The Dallas Cowboy‘s Defensive Transformation Will Be Successful


May 21, 2013; Irving, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin works with linebacker Sean Lee (50) and the defense during organized team activities at Dallas Cowboys Headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past few weeks I’ve received countless emails about how the current Dallas Cowboy’s roster doesn’t fit the new defense they are trying to install this preseason. It’s been said the Cowboys lack the pass rush to run the Tampa 2. They also lack the girth needed at DT to effectively stop the run. They said they don’t have the CB’s to the play diverse coverages I described here. Recently, multiple emailers said the Cowboys don’t have the Safeties to play the Single High Safety I spoke of in Thursday’s column explaining how to stop the Read-Option Offense.

The point is – people are concerned this transition will take too much time. While I agree these transitions will take time (and by time I mean years), I also think the Cowboys are well-equipped to see success immediately.

A few months ago I wrote about the similarities between Monte Kiffin and Seattle Head Coach, Pete Carroll. Not just from a X’s and O’s perspective but from a philosophical point of view too. When I say I expect the Cowboys to follow the Seattle Model as they rebuild their defense, I don’t mean they will copy them completely on the field (Although they will be very similar), I mean they will follow the same strategy Pete Carroll followed when he took over the Seahawks. I can’t find the article I posted those months back but I did retain my first draft copy so today I am rewriting the piece in hope it brings some peace-of-mind to Cowboy fans worried about how this team is handling a non-perfectly fitting defense.

Simply put: Carroll put his players in position to succeed.

Jul 23, 2013; Oxnard, CA, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin runs drills during today

Following the Seattle Model

Pete Carroll and Monte Kiffin are close friends and respected colleagues. For years Kiffin and Carroll have devised schemes, compared notes, and discussed defensive strategy. After three years building and scheming, Seattle HC Pete Carroll has built his defense into a very formidable force.

When Carroll took over the Seahawks in 2010 they ranked around the middle of the league in most defensive rankings. Carroll’s biggest task was changing the scheme and philosophy of the defense with players who didn’t exactly fit his scheme and philosophy. Carroll’s situation then was very similar to Kiffin’s today. The Dallas defense similarly ranked pretty average across the board the past 2 seasons. The bigger challenge for the new Dallas DC is shifting the team from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense. Knowing that Carroll and Kiffin both share very similar defensive strategies, it’s only natural to look at Seattle as a blueprint. But after Kiffin, Garrett, and Jones all specifically pointed to Seattle as a model, it became glaringly obvious some time should be spent studying the top-rated Seattle defense.

Let’s take a moment to look at the Seattle transformation orchestrated under Pete Carroll and compare it to the situation in Dallas. Hopefully we can gain some insight into the process and expectations when installing a defense like Monte Kiffin’s.

May 20, 2013; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll observes a drill by defensive players during organized team activities at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

From Gap and Hold to Penetrating Aggression

When Carroll arrived in Seattle he didn’t pull a “Rob Ryan” and install his entire defense regardless of his players’ abilities (or practice time available). Carroll analyzed what he had and slowly incorporated his defense in a way his players could mentally digest and physically execute.

Early in the building process, Pete Carroll ran what is known as a One Gap and Hold front 4. A One gap and Hold defensive line will have single gap responsibility but instead of bursting through the hole to disrupt the offensive line and/or backfield, the defensive linemen are instructed to hit the gap and hold ground. By holding ground the defensive lineman can close running lanes and even occupy multiple blockers. This kind of play is ideal for a team with large defensive linemen and fast athletic linebackers. If the linemen occupy the blockers, the linebackers are then free to make the tackles. This style is considerably less aggressive than what the Cowboys are accustomed to playing. Compare the One Gap and Hold to Rob Ryan’s and Wade Phillip’s One Gap Penetrating defenses and you will quickly see the difference. The One Gap Penetrating defense is very aggressive while the One Gap and Hold is just disruptive.

But Carroll, like Kiffin, was always known for running a fast and athletic defense. Why did Carroll change to such a slower moving and oversized line? Does this mean Kiffin’s going to change his ways to become more like Pete Carroll’s Seahawks?

Certainly not.

The Defense Doesn’t Have to Be a Perfect Fit to Work Perfectly

Head Coach Jason Garrett mentioned,

"I think what they’ve (Seattle) tried to do, which was fit their scheme to what their personnel is and I think we’ll try to do the same."

This is more of statement regarding playing to the strengths of your personnel rather than a statement saying they plan to copy Seattle’s defense exactly.

The Seattle Evolution = the Dallas Evolution

Aug 6, 2013; Renton, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll supervises drills at training camp at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Over the years, Carroll has added a few more athletic components to combine with the large bodies already on-hand. Carroll’s early sets used three oversized lineman to occupy blockers and build a run-stopping wall of humanity. His fourth lineman provided the edge speed and the pass-rush. But now he seems to be accumulating more speed and agility for his defense and forgoing the size he used from his earlier days.

With the new athletic talent on the roster, Carroll is able to mix personnel, formations, and assignments to best suit his schemes. He has the best of both worlds now. Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times explains,

"It’s a defense that can be explained, at its most elementary level, as a hybrid scheme that mixes 3-4 concepts in a 4-3 front. But what makes the Seahawks stand out is the coaches’ willingness to play off the diverse skills of their players. That flexibility has allowed the Seahawks to identify underrated talent that doesn’t fit into a mold, to focus on strengths instead of weaknesses in player evaluations and to create an oversized, yet not lumbering, defensive unit."

Pete Carroll reminisces to his days in San Fran with the Seattle Times to personally explain his current defense in Seattle,

"“We mixed the concepts of one-gap football and two-gap football in a very unique way in San Francisco,” Carroll said. “And we played great defense. To me, that was the ultimate package, and we’ve been able to get back to it now (in Seattle). It’s taken us three years, really, to get to the point where we can incorporate the ideas.”"

What this means for the Cowboys

A quick look at the Cowboy’s roster and you will see that while the front 4 may be undersized, they are also extremely fast. To think the 250 lb Anthony Spencer can execute the same assignments as the 323 lb Red Bryant did at the SDE position would be a little foolish. But at the same token, Red cannot approach the athleticism Spencer provides either. Follow the line and it’s difficult to compare, player for player, the Seattle defensive line with the Cowboy’s defensive line.

You may be asking, “If Pete Carroll and Monte Kiffin were so much alike, why does it seem like they have such different defenses”?

Jul 27, 2013; Renton, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll during the 3rd day of training camp at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

The reality is Pete Carroll and Monte Kiffin ARE very similar in style. Comparing Carroll’s defense in 2010 to his defense in 2012 is almost night and day. Because of personnel Carroll was limited to what he could do in 2010 but as he built his roster stronger he was also able to evolve his defense into what he really wanted. They are getting faster and faster every year. Luckily for the Cowboys, Dallas already has fast athletic players.

Another similarity between Carroll and Kiffin is they will always play to their players’ strengths first and foremost. When Carroll looked at his roster upon his arrival in Seattle he saw he didn’t possess the proper parts to run his preferred defense. Instead of forcing it on his players anyway, he looked at what he had and designed a defense to fit their strengths. As the years went by, he slowly incorporated his preferred types of players and his preferred types of schemes. He was simply playing to his players’ strengths.

Playing to a player’s strengths is something Monte Kiffin has mentioned multiple times. Previously I broke down the Cowboy’s personnel and plugged them into Kiffin’s Tampa Bay defensive line spots.

Perhaps I was being presumptuous assuming he would be running the exact same scheme he used to win a Super Bowl in 2002. Perhaps Kiffin’s defensive line style isn’t simply a specific scheme but rather developing a successful scheme for specific players on the roster. That’s what Pete Carroll did. Maybe that’s why Kiffin, Garrett, and Jones are using Seattle as a blueprint. The Seattle defense specializes in two things:

1. Playing the Single High Safety

2. Playing to the strengths of the players on the roster.

Jul 22, 2013; Oxnard, CA, USA; Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett runs drills at training camp at the River Ridge Fields. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Those happen to be the two things HC Jason Garrett said the Cowboys plan to do in 2013. Kiffin and Carroll have taught us they will not force a player to play a scheme that doesn’t fit their strengths. Like Carroll, Kiffin will churn the roster and slowly build the team into something that aligns to the players strengths AND his own preferred scheme. This philosophy should ease the minds of even the most pessimistic of Cowboy fans. The transition will be smart, gradual, and calculated. It is based on the players and not the coaches. The fact that this team is already lightning fast is a bonus that will speed this transformation up.

Next week we will break down some of the defensive alignments the Cowboys can under the Single High Safety. Feel confident that Kiffin will only play a scheme that plays to the players’ strengths – something Cowboy fans haven’t seen in a while.

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