For this week's Cowboys Email Bag, I thought we could start with a discussion on the radio show (The Bob and Dan Show, Sportsradio 1310 The Ticket in Dallas, 12p-3p M-F) from Wednesday's show when we had a visit with NFL analyst Pat Kirwan about the Cowboys present situation. Kirwan is veteran front office executive and coach, as well as a noted author of one of the most helpful football books I have ever seen called "Take Your Eyes Off the Ball".
In visiting with him about the Cowboys defensive situation, and the success that Wade Phillips had in Houston after his scheme and plan did not work as well in Dallas at the end.
"We always talk about the 3-4 outside linebackers when talking with Bill Cowher, and he wants to start with his defensive ends. Go Study the tapes. Aaron Smith sets up a lot of things. He's so good that he forces the tackle to go with him into the B-gap and then the outside rusher is on a back. The guys that build (The 3-4 schemes) will tell you to start right there (with the defensive ends). Not with the outside linebackers. They are the finishing touch - we are going to set it up so that they are going to be on backs a lot, and when that happens, you are going to win."
"Most guys treat Dallas as if they are a 4-3 defense. They don't believe DeMarcus is ever going to drop and they don't believe the other guy is that much of a threat, so they look at you as if you are what we call a "4-3 Under". If you stop the film right after the snap, the Cowboys look just like a 4-3 under defense all of the time."
"I think if you were playing a true 3-4, then Ratliff should not be a nose tackle. He should be out, just like Vince Wilfork, who is playing more as a 5-technique quite a bit now and I think Haloti Ngata got everybody creatively thinking about how to do it. But as long as you are playing basically a 4-3 defense and Ratliff is basically a 1-gap player, he's ok there."
Kirwan was then asked about the wisdom of ever dropping Ware into coverage. Why would you ever drop your best rusher into pass defense?
"You better do it once in a while, because if you don't, they will just call him the end in the protection schemes and the tackle is always going to turn to him. And the guard will always turn to the "5-technique" and the back will always be on the (inside) linebacker."
The conversation was a lot of what we have discussed in this space and other Cowboys spots for quite some time, but I never considered it quite like he put it. The rest of the league schemes against the Cowboys as if they were a 4-3 defense all along. And maybe, to some extent, the Cowboys coach as if they are a 4-3 defense, based on the way they use Ratliff inside. If almost every successful 3-4 in football uses their nose tackle as a 2-gapping, 330-pound speed bump, but the Cowboys still use a penetrating 1-gapper like Ratliff, are they secretly conceding that they see their talent in this way as well? It would explain their stubbornness about moving Ratliff out to end, which conventional wisdom would seem to point towards.
Surely, the key to getting the 3-4 to actually mimic what Pittsburgh, Baltimore, San Francisco, New England (for years), New York Jets, and Green Bay have used, would be to actually attempt to find your versions of some of their key parts. And I don't know how you can possibly do that with such a differing player right in the middle of the scheme.
A 2-gapping speed bump occupies a center and guard on every play and makes the running plays on the inside practically impossible. But with Ratliff, as good as he is at penetrating, there are times where the guards can take an initial push on him, but then easily slide clean on to the inside linebackers and get 2 different guys on run plays. It just makes the scheme completely different.
And as Kirwan pointed out in the pass rush, Pittsburgh gets their success initially with some lack of certainty in the protection schemes on how to deal with the pass rush. When the DE (5-techniques) are lined up directly over a tackle and then dive for the B-gap (the space between the tackle and guard), then the tackle can either let him go or stay with him. Either way, it is a split second decision that he must get right. If he let's him go, then the guard has to be on the same page and not worried about anything to his inside. If he stays with him, then the outside linebacker is 1-on-1 with the linebacker, a matchup that the defense wins way more than it loses.
Here are a few emails, including the first one about the topic above:
Is there any way for you to expound upon what Pat was just talking about when he was describing our defense at the snap as a 4-3 Under defense? If you could do something on your blog, that would be very informative, but really just a run down of what that means in how the offense blocks our alignment.
P1 Tim in Austin
Sure, Tim. To explain the 4-3 under/4-3 over defenses at a very, basic and primitive level, just think of it as putting your strength as a defense on either the strong side (side of the tight end) or weak side (opposite the tight end). I certainly don't claim to be a coach, but at least at the most basic level, the defensive ends stay over the tackles and the defensive tackles are either on the strong side guard and the weak side A-gap (gap between the center and guard) for the over, or they shift to the weak side guard and the strong side A-Gap for the under. The linebackers then take the gaps that are left over, and this is where we discuss the concepts of "gap integrity" when plugging up the running game.
So, from a Cowboys perspective, Ware is always on the weak side, Spencer is always on the strong-side with the tight end. Therefore, you can see how some people who look at the Cowboys and their tendencies would simply treat the Cowboys defense as a 4-3 under, declare Ratliff as a player who is working one of the gaps on either side of the center and that Ware should be treated as simply a 4-3 DE in most cases.
We are only talking very slight differences here, and the Cowboys run a 4-3 defense on 3rd downs already, with Ratliff and Hatcher as DTs and Spencer and Ware as DEs. But, for those of us who go on and on about the Cowboys not actually doing what the league is doing with the 3-4 scheme, it generally comes down to 2 things: 1) do they run the inside the same way (no, they have a 290 pound 1-gapping NT) and do they cause protection confusion and get their LBs matched up on RBs often enough (no, they have DEs who provide no threat to a protection scheme, so the tackles always stay on Ware and Spencer).
Why don't you think the Cowboys need to sign a defensive back in free agency? It seems that you are constantly campaigning for linemen, while the rest of the Cowboys media is talking about Brent Grimes and Cortland Finnegan.
Why do you feel this way?
Well, allow me to be clear here. I do think the Cowboys have personnel issues in their secondary. However, I do think that the problems - many of which are referenced above - are more significant on the DL and OL. I think the secondary would look way improved if the opposing QB did not have all day to throw. The old saying is, "Pressure gets picks, coverage gets sacks". It is not always true, but if I had JJ Watt or my other pipe dream, Calais Campbell added to my DL, I think you would see that Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins would look way better.
The question is not about finding Terence Newman's replacement. He needs replacing, and the Cowboys need a top corner badly. The question posed to me is where I am putting my top priorities as I enter the off-season. And, I remain clear not this, I hope.
Priority #1 is an interior stud on the OL like Carl Nicks or perhaps drafting a Peter Konz type.
Priority #2 is to find a DE or NT that can finally help Ratliff and Ware construct the type of defensive front that could take over a game like the Giants have routinely found.
Then, Priority #3 is to improve my secondary. I badly need a corner and a safety, but I think we saw that Abram Elam was decent and I did not lose games because of Elam this year. I did lose games because my lines were average to below average. I have to get that fixed.
So, I am taking a corner in the draft or sniffing around the DBs in free agency, but if I have a voice in the war-room (and I don't), then I am pounding the table for big players who can change a game at the line of scrimmage.