By Matthew Postins
There has been plenty of talk about what the Dallas Cowboys did in their draft last weekend. But there hasn’t been much talk about what they didn’t do, which was draft a defensive lineman.
You can quibble about the logic of the Cowboys’ pursuit of center Travis Frederick. But at least the Cowboys drafted an offensive lineman. In the end, they needed to draft one and they did.
But the Cowboys, who are transitioning from a 3-4 to a 4-3 on defense, didn’t even draft a defensive lineman. In fact, they didn’t even sign an undrafted defensive lineman. The roster at defensive line exists as it did before the draft.
That’s unsettling, In fact, owner Jerry Jones says the Cowboys are in “good shape” at the position. From here, it’s hard to see why Jones would say that. But now that it appears the Cowboys aren’t actively working to improve that unit, how the defensive line settles into a new system and how current players transition into new roles may be the most important factor in whether these Cowboys make the playoffs in 2013.
Why, you ask?
Well there’s the system itself, the Cover 2. During my time covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers I watched Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin implement myriad different things when he led the Bucs defense. But he often told me the Cover 2 starts up front.
The success of the Cover 2 starts with getting pressure in the backfield, especially on the quarterback. But in the Cover 2 the desire is for that pressure to come just from the four players up front. If you can get that pressure from your front four, then your back seven can man their areas of the zone pass coverage and read the quarterback. The idea is pretty simple – pressure up front plus blanket pass coverage equals bad decisions by the quarterback.
I’ve seen successful and unsuccessful Cover 2 alignments. When you don’t get that front four pressure, the alignment isn’t efficient. You have to start blitzing more and that opens up holes for the quarterback to find mismatches.
Critical to the Cover 2 is the play of the “three technique.” This is the defensive tackle that sits right over the outside shoulder of a guard. You’ll also hear this referred to as the “under tackle.” The three technique can line up on either side, but most of the time I saw Kiffin have his threes line up over the left guard.
The three is critical to the defense. Warren Sapp is the player most associated with this position and he was, frankly, perfect for this defense. He could break down opposing guards, penetrate the line of scrimmage to stop the run and was quick enough to get to the passer. Scouts will tell you that more bad things happen when a quarterback sees inside pressure than outside. That’s why the three-technique is so important.
This is the position Jay Ratliff will likely man. Ratliff may possess some of the right qualities, but he’s also 31 years old and the Cowboys did not draft an heir to the position (some saw DT Shariff Floyd as a one-technique, which will be Jason Hatcher’s position in Dallas, but Sapp proved the three can be played at 300 pounds or heavier). The Cowboys may pay for that down the road.
The Cowboys may have an heir on their roster right now. But because of the flux of changing formations, that’s impossible to know.
The Cowboys seem to have lined up their starters. Anthony Spencer will be at left end. Hatcher will be at the one technique. Ratliff will be at the three and DeMarcus Ware will be at right defensive end.
Beyond that is where things get really tricky.
Look at the rest of the players listed at defensive tackle on the Cowboys roster and only one has played a significant role in recent years – Sean Lissemore. He’s versatile enough to back up either Hatcher or Ratliff, but he’s not explosive enough to replace either long term. He’s rotational depth.
Ben Bass – a second-year player who played in two games last year. He started last season on the practice squad.
Rob Callaway – a second-year player who played in two games last year.
Tyrone Crawford – a second-year player who played in 16 games last year and had 20 tackles.
Nick Hayden – a third-year player who has at least played in 28 games in Carolina and Cincinnati.
Ikponmwosa Igbinosun – a first-year player without a career tackle.
Brian Price – a third-year player who played in 20 games in Tampa, but didn’t play in 2012.
Monte Taylor – a first-year player without a career tackle.
See where I’m going here? Aside from Lissemore, there is an utter lack of tangible experience. Bass, Callaway and Crawford were either drafted or signed with the Cowboys when they used a 3-4. Igbinosun and Taylor haven’t cracked a lineup yet. Price and Hayden are the only backup tackles with experience in a NFL 4-3 defense. And to be fair, they have more experience in a 4-3 at the NFL level than any of the Cowboys’ starters.
The Cowboys didn’t see a need to add a tackle like Floyd to the mix? Or sign a veteran free-agent? With this level of inexperience behind their starters? It makes no sense.
Plus there are the outside linebackers that will now vie for a role as a backup defensive end. We’re talking about players like Alex Albright, Cameron Sheffield and Kyle Wilber. They’re all oversized to play linebacker and perhaps too undersized to be a defensive end in this new alignment. They’ll be given the chance to try, but Albright is the only one of the three that weighs at least 260 pounds. And he weighs exactly 260.
None of this includes Josh Brent, the exiled Cowboys nose tackle awaiting trial for intoxicated vehicular manslaughter in the December car wreck that killed Jerry Brown, a Cowboys practice player. Brent is around the facility but in no way is he expected to play anytime soon.
The level of uncertainty behind the starters is jarring. Based solely on weight and what I’ve seen Kiffin use in Tampa, Bass, Crawford, Igbinosun and Taylor will likely get a crack at being a rotational end, along with the three outside linebackers that don’t make sense at linebacker. Callaway, Hayden and Price, all of which weigh 300 pounds or more, will likely vie for spots backing up Hatcher and Ratliff. Some of these players could be interchangeable, too.
The Cowboys have chosen to see if they have the defensive line personnel to play a 4-3, even though the majority of their players don’t have experience playing the formation. The Cowboys have chosen a path in which they must trust the coaching acumen of Kiffin and his top lieutenant, defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, to mold this group into a competent Cover 2 front four. The Cowboys have chosen a path in which they are trusting young, unproven players to back up a solid, but aging, starting lineup, two of which were seriously injured last year.
It’s a path with no clear resolution until the Cowboys start playing games.
It’s the path they chose when they passed on Floyd, traded down to select Frederick and chose not to use any of their other six picks on a defensive lineman.
It’s a path that may ultimately determine whether the Cowboys go to the playoffs.