learn and difficult schemes to learn. To run a Rob or Rex Ryan defense, you must be very smart and sure of yourself. I fear that the lockout is stunting this growth. Chances are, there are 2 or 3 starters in Week 1 for the defense who are not even signed with the team. In past years, you sign a free agent in March and he has about 150-180 days of learning before the 1st game. This year, they may have fewer than 30. This means Rob Ryan may have to strip things down quite a bit and not unleash many of the strategies that he had planned.
So, in short, the Cowboys are in rough shape with this lockout. Not as bad as teams with an entirely new staff, but certainly teams that had almost no change (most of last year's playoff teams) are at a significant advantage in 2011.
* Ryan plays a ton of man-to-man coverage. To run aggressive blitz-style defenses, you better have players that don't mind being on an island. This is clearly the case with the Browns in 2010. They had better corners than you might think with Joe Haden, Sheldon Brown, and Felix Wright and were able to man up and cover quite a bit. They also had a nice performance from their safeties TJ Ward and Abram Elam. Their secondary was aggressive and played with a real swagger. They were up in press coverage more often than not and it was quite in-your-face. I really enjoy watching them cover and opposing QBs did not seem to enjoy it. However, understand this about press coverage. It is all fun and games until you have a guy fall down and his man runs for an easy 80-yard touchdown. If you want an aggressive secondary, understand that you are playing a high-risk, high-reward style which is quite opposite from what Wade Phillips believed in. He would play a good deal of man, but there were always safeties near by. This defense can sometimes leave the entire middle of the field open because they are bringing the house. Sometimes, it works. And sometimes, Lance Moore catches a pass and runs free right down main street for a touchdown.
And, if you want to run press-man coverage, remember, you better have guys who can cover. I think we should expect plenty of stories from training camp where all of the corners talk about how much they enjoy the challenge and how much more comfortable they are knowing who their man is. But, we will only truly know if they are capable when the bullets start flying for real.
* With all of this talk about the Cowboys needing a QB for the defense to play Free Safety to coordinate on the field, I am starting to fall in love with the idea of Abram Elam as a real option. He is not nearly as exciting a name as others out there, but he played really well last year in the tape I have watched and what impresses you the most is how clearly he is coordinating all of the defenders on the field. He was surrounded by plenty of youth in that secondary and seemed to know exactly where everyone should be in every situation.
I know that name will not get too many people excited, because signing Elam would not set the NFL Network ablaze with round-the-clock coverage, but given the circumstances (short camp, free safety is a real position of need), I am starting to think that Elam might be more preferred than even Michael Huff. Of course, here is another thought. Given that the safeties in the NFL in general and in Rob Ryan's scheme in specific are largely interchangeable, I might strongly consider going to get both if the funds are available. To run this scheme, you need to have the proper soldiers, and I am not confident that either safety the Cowboys have has the ideal skill set of cover skills and a knack for blitzing and run support. Elam blitzed almost as many times as the entire Cowboys secondary in 2010, while playing a solid center field.
* After watching the 4 games, I am so impressed with what they did. People are really caught up in the Browns record and the defensive rankings. You have to really look at many things when considering those numbers. The quality of personnel. The offense's ability to score points and stay on the field. The payroll. The front office.
There is a lot wrong with where the Browns have been the last several years that can explain away plenty of Browns issues. But, if you can just strip it down and look at the ideas and strategies of the defense, you can see what Rob Ryan is all about. And after giving it a hard look, I think the Cowboys are going to look radically different and improved defensively. Now, they just need to get to Valley Ranch and start learning it.
And that can't happen until the lockout is over.