The Dallas Cowboys “Rushmen” of the Defensive Line: How They Fit


The four down linemen in Monte Kiffin’s defense is perhaps one of the bigger mysteries for the Cowboys entering the 2013 season. We basically know the four starters and have a pretty good idea where they will fit. But what we aren’t so sure about is the demands of each position on the line. We also wonder about the depth and rotation of the defensive line. With the loss of Tyrone Crawford the situation gets even murkier than before. Who will be in the middle? What will be their assignments? Can looking back at Monte Kiffin’s Buccaneers give us a better idea?

Dec 2, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Philadelphia Eagles running back Bryce Brown (34) is tackled by Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford (70) and linebacker Anthony Spencer (93) at Cowboys Stadium. The Cowboys beat the Eagles 38-33. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Back in Kiffin’s Tampa Bay days it was simple. He used impact players Simeon Rice and Warren Sapp to get pressure on the QB while Booger McFarland clogged the middle and dominated multiple blockers. Greg Spires set the edge and often played 2-gap defense taking on multiple blockers also.

To see what positions are best suited for the current Cowboy’s roster it makes perfect sense to reference that same 2002 Tampa Bay roster. 2002 was the year the Buccaneers defense was clicking on all cylinders, earning the NFL’s #1 defensive ranking, and eventually winning the Super Bowl. As a blueprint, let’s compare the Tampa defensive personnel to the Dallas defensive personnel and see what conclusions we can draw.

Comparing the Tampa Bay D-Line to the Dallas D-Line

Weakside Defensive End

2002 Tampa Bay Starter: Simeon Rice

2013 Dallas Cowboys Starter: DeMarcus Ware

Dec 16, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware (94) in action against Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Max Starks (78) at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been clear from the start DeMarcus Ware will be occupying the weakside defensive end position. DeMarcus Ware is perhaps the best pure pass-rusher in the NFL. The demands of the weakside defensive end in most of Kiffin’s schemes are limited to one crucial objective: Get to the QB.

In 2002, Simeon Rice resurrected his career by leaving the Cardinals and playing weakside DE for Kiffin who only demanded he rush the passer. He lined up wider than a normal DE would and therefore had a better angle to use pass rush moves (this technique is now known as the LEO). Exceptions exist but the point is, the weakside DE in Kiffin’s defense rushes the passer more often than most other 4-3 DE’s and considerably more than a 3-4 OLB which Ware has been playing in Dallas.

Rice finished the season with 15.5 sacks. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect Ware to do the same. The assignments and techniques will largely remain the same. Most likely Ware will line up even wider than Rice previously did. Kiffin has been studying Pete Carroll’s Seattle defense this offseason and plans to install a defense very similar to Seattle’s down in Big D.

Strongside Defensive End

2002 Tampa Bay Starter: Greg Spires

2013 Dallas Cowboys Starter: Anthony Spencer

Dec 23, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer (93) looks into the backfield of the New Orleans Saints at Cowboys Stadium. The Saints beat the Cowboys 34-31 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

When Monte Kiffin was initially hired and the Cowboys announced they would be moving from the 3-4 to the 4-3, it seemed pretty clear Anthony Spencer was on his way out of Dallas. Spencer ranked as one of the very best OLB’s in the 3-4 and as a free agent would be demanding a big-time contract. To retain him the Cowboys would have to pay him like a top OLB and pray he plays up to the contract as a strong-side defensive end. That would be a very big gamble for a team already backed up against the salary cap.

Low and behold the Cowboys were willing to do just that when they franchised Spencer, paying him like the top OLB in the league, but playing him at the unknown SDE. Tyrone Crawford projected nicely into the SDE too but with the recent season-ending injury to Crawford the Cowboys are lucky they kept Spencer after all.

Ideally the SDE would be larger than the 6-3 250 lb player Anthony Spencer is, but considering Greg Spires was only 6-1 and 265, Spencer isn’t that far off from what Kiffin is used to. In most of Kiffin’s sets, the main objective of the SDE isn’t rushing the passer but rather setting the edge against a scramble and protecting the screen pass. Those are two elements Spencer absolutely excels in. In 2002 Greg Spires only logged 3.5 sacks compared to Rice’s 15.5 and Sapp’s 7.5 sacks. With that in mind, Spencer is perfectly capable of succeeding in the SDE role. What remains to be seen how he handles the occasional double team and 2 gap assignments.

Spires did well in his less-flashy assignments but only acquired 3.5 sacks. If history has taught us anything, its that Spencer is willing to forgo individual stats in order to help the team achieve its goals. That’s an excellent quality in a top player. With that said, it would be a waste of talent (and money) to only use Spencer in this role. Expect to see Spencer to rush the passer considerably more often than Spires ever did. Doing so will require other players like the DT’s and SAM to help against the draw and screen but it must be done. The biggest concern now is the lack of depth now that Crawford is out.

3-Technique Tackle

2002 Tampa Bay Starter: Warren Sapp

2013 Dallas Cowboys Expected Starter: Jason Hatcher/Jay Ratliff

Nov 22, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III (10) is sacked by Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Jason Hatcher (97) during the first quarter on Thanksgiving at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys certainly have their WDE in DeMarcus Ware and SDE in Anthony Spencer covered but the inside tackle positions aren’t so clear. Jason Hatcher was the early favorite to be the 3-technique tackle but during mini-camps Jay Ratliff was told he’d the man. Let’s look deeper…

A quick look at the roster says Dallas doesn’t have anything close to a Warren Sapp on this team. Three years ago Jay Ratliff would have been a no-brainer as a 3-technique. But injures and age have raised questions as to how effective Rat will be in 2013. He’s already started training camp on the PUP. Should he be expected to play this all-important and dynamic position?

Hatcher isn’t a great fit either. He’s certainly not ideally built for a 3-technique at 6-6 305 lbs. But while he may be a little top-heavy, he does have the quickness needed to overcome. The past 2 seasons he has been the undisputed best lineman on the Dallas Cowboys, so this may be the best spot for him.

Even though Cowboys brass has said otherwise, Hatcher seems like the most logical choice here. So the question is, if one of them can’t fit the role, will this defensive line be a failure?

Remember, the pass rush in Kiffin’s Tampa Bay defense was generated by the WDE and the 3-technique tackle (NOT both DE’s like most 4-3 defenses). The Cowboys just cannot duplicate that same recipe and will have to generate majority of their rush from the outside. Regardless, Kiffin is committed to making all linemen into “Rushmen” so it’s also safe to assume each linemen will have an opportunity to attack from time to time.

1-Technique Tackle

2002 Tampa Bay Starter: Booger McFarland

2013 Dallas Cowboy’s Expected Starter: Jay Ratliff/Sean Lissemore

Sept 1, 2011; Miami, FL, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Sean Lissemore (95) during a game against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. The Dolphins won 17-3. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys are lucky to have two players who are athletic overachievers with relentless motors. Jay Ratliff could still see time at the 3-technique but with Hatcher most likely limited to that role expect to see Rat regularly at the 1-technique. The Cowboys lack the ideal player to man Booger’s role as a 2-gap player. Booger was a modestly listed 300 lbs. but at 6’0” he was stoutly built and very effective at the 1-technique. Rat is 6-4 287 lbs. and Lissemore is 6-3 305 lbs. so neither are particularly stout. But previous success at NT (which usually has 2-gap and double-team responsibilities also) says they should be able to effectively execute the 1-technique in Kiffin’s defense.

Sean Lissemore will factor into both DT rotations. Because of their size issues, the Cowboys will struggle stopping the run 2013. They will need a steady rotation of fresh linemen to keep from being overpowered by offensive lines. Without proper depth the Cowboys are in for a long season. Pray no one else goes down because this team can’t afford it.

As Kiffin reminded us in January, he is not looking to rebuild the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but rather create an all new defense using new and old defensive philosophies. At the end of the day, the Cowboys D-line doesn’t even remotely compare to the Tampa Bay D-line of yesteryear. To expect them to run the same schemes and assignments would be a little foolish at this point. Kiffin has already renamed hs linemen “Rushmen”, setting the expectation that they will all be in penetrating roles on the defense.

If every player rushes the backfield every down the Cowboys will be very susceptible to the run. While it should be expected that they will all play penetrating roles, one should assume they will mix it up and take turns splitting some of the less glamorous responsibilities like playing 2-gap from time to time.

Ware will be rushing the passer 99% of the time and contrary to what Kiffin has done in the past with the SDE, Spencer will also be rushing majority of the time.

How will they be able to apply most of the pressure?

By using the Single High Safety and the Leo defense of course! more on that later… As Kiffin installs his defense over the next few days, we will highlight some of these popular defense schemes.

Do you have questions or comments regarding Dallas area sports? Email Reid at You may be included in the next weekly mailbag. Follow Reid on twitter @ReidDHanson