David Newbury, of Sportsradio 1310 The Ticket, has volunteered to walk us through some of the strategic points of the various defensive looks the Cowboys may be headed towards. I think you will find this quite informative. - Bob
Since the Cowboy’s made the decision to hire Monte Kiffin, I have heard different media sources speculate whether or not Dallas has the personnel to run Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2. Tony Dungy told the Dallas Morning News ’sports reporter, Rick Gosselin, that the Cowboy’s are 2 drafts away from having the pieces Kiffin needs. So let me get this straight, Monte Kiffin took a defensive coordinator job in which he will not have the pieces to coach a successful defense until he is 75 years old? Dungy might think the Cowboys are two drafts away. The question is, “are they”?
By no means am I an expert. I’m going to give you a brief introduction to the different fronts the Cowboys’ run. I’m sure you have heard one time or another that the Cowboys’ run a hybrid 3-4. This is true. I get the feeling that the national media thinks the Cowboys’ run a traditional 3-4. They don’t. Let’s compare the 3-4 the Cowboys’ run to the traditional 3-4 run by the Steelers’.
Here’s a picture of the Steelers’ 3-4 defense:
Let’s start by focusing on the 3 defensive linemen that have their hands on the ground. Notice how you can see the numbers on their back. If you look closely you can see that the NT Casey Hampton is barely putting any weight on his hand. The defensive ends Brett Kiesel and Ziggy Hood have their weight on their heels. They do not look like they are going to fire off the ball in attempt to get in the backfield. Notice that the three defensive linemen are not lined up in between offensive lineman in a gap. Instead, they are lined up directly over the tackles and centers. Hampton, Kiesel and Hood have positioned themselves to control a total of 6 gaps. For that to work, each man must control 2 gaps. They do this by controlling the man. Their goal is to hold their ground, look past the blockers, read what is going on in the backfield and then react. These defensive linemen are selfless players. They do a lot of dirty work that allows the linebackers around them to play more freely.
The goal of the 3-4 Defense is to create confusion each snap by disguising which linebacker or defensive back is blitzing and which is dropping into coverage. To do this effectively each LB must rush the passer AND drop into coverage. The best pass rusher often drops into coverage. The best coverage player often blitzes. The 3-4 Defense thrives on unpredictability. The 3-4 Defense can’t have obvious tendencies. It’s easy for an offense to set their protection if they know which player is rushing the passer.
Now let’s take a look at the Cowboy’s 3-4:
Let’s start by looking at the 3 defensive linemen and compare them to the Steelers. First of all notice how you can’t see the numbers on their back. They have their butts in the air and look like they are about to fire off the ball. Notice how they are not lined head up, instead they are positioned in gaps. Their assignment on this play is to control 1 gap, the gap they are lined up in.
The major difference between the Steelers’ 3-4 and the Cowboys is DeMarcus Ware. As Bob Sturm notes, DeMarcus Ware rushes the passer 88% of the time. The offense assumes every single snap that Ware is going to rush the passer. They treat him as if he were a defensive end in a 4-3.
The Cowboys 3-4 has a lot of one gap components to it. Their roster demands it. The best 2 gap players on the Cowboys’ roster last year were Josh Brent and Kenyon Coleman. Coleman missed the final 8 games and Brent missed the final 4.
This leads us to the 4-3 defense. There are two primary 4-3 fronts that are still used today. The first is the 4-3 Under, perfected by Monte Kiffin during the 1970’s. The second is the 4-3 Over perfected by Jimmy Johnson in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
The 4-3 under and over are both primarily one gap systems designed to attack the line of scrimmage. Each defensive lineman is placed in a gap and is responsible for that one gap. This allows the defensive lineman to play very aggressively by attacking the gap and reading their keys on the run. The defensive linemen do not have to read and then react like the defensive lineman in a 3-4 system. You could argue that the 4-3 under/over allow the defensive lineman to defend the run while on their way to pressuring the quarterback.
Monte Kiffin has run a variation of the 4-3 since his days at Nebraska and Arkansas. During the 1970’s college football was dominated by teams that could run the football and pass off the run. Kiffin tweaked his 4-3 to better stop the run and pressure the quarterback. The 4-3 Under has been one of the most popular fronts in football because of its ability to stop the run.
Take a look at what it looks like:
Let’s start by identifying where the tight end is. The defense will set their front based off the strength of the offense, often where the tight end lines up. On this play Witten is lined up on the right, the defense’s left. In a 4-3 Under defense the 3 technique defensive tackle lines up on the opposite side from the tight end in between the guard and tackle. He is responsible for the weak side B gap. Think Warren Sapp and Geno Atkins. He doesn’t have to be big because he does not face that many double teams. The other defensive tackle is lined up as 1 technique (gap in between the guard and centre) to the strong side. The 1 tech DT (or nose tackle) is responsible for the strongside A gap. He will face constant double teams, therefore needs to be big and strong. The strongside defensive end lines up on the outside shoulder of the tackle. He is playing a 5 technique. He is responsible for the strongside C gap. The strongside defensive end is usually a good run defender. He needs to be able to hold up against double teams. The weakside defensive end has more freedom and is usually the best pass rusher. He lines up as a 5 technique (tackles outside shoulder) but has the freedom to widen out to get a better pass rush. However, he must still be disciplined. He is still responsible for the weakside C gap. It is very important that he does not get kicked out or hooked.
The linebackers also lineup according to the strength of the formation. The SAM linebacker lines up outside of the tight end. He can be on the line as a 9 technique or off the line (“loose” 9). The SAM linebacker is responsible for the strong side D gap. He, like the weak side defensive end, cannot get hooked or kicked out! It is imperative that he sets the edge and spills the play back inside. The SAM LB needs to be a special player. He must be big enough to take on blocks and fast enough to cover tight ends. The MLB is responsible for the strongside B gap. The WLB is responsible for the backside A gap. He does not have to be big because he is often protected by the big bodies in front of him. The MLB and WLB are responsible for covering the running backs in man to man coverage. The MLB and WLB are two gap players. Their responsibilities change once the ball is snapped.
This is a basic introduction to the 4-3 defense. A lot changes once the ball is snapped. Everyone on the defense is on the same page. Each player attacks the play with his outside arm free with the goal of turning the play inside. The MLB and WLB will make a lot of tackles in this system. The 4-3 Under is a great system that allows coaches to get the most out of their personnel. The biggest strength of the 4-3 Under, is that it reduces the amount of thinking and therefore allows the players to fly around the field. The system demands unity. If one player does not do his job then the system breaks down.
The 4-3 Under is not as popular as it was 10 years ago because of the evolution of NFL offenses. Offenses are passing more and running less. Defenses are trying to match up against multiple wide receiver sets. As a result we are seeing more nickel and dime packages.
The other popular 4-3 defense is the 4-3 Over. The 4-3 Over gained a lot of popularity during the late 80’s and 90’s. Jimmy Johnson gave the 4-3 Over a makeover. Johnson replaced the defensive tackles with defensive ends, defensive ends with linebackers and linebackers with safeties. The defensive line crowded the neutral zone and attacked the gaps. Johnson’s defenses attacked offenses and made the offenses adjust to them. Let’s take a look at what the 4-3 Over looks like:
Where is the tight end? He is on the defenses left. Remember the 4-3 Over and Under are both one gap systems. In a 4-3 Under the 3 technique is on the weakside and the 1 technique is on the strong side. In a 4-3 Over the 3 technique(black arrow) is on the strongside and the 1 technique is on the weakside. The 3 tech DT is responsible for the strongside B gap. The NT (1 technique DT) is responsible for the weakside A gap. The weakside defensive end’s responsibility is the same, weakside C gap. He can’t get hooked or kicked out. The strongside DE has different responsibilities. He can’t line up as a 5 tech because the SAM LB is not lined up next to him. The strongside DE is now responsible for setting the edge and containment. As you can see in the picture above the defensive end has slid out wide and is playing an 8 technique. His responsibilities remain the same. He absolutely cannot get hooked or kicked out.
The SAM LB responsibilities are different. He is responsible for the strongside C gap. If the strongside DE happens to get hooked then the SAM must take his place and set the edge. Some defensive coordinators will slide the defensive end back to the 5 technique, walk their SAM LB up and have him play outside the tight end like he would in an under front.
The makeup of the SAM LB in a 4-3 Over really depends on what the defensive coordinator prefers. The SAM LB needs to be able to run if the DC wants to stay in base formation when the offense has multiple WR’s on the field. If the DC wants to mix and match his personnel to the offense then the SAM might be a larger LB and a better run defender. The SAM is usually the LB taken off the field in favor of a nickel back.
So let’s bring this full circle. Compare what you now know about the Cowboy’s 3-4 defense and compare it to Kiffin’s 4-3 defense.
Dallas “3-4 Over”, Spencer is on the far right. You can see his arm.
Atlanta’s 4-3 Over
Tampa’s 4-3 Under (below)
Dallas 2 Gap 3-4
In today’s NFL defenses must be versatile to have success. Over the last 5 years we have seen the 3-4 and 4-3 slowly blend together. We are starting to see more 2 gap variations of the 4-3. When Dallas was in their base defense(and healthy) they ran the 2 gap 3-4 about 60% of the time. Once Dallas lost Brent, Coleman and Ratliff they were forced to move towards a one gap system. Once Dallas hired Monte Kiffin they made a commitment to continue moving away from a 2 gap system. However, I don’t believe it will go away entirely. I believe Dallas will run a 1 gap 60-70% of the time next year.
There are pieces in place to make a successful transition to Kiffin’s 4-3. The defensive personnel needs to be tweaked not overhauled. Dallas is not two drafts away from making a successful transition to Kiffin’s 4-3, and I can make you a promise, Jerry Jones doesn’t think so either.