Nov 24, 2011; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Jay Ratliff (90) , linebacker DeMarcus Ware (94) , Sean Lee (50) and Anthony Spencer (93) against the Miami Dolphins on Thanksgiving day at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

Should the Cowboys switch to a 4-3 defense?

A controversial subject amongst Cowboys fans is whether or not they should switch to a 4-3 or not. Many are of the opinion one scheme or the other is far more advantageous than the other (another SportDFW writer recently argued for making the switch) , but I am of the belief that there is some middle ground here. Let me explain why.

Far too much is made of scheme fits for different players. If player A is a good pass rusher in a 3-4, he will probably be the same in a 4-3, regardless of position. This is not a blanket statement, but is truer than you would think. The stereotype for a position is often more of an ideology than a helpful guide to picking players. The one position it hurts the most is 3-4 defensive end(DE). A 3-4 DE is more of a run stuffing position, except it requires a taller, longer armed player to fight off the tall, long armed offensive tackles(OT)’s they will face. The fact that a 3-4 DE is more of a run defender means their natural position in a 4-3 is NT, but the extra height they often have can make it difficult to gain leverage against guards and centers, sometimes rendering them useless in a 4-3.

In the case of the Dallas Cowboys, the following are reasons not make the switch:

The Cowboys already have too many run-stuffing defensive linemen for a 4-3, so some would be cut. Josh Brent, Marcus Spears and Kenyon Coleman are pure run-stuffers, and it’s likely the team wouldn’t keep that many 1-techniques (the DT in a 4-3 more responsible for run defence) on the roster. Also, some of these players (as previously stated) would not be scheme fits.

Reasons for making the switch would be to cater to Bruce Carter’s supposedly more athletic style of play (I say supposedly because he’s barely seen the field, so I’m only going off scouting reports) by keeping him more covered up by more defensive linemen in front of him.

But overall the switch would neither hurt nor help the team.

Ware could easily play 4-3 DE as he already plays DE on many passing downs. Spencer could play left DE in a 4-3 or as the strong side linebacker (SAM), as his skills are suited to both, but probably LE as the Cowboys are lacking in other options to play there and he is a better fit there. Victor Butler could play weak side DE in a 4-3 or weak side linebacker (WILL) in a 3-4 with equal proficiency. None of these players are more suited to either scheme.

Sean Lee could play any LB spot in a 4-3. Bruce Carter would be probably  be more suited to playing WILL in a 4-3 as with his more athletic style of play that favors pass coverage over getting off of blocks in the run game, though that is highly speculative at this point. Dan Connor could play ILB or MLB or 4-3 SAM equally as well.

Jay Ratliff would be a good player in the 4-3 playing the 3 or the 1 technique. Josh Brent could play 1 technique.  Jason Hatcher would be a good 3 technique. Kenyon Coleman and Marcus Spears would be question marks to fit in to a 4-3, and would likely be cut. Sean Lissemore could play the 1 or 3 technique.

The players in the secondary would not be affected at all.

The Cowboys best starting line up in a 4-3 would look something like this:

Another reason this is not as big of a deal as it has at times been made out to be is the fact that a team’s base defense is used anywhere from 22% to 61% of the time, with most teams somewhere in the range of 40-60%. The Cowboys last year for example played a 3-4-4 package just 34% of the time, with a 2-3-6 being their next most commonly deployed package at 29%. This is lower than the NFL average due to Rob Ryan mixing up his personnel a lot on defense, but it is also due to the fact that he was trying to cover some personnel deficiencies. If he was playing with Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis I think you would’ve seen that figure rise sharply. Nonetheless, with teams playing more pass catching players more and more nickel and dime packages are becoming more and more prevalent. This means the personnel making up your base defense are less important. A team’s nickel CB is far more important than it’s base package defender that leaves the field when the nickel package is on. For the Cowboys last year that was players like Marcus Spears, Kenyon Coleman, Josh Brent, Bradie James, and Keith Brooking.

The Cowboys shouldn’t change from a 3-4 to a 4-3, but if they do, it’s not as a big of a deal as some might have you believe.

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Tags: Anthony Spencer Bruce Carter Dallas Cowboys Demarcus Ware Josh Brent Kenyon Coleman Marcus Spears Sean Lee

  • californy

    Sorry Didnt really read your article, but i will later on. The boys have a better 4-3 personnel today than a 3-4 . The change is way over due. In this 3-4 system the DE will be Ware, Spencer, Butler,Lissemore, Hamilton , the DT will be Hatcher Ratliff, Brent, Coleman and Crawford. The LB will be Carter,Connor and Lee. We could use some of our DE as LB in this transition.
    If we would go full time with this defense, I believe our DL will rival the Eagles or and Giants as the best defensive in the NFC East. The Patriots have already made the change over and the Jets are looking at making the change. It very hard to find the right personnel because most college team run a 4-3 defense 9 to 1.
    We can always drop into a 3-4 off of this 4-3 defense. The line stunts will be crazy, the team will not know who is dropping into coverage or is rushing. I believe we can run more line stunts and get way more sack in the 4-3 defense. Ware number could easily go in the area of 25 sacks and beyond, Spencer will be in double diget sack in the first time of his career. Buter may also be in double diget sacks also. The way Hatcher is playing he could be in double diget sack also. I expect in just those 4 players we could have over 50 sacks in the season. I could easily project a 70 sack season by this group should we go full time into a 4-3 defense. This would greatly help out our DB and safeties. If you look at the Giants they really dont have that great of defensive backs and cover LB. The Defensive line really cover their lack of streghth in the Defensive back field. RR dad defense was base out of a 4-3 front, so the change should not be foreign to him.

    • Ben Fitzgerald

      Thanks for commenting. Some good points but I have to think you’re being a little optimistic regarding sack totals for a DT and DE getting the amount of snaps Butler would.

      • californy

        Butler, Ware and Spencer were all DE in college. Butler had 12 sacks his senior year while in college. Ware had about 20 sacks, if you factor him in as a full time DE, why shouldnt he get another 5 sack to his game. Spencer even rushes the passer less than both of these two players, so if he become a full time DE, why cant he get 4 more sacks. Then you factor in Hatcher who has been looking good in the pass rush the last couple of years, and now factor in he has Ware on one side and Butler and Spencer on the other End. Hatcher will start getting single coverage like the other players and he has the closes distance between he and the QB as DT now. I feel my number are correct, all this team has to do is committ to this type of defense.

  • Cowgirlcas22

    the fact remains the Cowboys don’t have a true NT. If you look at the recent drafts, all are 4-3 players. All of that aside, there are no facts here to support this argument. Spears and Coleman should both be gone anyway, their production is poor. rat is a prototypical 3 tech. Lissemore, Brent and Calloway 1 techs. Crawford is more of a 4-3 DE than a DT as well. Hamilton, Butler Spencer etc are much better suited to be DE’s in a 4-3. Butler is under sized to play OLB in 3-4 as well. Sean Lee, Dan Connor and Bruce Carter were all 4-3 players as well lol the funny thing is, the Cowboys have been playing a lot of 4-3 in camp this yr.

    • Ben Fitzgerald

      Interesting. I read tweet saying they have played no 4-3, only 4-2-5 and 3-4 at camp so far.