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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