2013 Dallas Cowboys Defensive Preview: Part 1


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

The Transition

Even the most distant of Cowboys fan knows Dallas is changing from the 3-4 defense to the 4-3 defense in 2013. Gone is the Defense Bill Parcells first installed in 2005. After eight years of moderate success, the 3-4 defense has been officially retired in Big D. All personnel have been repurposed and inserted into a new aggressive 4-3 defense under legendary Coordinator, Monte Kiffin.

The first things you probably noticed when watching this new Dallas defense is the speed and aggressiveness. Players swarm to the ball. Sometimes susceptible to play-action or play-fake they are always top speed and calculated in their assignments.

As discussed here, Monte Kiffin is notorious for building a defense around his players rather than players around his defense. He has specific coverages and schemes, stunts and blitzes he uses at most stops but he alters everything to fit the talents of his players. He will always try to play to his players’ strengths rather than risk exposure of their weaknesses.

Jul 22, 2013; Oxnard, CA, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin during drills at training camp at the River Ridge Fields. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports


Monte Kiffin is well known for popularizing the Tampa 2 Defense Tampa Bay used during their dominance in the late 90’s into early 00’s. Together with Head Coach Tony Dungy, Kiffin built a defense that played to the superior talents of multiple players, while minimizing any possible negative impact of average players on the defense by restricting their assignments. It was a new form of “Bend but don’t Break” defense.

Monte Kiffin does not plan to duplicate this Tampa Bay defense in Dallas for multiple reasons. The first reason is, while this Dallas Defense has talent, it is not nearly as talented as the Tampa Bay defense was. It would almost be irresponsible to ask them to do the same things and expect anything close to the same results. The second reason is Monte Kiffin has grown as a defensive mind. He didn’t stop learning or innovating since he won the Super Bowl in 2002. Instead he used his success as fuel to grow as a coach.

As a result Cowboys fans can expect to see many different coverages. The Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover 3, and Single High Safety have all been installed. The Defense will still have the “Bend but Don’t Break” philosophy with an added emphasis on turnovers.

Defensive Ends

The highlighted starters on Defense are defensive ends DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. These two bookends will be tops in the league in 2013 if they can stay healthy (or in Spencer’s case – GET healthy). On Tuesday we discussed the success Ware should have as a Defensive End on this defense. If you’re even slightly worried about Ware’s transition to a DE in the 4-3 then read this column.

Under the franchise tag, Anthony Spencer will again be playing for a new contract. It’s only natural to play a little harder and a little more tenacious in contract years so the contract status should be seen as good news to Cowboys fans. It may be unreasonable to assume Spencer can duplicate his 2012 numbers in his new position as Strong Side DE. Unlike Ware on the Weak Side, Spencer will see more pulling Guards, double teams, and multi-gap assignments. This will get taxing throughout the season and could possibly wear Spencer down if a solid rotation is not used adequately.

Aug 18, 2013; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Indianapolis Colts linebacker Caesar Rayford (49) sacks New York Giants quarterback Ryan Nassib (9) during the second half at MetLife Stadium. Indianapolis Colts defeat the New York Giants 20-12. Mandatory Credit: Jim O

The depth behind Ware and Spencer is concerning. If either player is lost for any extended period of time the pass-rush may also be lost. Earlier in the week the Cowboys traded for 27 year old DE Caesar Rayford. Rayford has been a simple journeyman in pro-football, but had a very impressive preseason leading the league with 4 sacks. The Cowboys hope he’s a late-bloomer and can contribute some depth to the pass-rush this season.

While it’s nice to dream, Rayford will most likely make a minimal impact in 2013.

Even with the talent fall-off at DE, maintaining a rotation will be paramount in ensuring the starters are at top performance at the end of the season.

Defensive Tackles

The Defensive Tackle position is perhaps the most troubling on the entire defense. One proven player, Jason Hatcher, is expected to do it all. Hatcher, at the ripe age of 31, is being asked to continue his maturation as a player and have a career year in 2013. Logic tells us a 31 year old is on the downslope of his career but from everything we’ve seen – logic is wrong. Hatcher has been great in this transition to DT and has been dominating as a 3-technique in Monte Kiffin’s system.

Nov 18, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Jay Ratliff (90) celebrates making a tackle during the game against the Cleveland Browns at Cowboys Stadium. The Cowboys beat the Browns 23-20 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Jay Ratliff was originally slated to be the 3-technique playmaking DT in Monte Kiffin’s defense. Due to lingering injuries (and some other issues only vaguely referenced to by Rat) he will begin the year on the PUP list. Meaning he cannot play the first 6 weeks of the season. That leaves a big gaping hole in the middle of the defensive line. A big gaping hole opposing RBs will love running through in 2013.

After Sean Lissemore was traded for a seventh round pick (and an unconfirmed Almond Joy King Size), it’s hard to say the current players on the depth chart will remain on the team much longer than a day.

The Cowboys have made no secret their intentions to churn the roster at certain positions and this is one position that needs churning. Nick Hayden looks ok as a rotation guy but as a starter? I guess we’ll find out…

If the Cowboys are considered thin at DE then they are downright transparent here at DT. This is a very concerning position on the Cowboys in 2013 and will cause headaches for fans all season long if something isn’t done.

Up later today is Part 2 of the 2013 Dallas Cowboys Defensive Preview. We will review the LBs and DBs.

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