Dallas Cowboys: Great time to lean on a 3-3-5 stack defense

The Dallas Cowboys starting left defensive end, DeMarcus Lawrence, is out indefinitely with a broken foot. The Dallas Cowboys starting right defensive end Randy Gregory is out, banished to the RESERVE/COVID list. Dallas isn’t just without their two starting defensive ends but they are without their two best defensive linemen.

Next man up mentality says Tarell Basham and Dorance Armstrong have to step up. Basham, who’s started just 12 games in his four-year NFL career and Armstrong who’s only started three, aren’t exactly instilling much confidence that the Cowboys can get their first sack of the season this Sunday.

Facing off against a chronically underrated Charger offensive line that just completely stonewalled the best defensive line in football (LA had the lowest pressure rate in the NFL against Washington in Week 1), “next man up” may not be the responsible course of action.

By redefining the roles up front the Dallas Cowboys can focus on getting their best players on the field this Sunday

Amidst the heavy losses at defensive end, it’s time for the Dallas Cowboys to face reality and alter their approach. Instead of inserting unworthy players into starting roles, they should change the starting roles in order to get the most worthy (important) players on the field.

Dallas Cowboys 3-3-5 Defense

There are obviously many variations of the 3-3-5 defense but in essence the defense substitutes one defensive lineman for one additional defensive back. Dan Quinn has experience running looks like this in his odd-man fronts in Atlanta and in Seattle. Dallas has even employed some of these packages in the recent past. You can run “over”, “under”, or even “bear” fronts with the 3-3-5.

The Dallas Cowboys have the personnel to hold ground in 2-gap roles quite well, but it’s a stretch to think any of their substitute defensive ends can win consistently on the edge.

The 3-3-5 has been popular in college for quite a while but has yet to see heavy usage in the NFL. The reason it fits the Cowboys right now is the five defensive backs on the field means it’s essentially a nickel defense. And the Dallas Cowboys employ nickel defense roughly 75% of the time.  Linemen often 2-gap in this look (with the NT in 0-tech) meaning the pass-rush usually comes from places other than the front-three.

This causes problems for offensive lines because defensive coordinators can get creative with where they send that fourth pass-rusher. It could be one of the three linebackers up the middle, it could be a linebacker on the edge, it could be a safety, a cornerback, it could even be two pass-rushers, thus constituting a blitz (I subscribe by the rule that it’s only a blitz if you send a fifth).

How does this help the Dallas Cowboys defensive line?

As things stand now, Dallas will have to populate their DE spots with back-ups. Against LA it was going to be tough to generate pressure even with the starting DEs in place, does anyone expect success with the back-ups?

That’s why changing the roles and having an undefined pass-rusher provide pressure from an undefined spot may be the best answer. By asking two of the three down linemen to 2-gap, Dallas can use their girth to occupy blockers. Carlos Watkins, Brent Urban, and Quinton Bohanna all have loads of experience 2-gapping. The third lineman (think Osa Odighizuwa) can be used in a 1-gap end role, more focused on penetration.

At the end of the day the thinking is this: The Dallas Cowboys have the personnel to hold ground in 2-gap roles quite well, but it’s a stretch to think any of their substitute defensive ends can win consistently on the edge.

Some may ask, why not flip to a straight 3-4 defense since the Cowboys are so deep at linebacker? I answer that by saying it’s for the same reason we brought in an extra defensive back – pass-coverage is more important than run stopping.

Older football fans may not like to admit this but the damage sustained through the air is exponentially more harmful than the damage sustained on the ground. For as bad as the Dallas Cowboys were last year against the run, they were over twice as bad against the pass. That’s with full context too – the Cowboys gave up more expected points per play and at a higher success rate through the air than on the ground.

That’s why it makes sense that teams who have dominant run-stopping often have poor overall defense. Dominant run-stopping forces offenses to go to the air more, which inevitably hurts the defense more. Again, I broke the entire ting down in the article directly below (if you’re skeptical of this idea be sure to read it):

The 3-3-5 should be seen as just another nickel defense. Its biggest benefit is it complicates blocking assignments and muddies the waters as to where the pass rush is coming from – which is something the Dallas Cowboys tragically need in order to be successful.

Micah Parsons can be used as a chess piece in this. He can move around from MIKE to OLB and sent rushing the passer on either. He was far more successful playing the run and rushing the passer last week than he was in coverage, so once again, let’s focus on getting the Dallas defenders doing what they do best.

Instead of inserting unworthy players into starting roles, they should change the starting roles in order to get the most worthy (important) players on the field.

This doesn’t mean the Dallas Cowboys just shelve their even man front looks either. Defenses constantly change their looks up front and Dallas can still line up a traditional looking defense with Dorance and Tarell lined up as DEs plenty of times. It’s just about leaning on a new look that plays to Dallas’ strengths a little better. And I believe the 3-3-5 does just that.

Will teams be able to run on the Dallas Cowboys more? Possibly, but again, check out that “Must Read” article linked above and you’ll see that’s probably a good thing.

The 3-3-5 isn’t as crazy as it sounds and it’s only a slight change in what we’ve seen in the past. The Cowboys have the 2-gappers to do it and they have the explosive athletes behind them to let Dan Quinn get creative with the pass-rush.

The 3-3-5 defense will focus on what’s important (help in coverage and deception in pass-rush) and allow the Dallas Cowboys to play to their players’ strengths.