With Mike Nolan taking over as the Dallas Cowboys Defensive Coordinator in 2020, change must be expected after many years of watching Rod Marinelli running the team’s defense. Perhaps no change will be greater than the defensive front looks we get from Nolan, who has run a lot of 3-4 defenses in his time in the NFL.
The Cowboys had a productive unit in 2018 before taking a step back last season, but despite having talented players they’re not expected to have a top defense this year. However, key additions in the offseason along with new defensive schemes by Mike Nolan should spark a bit of life on defense.
While we shouldn’t expect a full transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense*, we should expect a bit of both.
*Quick note: A 4-3 defense means that the team’s defensive front is made of four defensive linemen and three linebackers. A 3-4 defense means three defensive linemen and four linebackers.
First of all, let’s take into consideration the fact that no NFL team truly has a 4-3 or 3-4 base defense. Sure, that’s what we call them, but the truth is the new base defense in the league is the nickel defense, which means having five defensive backs on the field (three cornerbacks).
The NFL is truly a passing league and dynamic offenses have forced defenses to move to a nickel defense most of the time. Having said that, the teams still must choose between a three-man front or a four-man front. The Cowboys have been using a four-man front since 2013 and although we’ve seen a few special formations here and there, they’ve never truly had a hybrid front.
“There are times when you need to have four guys with their hands on the ground and times when you need for standing up as linebackers.” – Pat Kirwan on his book “Take Your Eye Off the Ball 2.0”
In a 4-3 defense, the defensive line has the main responsibility of penetrating the backfield. In a 3-4 however, the defensive linemen’s job is to keep the offensive line busy freeing the linebackers to make the plays. The term “edge rusher” has grown in the sport because an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense will rush the passer just like a defensive end would do on a 4-3 defense.
Recently, former Cowboy DeMarcus Ware spoke on how he expects Dallas to thrive on Mike Nolan’s schemes as they implement a little bit of 3-4 defense. He even mentioned DeMarcus Lawrence reached out to him for some tips on rushing the passer from a two-point stance.
The Cowboys’ personnel might seem better fitted to play with a four-man line, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the pieces to use a three-man front as well.
DeMarcus Lawrence would likely shine rushing the passer standing up, especially considering he could be facing more favorable matchups and less double-teams. Aldon Smith is returning to play and he’s had success in a 3-4 defense before. Not to mention how exciting it’d be to see Jaylon Smith rush the passer more frequently like he did at Notre Dame.
Gerald McCoy is versatile enough to play as a three-technique and a one-technique* and Dontari Poe can be a nose tackle for the Cowboys as well as a one-technique.
*Techniques refer to where the defensive linemen line up. A three-tech lines up in the guard’s outside shoulder while a one-technique lines up in the center’s inside shoulder. A nose tackle lines up in a zero-technique, directly over the center.
Playing with a hybrid defensive front brings defenses a lot of advantages, although it’s not an easy task. Bill Belichick has been one of the game’s biggest innovators in this aspect when he started playing both defensive styles and switch from one play to another. He managed to do it with a versatile roster.
The biggest issue for the Cowboys in 2020 might not be in the defensive front, for they seem to have the pieces to do it. But as 3-4 defenses focus on getting enough pressure on the quarterback, the defensive backfield must be ready to be solid in coverage.
Headed into their first year without Byron Jones, the Cowboys have a lot of unproven players at cornerback and at safety. Hybrid defenses need cornerbacks who play well in man-to-man coverage and safeties who can handle tight ends and slot receivers. Is the Cowboys’ defensive backfield ready for that?
Cornerback Trevon Diggs is promising but he’s a rookie after all, and Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix doesn’t seem like much of an upgrade over Jeff Heath, who played average football at best. We’ll have to wait and see to know who will step up on the Cowboys’ defensive backfield.
Just as offenses in the league become more dynamic and more unpredictable, defenses need to adapt as well. Soon, every team in the league will have to play some kind of hybrid defense. Let’s see if Mike Nolan and the Cowboys up to the challenge.