By Matthew Postins
Earlier I tackled the Tampa 2 as coached by new Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. I based my analysis on my four years covering the Buccaneers from 2004-07 when Kiffin was the defensive coordinator. During that time the Bucs were a Top 10 defense in the NFL three times. They slipped to 17th in 2006 due to injuries. But during Kiffin’s 13-year tenure in Tampa, the Bucs were a Top 10 defense 11 times. His mastery of his system is clear.
But how does it translate to what the Cowboys have on their roster now? Well, based on what I saw in Tampa Bay for four years, this is how I see the new Cowboys defense shaking out. Now, understand – this is based on current personnel that are under contract for 2013. We won’t include free agents-to-be. We’re not only going to talk about the good fits for the Tampa 2 but the challenging fits for the Tampa 2. In doing so, we’ll identify the areas where the Cowboys must pursue personnel in 2013 and beyond.
Let’s tackle the easy ones. Current outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware should easily slide into the pass-rushing right end role in the Tampa 2. At 6-foot-4, 255 pounds, he’s just about perfect. Kiffin might want Ware to add a few pounds. But Simeon Rice was only 265 and Gaines Adams was just a bit lighter. Ware should be just fine. He played defensive end at Troy, so the position is familiar.
Also, Jay Ratliff, at 6-foot-4, 303 pounds, should slide into the one-technique, which is the run stuffer in the Tampa 2. Ratliff is familiar with the role. He’ll just line up in a different area on the line. Ratliff’s ability to occupy blockers and shoot gaps should be a great fit here.
The left end position is geared toward stopping the run. Kiffin will want an end a little bigger than Ware. Problem is I don’t see a good fit here. Among the outside linebackers Alex Albright played defensive end in college, but he’s never received serious playing time. The role of the end in the 3-4 is different than the role of the end in the 4-3, so it’s hard to say if Marcus Spears, Jason Hatcher or Sean Lissemore would be a good fit here. Based on size, production and quickness, Hatcher is probably the first choice.
Inside at the three-technique, or the Warren Sapp position, any one of those three guys could slide in here, too. It’s nice that they could be versatile, but none is especially dominant, and that’s what this position requires. The 300-plus tackles that I saw play this technique weren’t especially dominant.
After careful consideration, I think this is the position group where the Cowboys need the most help. The Cowboys needed to address this position whether they stayed in the 3-4 or the 4-3, so expect the Cowboys to pursue some, especially if Hatcher or Spears, or both, are salary cap casualties.
Sean Lee should be a great fit in the Tampa 2 as the middle linebacker. He’s actually a few pounds heavier than Barrett Ruud, who came in at 241 pounds. But Lee has the skill set. He can stop the run, pursue the ball and is probably Dallas’ best pass defender at the position. The middle linebacker has to be able to drop back into deeper coverage than the other linebackers and Lee can cover a lot of ground. Kiffin will love him.
Likewise, Bruce Carter would seem to be a great fit at weak-side linebacker, the position that made Derrick Brooks a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer. Again, Carter is a hair bigger than Brooks (240 pounds to 235 pounds). But Carter has the speed to pursue the back side of plays and the tackling ability to stop the run, both of which are required here.
The strong-side position should be interesting. Based on what’s under contract, Dan Connor would seem the most likely selection. He’s not Tampa 2 quick, but he can defend the run, and that’s the big role at this position. The strong side linebacker usually has to take on the tight end and an additional blocker to get to the ball carrier. But I could see Kiffin turning this into a competition between Connor, Caleb McSurdy, Kyle Wilber and perhaps another linebacker the Cowboys pursue in free agency or the draft. The strong side position would seem to be the position of need at linebacker.
You have to like how the corners set up here. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne both seem, to me, to have the potential to be solid Tampa 2 defenders. Carr, at 210 pounds, is bigger than any of the corners Kiffin worked with in Tampa Bay when I covered the team. But he has the physicality, the ball skills and the tenacity to handle the scheme. The Tampa 2 takes some of the pressure off a young player like Claiborne, as he’s free to cover a spot rather than a man. The Tampa 2 could aid his development. Orlando Scandrick makes a nice third corner, but he has to improve his tackling to play for Kiffin.
Gerald Sensabaugh and Barry Church are set as the starters. Kiffin likes hitters at the strong safety position and cover safeties at the weak safety position. Based on that, Church stays at strong safety and Sensabaugh stays at free safety. The Cowboys will have to pursue some depth there, though. Much of what they have in terms of depth is young or not under contract.
Overall, I think the Cowboys have enough talent on the back seven to embrace Kiffin’s principles pretty quickly. The Cowboys will need to make decisions at strong side linebaker, left end and right tackle and address the talent Kiffin requires at those three positions. The unit, overall, will have to get better at tackling. Kiffin will demand it.