Is the Cover 3 Defense dead?
To answer the original question, no it isn’t. Just like offenses, defenses need to go through some evolution and match-style defenses are that evolution. When Dan Quinn said he wanted to make some changes to the defense, I highly doubt this is the direction that he meant. So what changes can be made to his defensive scheme?
Well, the biggest change is going to the 3-4 front. I know I constantly try downplaying it, because the media makes way too much of this, but there is some hidden value in switching to it on early downs.
Traditionally in the 4-3 fronts that former DC Rod Marinelli utilized, two traditional EDGE players contain the outside lined up as five or seven technique linemen while a one-technique and three-technique clog the middle. This is why players like Tyrone Crawford held so much value with their versatility; they were strong enough to play outside and could also take on double teams to let other DTs and LBs make plays.
With the 3-4 front, the expectation is five players are on the ball with three defensive tackles and two stand-up EDGE players. More people at the first level means quicker penetration into the backfield and fewer double-team situations at the line of scrimmage. Having bigger guys closer to the outside to constrict rushing lanes and allows the linebackers to “play fast” and fly to the ball. You likely already knew this but did you know Aaron Donald was used as a five-technique on early downs for Brandon Staley?
We commonly see players like Osa Odighizuwa, Trysten Hill, Neville Gallimore, and Carlos Watkins as early down three-technique tackles, but depending on where Quinn wants them to line up, all these players could be lined up as four, five, or even six-techniques at some point to defend the run. Imagine offensive tackles trying to block someone that is likely stronger than them? That’s a problem.
When the 3-4 front gets to passing downs, the defense has more options with how to play Nickel defense. You can remove an inside linebacker and blitz at least five defenders, with all of them potentially lining up on the ball. You can remove an outside linebacker, go four-down linemen, and rush four with seven players dropping into coverage. (Quinn has said this is the expectation for the Nickel defense)
The Cowboys traditionally have been one of the league’s most blitz-averse defenses and the Quinn signing likely doesn’t change this too much but by the same token, Vic Fangio defenses aren’t particularly blitz-happy. They just have high blitz effectiveness because of when and how they are deployed.
With Marinelli and even last defensive coordinator Mike Nolan to a degree, when the team wanted to blitz they loved sending linebackers through the A gaps. The quickest way to pressure the QB is through the interior, but if such is the case, why have objectively weaker men try to engage at the point of attack? Logically that doesn’t make much sense. (Marinelli was very good at blitzing likely because of rushing with two 3-technique tackles)
Quinn’s biggest change came with the defensive front; a group he’s coached for decades. But will he look to adjust some things in the back end that plagued the Atlanta Falcons for years under his guidance?
The good defensive coordinators in this league understand how to adjust to each opponent. They aren’t stubborn and understand that if you want to win, sometimes you have to be different. Great coordinators like Belichick, Fangio, Staley, and Flores all have had track records for being good defensive coordinators for many reasons, but a defining characteristic with all of them are their willingness to adjust to weekly opponents.
Last season, Dan Quinn coached 5 games for the Atlanta Falcons before his firing. In all five games they allowed a 300-yard passing game. In three games, they allowed opposing rushing attacks to run for over 100 yards.
While coordinating the defense, the team employed a single high alignment more than 70 percent of the time; this was amongst the highest in the league. Teams continuously beat defenders deep because the secondary would miscommunicate their assignments or simply be out of position. QBs eventually knew where the soft spots in zone coverage would be and it became routine for the defense to be exploited. When things got bad for the defense, there was a perplexing commitment to playing a certain way and that proved costly for a multitude of reasons.
Entering the 2021 offseason, the Cowboys wanted a simpler defense. Last year they struggled mightily as bad personnel moves and too many young players collided with a defense that was too multiple. As everyone knows this ended incredibly poorly.
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What the Cowboys can’t have in 2021 is the exact opposite. The defense has to be willing to play more split-safety alignments especially if they continue spot dropping in zone coverage. The balance keeps them ready for RPOs and most importantly deep passes. Traditional Cover 3 coverages have holes up the seams for QBs to complete deep passes but the holeshots that come with Cover 2 put stress on the QBs arm strength and touch to fit in the throw correctly. (The Falcons tried doing this against the deep-pass-heavy Packers, but Aaron Rodgers chose to be in peak MVP form that day.)
In all, when Dan Quinn said he wanted to study ways to improve the defense and come back with a different approach. Hopefully, the different approach shares some similarities with the new age of defensive coordinators across the league. The team needs to significantly improve from last year for two reasons: so the team can make a playoff run and so Dan Quinn can have a football job in the year 2022.
So no, the Cover 3 defense isn’t dead. It’s just being revolutioned!